Long Sum­mer Nights

Aharon Appelfeld; Vali Mintzi, illus.; Jef­frey Green, trans.

  • Review
By – September 29, 2019

Israeli author Aharon Appelfeld (19322018) drew on his expe­ri­ence as a sur­vivor of the Holo­caust both in his adult fic­tion and his two works for chil­dren, although Long Sum­mer Nights defies cat­e­go­riza­tion. This haunt­ing account of a young Jew­ish boy in World War II Ukraine embod­ies both myth and his­to­ry; he has been entrust­ed by his par­ents into the care of a Chris­t­ian World War I vet­er­an. Grand­pa Sergei becomes a wise and lov­ing father fig­ure to Yanek, teach­ing him how to sur­vive both phys­i­cal­ly and spir­i­tu­al­ly in their long wan­der­ings to evade cap­ture by the ene­my. The old­er man suc­ceeds in trans­form­ing this des­per­ate jour­ney into a pur­pose­ful one, in which Yanek trains as a sol­dier in the ser­vice of moral val­ues. Any time Yanek weak­ens or feels doubts, Grand­pa Sergei is there to reas­sure him: Does a fight­er for jus­tice have to train all his life?…Certainly…Only a strong body and a stur­dy spir­it can do the impossible.”

Yet Yanek and his sur­ro­gate grand­fa­ther can­not accom­plish the impos­si­ble. Appelfeld describes the psy­cho­log­i­cal haz­ards which phys­i­cal ter­ror has imposed on an inno­cent child, defy­ing the reader’s expec­ta­tion that this sto­ry will be one of good tri­umph­ing over evil. Yanek, orig­i­nal­ly named Michael, must destroy his iden­ti­ty in order to sur­vive. Grand­pa Sergei assures him that, It’s just a tem­po­rary cam­ou­flage. The day will come, and it’s not far off, and you’ll take off this cam­ou­flage and go back to being what you were.” This sen­tence encap­su­lates the expe­ri­ence of Holo­caust sur­vival; Yanek needs to believe in its truth, but he is also trou­bled by con­stant dreams of his lost fam­i­ly and past life. Appelfeld’s nar­ra­tive tech­nique delib­er­ate­ly jux­ta­pos­es these dream sequences with Yanek’s dai­ly life; the read­er, like Yanek, may be briefly unsure if they are imag­ined or true.

At the point when Yanek’s father asks Sergei to care for the Jew­ish boy, the for­mer sol­dier has already led a dif­fi­cult life. Both reli­gious and skep­ti­cal of the Church, briefly mar­ried and wid­owed, attract­ed to temp­ta­tions which took him away from his home — Sergei has cho­sen to impose mean­ing on his expe­ri­ences. As he talks to Yanek, he uses his army expe­ri­ence as a metaphor, empha­siz­ing that the boy needs to train both his body and soul to be strong and resilient. Appelfeld’s wise and noble char­ac­ter is a flawed mor­tal who, in spite of his courage and com­pas­sion, is not able to alter the course of his­to­ry. Not until one quar­ter of the way into the nar­ra­tive does overt vio­lence against Jews appear, “‘They took them to big pits and shot them.’ The peas­ant spoke in an objec­tive man­ner.” The sub­tle­ty with which Appelfeld avoids com­fort­ing con­clu­sions about human inde­struc­tibil­i­ty in the face of evil is one of the most pro­found achieve­ments of this novel.

Although Long Sum­mer Nights is not a pic­ture book, Vali Mintzi’s illus­tra­tions — inter­spersed through­out the text — are an essen­tial com­ple­ment to Appelfeld’s text. Drawn in the style of char­coal sketch­es, they cap­ture the link between human beings and nature which reflects Yanek and Grand­pa Sergei’s life in the coun­try­side. Peo­ple are dark sil­hou­ettes or have min­i­mal­ly defined fea­tures, lend­ing a folk­loric qual­i­ty to this tale of the lost world pre­served in Appelfeld’s poet­ry of anguish and love.

Long Sum­mer Nights is high­ly rec­om­mend­ed for both chil­dren and adults.

Emi­ly Schnei­der writes about lit­er­a­ture, fem­i­nism, and cul­ture for TabletThe For­wardThe Horn Book, and oth­er pub­li­ca­tions, and writes about chil­dren’s books on her blog. She has a Ph.D. in Romance Lan­guages and Literatures.

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