Until the Dawn’s Light

Aharon Appelfeld; Jef­frey M. Green, trans.
  • Review
By – January 4, 2012
We enter this sad, pre­scient sto­ry as a moth­er and son are on a train; we sense the ten­sion of flight. Aharon Appelfeld sig­nals us at once in this remark­able nov­el that move­ment” in its many forms will relent­less­ly pro­pel the lives of his char­ac­ters to their doom as Blan­ca and her young son, Otto, flee the scene of a hor­rif­ic crime.

Move­ment and fre­net­ic motion sig­ni­fy every aspect of Blan­ca and her family’s life. Her imme­di­ate fam­i­ly has moved over the entire reli­gious spec­trum: her par­ents are non-reli­gious, assim­i­lat­ed; she her­self has tried con­vert­ing to Catholi­cism in a use­less effort to please. Only Blanca’s grand­moth­er, Car­ole, remains an obser­vant Jew. Indeed it is Car­ole, who, when the local syn­a­gogue is forced to close because so many of the con­gre­gants have con­vert­ed, will con­demn the apos­tates at the top of her lungs for their deser­tion or move­ment away from the reli­gious core. Blan­ca, a promis­ing stu­dent, is either obliv­i­ous, or reluc­tant to con­front what lies ahead. She for­feits her aca­d­e­m­ic future to mar­ry Adolf, an abu­sive, sadis­tic brute, a non-Jew who forces her to move away — and sep­a­rate from her par­ents. Blanca’s attempts to please and cajole Adolf are nev­er suc­cess­ful and we wit­ness yet anoth­er form of exis­ten­tial move­ment, as Blan­ca detach­es from her core Jew­ish val­ues so clear­ly embed­ded from an ear­ly bib­li­cal adher­ence to the Ten Com­mand­ments. To sur­vive, she begins to drink liquor, steal, lie, and ulti­mate­ly to mur­der her Hitler-like hus­band.

Blan­ca records her sto­ry in a diary for her son Otto. She knows that he will be grow­ing to adult­hood with­out her, her incar­cer­a­tion and hang­ing for the mur­der of her hus­band loom­ing. She wants him to know every­thing. When you grow up, don’t for­get the note­books,” she urges him.

Strik­ing­ly, Appelfeld’s nov­el pre­dates the Holo­caust by sev­er­al decades. We learn that Appelfeld in all his works may have pre­ferred alle­go­ry to a real­is­tic depic­tion of his own suf­fer­ing, los­ing his moth­er to the Nazis and depor­ta­tion to a con­cen­tra­tion camp. Simon Wiesen­thal pro­vides a chill­ing answer as a pos­si­ble rea­son for Appelfeld’s avoid­ance in his mem­oir, The Mur­der­ers are Among Us, remem­ber­ing the SS men admon­ish­ing the pris­on­ers that in the unlike­ly instance that any of them would sur­vive, even if they were to tell it, they wouldn’t be believed. Per­haps this was Appelfeld’s think­ing. Or we can con­jec­ture that he has tak­en anoth­er tack, pre­fer­ring to depict the social and moral cli­mate of the years pre­ced­ing the Holo­caust to sug­gest the moral guilt of those who chose to deny the cul­pa­bil­i­ty of the com­mu­ni­ty that ulti­mate­ly lead to the Holo­caust. In any case the ear­ly bru­tal­iza­tion and sub­ju­ga­tion are for the read­er all too hideous­ly pal­pa­ble, sug­gest­ing the hor­ror of what was to come.
Ruth Seif is a retired chair­per­son of Eng­lish at Thomas Jef­fer­son High School in NYC. She served as admin­is­tra­tor in the alter­na­tive high school division.

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