Poland, A Green Land

Aharon Appelfeld; Stu­art Schoff­man, trans.

  • Review
By – June 19, 2023

Yaakov Fein grows up in the bustling metrop­o­lis of Tel Aviv, a world away from Szy­dow­ce, his family’s ances­tral vil­lage in the Pol­ish coun­try­side. And yet Szy­dow­ce, no more than a farm­ing vil­lage of a few hun­dred peas­ants, haunts Yaakov’s child­hood. Per­va­sive sad­ness and silence reign in his home. When his par­ents speak of their past, they do so in chill­ing frag­ments. I see them in front of me,” his moth­er will sud­den­ly say, apro­pos of noth­ing Yaakov can fath­om. Each twen­ty-sixth of Kislev, fel­low émi­grés — who are short, stocky, [and] closed” — come call­ing, bring­ing with them the winds of their dis­tant vil­lage … cold winds mixed with the smell of steam­ing soup … ” As a young man, Yaakov resents the intru­sion of his family’s har­row­ing and provin­cial past on his mod­ern Israeli life. He does every­thing he can to free him­self from this grim lega­cy; and for the most part he suc­ceeds, becom­ing an exem­plary sec­u­lar Israeli: a sol­dier, a busi­ness­man, and an atheist. 

Only after his par­ents have died, once he’s dis­posed of their Old World tchotchkes and mod­ern­ized their tex­tile store, does Yaakov’s strug­gle with inher­it­ed trau­ma begin in earnest. His moth­er and father appear to him in dreams night after night, speak­ing more clear­ly and coher­ent­ly than they ever did in life about the hor­rors they endured dur­ing the war. These night­mares func­tion in the nar­ra­tive as a hero’s call to adven­ture; they awak­en in mid­dle-aged Yaakov an irre­press­ible need to see for him­self the world his par­ents came from. The nov­el opens with Yaakov Fein begin­ning his jour­ney to Szy­dow­ce, where he’ll enter a world that had been hid­den inside him,” one that his par­ents have buried there care­ful­ly, with great cunning.” 

In the chap­ters that fol­low, Appelfeld mas­ter­ful­ly weaves mul­ti­ple nar­ra­tive threads that entwine and inform one anoth­er: Yaakov’s encoun­ters with his par­ents’ Pol­ish neigh­bors, his vivid dream life, and the long-repressed mem­o­ries of his childhood. 

The jour­ney Aharon Appelfeld sets up in this nov­el is inher­ent­ly tense. Yaakov is a lone Jew, unarmed and defense­less, in a vil­lage whose res­i­dents have nev­er come to terms with their wartime crimes. You should know,” an elder­ly farmer tells Yaakov dur­ing one of his walks through the coun­try­side, ever since they burned the Jews there has been a curse hang­ing over this vil­lage … ” In a less friend­ly episode, anoth­er peas­ant tells him that the Jews were a bone in our throat.” 

While the nov­el does not shy away from depict­ing the strange and ugly vagaries of Pol­ish anti­semitism, Appelfeld’s por­tray­al of Pol­ish peas­antry is nuanced and com­plex. He offers no easy solu­tions, yet the book does explore the pos­si­bil­i­ty of cer­tain types of rec­on­cil­i­a­tion between Poles and Jews. By far the most admirable char­ac­ter in the nov­el is Mag­da, a hard­work­ing farmer who takes Yaakov in and pro­tects him dur­ing his stay in Szy­dow­ce. Mag­da remem­bers Yaakov’s fam­i­ly, and it is through this Catholic peasant’s account of them that Yaakov com­munes most deeply with his par­ents as they were before the Holo­caust. Magda’s mem­o­ry is rich and pas­sion­ate; she presents Yaakov’s par­ents as refined, well-read, kind, and brave. Lis­ten­ing to her, Yaakov feels that if any liv­ing shred remained of his fam­i­ly, it was hid­den in the body of this woman.” 

Appelfeld, who died in 2018, wrote over forty works of fic­tion. Poland, A Green Land is the most recent addi­tion to his Eng­lish-lan­guage oeu­vre. Touch­ing and pro­found, this book trans­ports the read­er to the dis­ap­peared world of the Pol­ish shtetl, reveal­ing how its trag­ic past con­tin­ues to haunt both Jew­ish émi­grés and the Pol­ish village.

Basia Wino­grad, a New York City – based writer and film­mak­er, teach­es cre­ative writ­ing at Hunter College.

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