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Badenheim 1939 (1978)

by Aharon Appelfeld

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3831348,100 (3.85)19
Badenheim 1939 owes everything to its author's astonishing capacity to recreate the energies and confusions of innocent and uncomprehending victims who, always loyal to civility and social graces, fail to even dimly see the cruel terms of their imminent fate.
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""You could see that they wanted to die, but Death did not seem to want them yet . . . they had retreated into the bushes and waited for Death, and because Death did not come for them they came out and stood under the light.""

The book has a simple opening line, "Spring returned to Badenheim." On the face of it an occurrence that happens every year but the reader, with the benefit of history, suddenly begins to realise that this is not going to be an ordinary year. Spring, normally a time of rebirth will this year mark the start of something far more sinister.

The novel opens to the sound of country church bells ringing and two Sanitation Department inspectors examining a flow of sewage. As the tourists and musicians gather the town is abuzz with activity and joviality but gradually the Sanitation Department begins to exert their influence. The Jews have to register the fact and their rights are gradually curtailed. Posters extolling the virtues of Poland are posted, the pastry shop and the post office are closed and the non-Jews leave the town. Slowly the town fills with other Jews and food supplies dwindle and they realise that they are being held prisoner. Even four dogs who try to escape are forced back inside the town walls by the guards.

Finally the time for deportation arrives and they walk to the rail station in high spirits glad to be free of their confinement. “How easy the transition was—they hardly felt it.”

I find this is a hard book for me to review. Firstly it is the tone. The story features a third-person narrator who seems totally detached from the action, merely reporting the events as they happen in a disquieting matter of fact, understated style. This in turn means that it was written almost as a fairy tale or comic opera yet it represents a tragic period of world history and symbolic events. The book opens with a group of Jewish tourists arriving in an Austrian resort in the spring of 1939 for an annual music festival and culminates in the deportation of these Jews in the autumn of the same year.

Secondly, it is because we read this with the benefit of history. We know about the concentration camps and the gas chambers. We want to scream at them to show some resistance to somehow fight back. Instead we just see a sense of inevitability about it all. Only one man, Peter the pastry shop owner, seems to make some token resistance. But we have got to realise that these people didn't have the benefit of hindsight. They didn't know what was going to happen to them. Part of me questions whether or not I really liked this book but then again it has made me stop and think about the situation that Jews at that time found themselves in and surely that can be no bad thing. ( )
  PilgrimJess | Aug 19, 2018 |
Aharon Appelfeld's BADENHEIM 1939 (translated from the Hebrew by Dalya Bilu) comes across as an almost surreal parable of how Europe's Jews were quietly rounded up and shipped off to camps. The small fictional resort town in Austria is the setting, and in the Spring of 1939 the town is gradually isolated and sealed off by a mysterious "Sanitation Department" which issues a decree requiring all Jews to "register." And, for the most part, the Jews comply calmly with this order. A symbolic foreshadowing of what is coming can be found in the hotel's aquarium, where "some blue Cambium fishes" had been put in with the other fish.

"For the first few days the blue Cambium fish disported themselves gaily in the water, but one night they suddenly fell on the other fish and massacred them horribly. In the morning the floor of the aquarium was full of corpses."

In another scene the hotel guests are served a dark coffee, and one of them remarks, "This isn't coffee, it's myrrh." Myrrh, of course, is a substance often associated with embalming or preparing the dead.

The Jewish guests soon learn that they are to be relocated to Poland, and they gradually come to terms with this too. Over the course of the year Badenheim slowly transforms itself from a luxury resort into an enclosed prison, and the exotic, rich foods run out and are replaced by a thin barley gruel and dry bread; and the multiple characters gradually change too.

And there are many central characters here, perhaps too many to easily keep track of, which is one of my complaints. The mathematician, the school girl, two or three Doctors of various sorts, a couple of aging town prostitutes, a pair of 'readers,' the boy singer, or 'yanuka,' the escapee from a TB sanatorium, the head waiter, the artists and musicians, the pastry cook, the pharmacist, and on and on, to the extent it became difficult to keep them all straight. But I suspect Appelfeld was trying to convey the variety of people - all Jews - who were part of the rounding up that preceded what we now know as the Holocaust. And calling the authorities in Badenheim the "Sanitation Department" may have been an implication that, to these shadowy authorities, the Jews being gathered for shipment to Poland were little more that 'garbage.'

There is in truth very little action in this strange tale, but it does convey a sense of how easily the Jews of Europe were registered, rounded up and sent to the camps. It is a story that will leave readers feeling vaguely uneasy. Despite its brevity (less than 150 pages), BADENHEIM 1939 is not 'light reading.' It is a parable of serious matters and certainly a creditable addition to Holocaust literature.

The words that kept coming to mind as I read this book were: creepy, spooky, ominous, frightening. Showing my provincialism, I suppose. But because of this, I'm not sure I could really recommend the book, except perhaps to students of the Holocaust, or of history in general. (three and a half stars)

- Tim Bazzett, author of the memoir, BOOKLOVER ( )
  TimBazzett | May 21, 2017 |
This is my favorite Appelfeld. ( )
  laurenbufferd | Nov 14, 2016 |
Badenheim, 1939 (and that's the translator's title) is a book that I think either way went over my head or way under it.

A group of Jews come to Badenheim for a summer music festival at a charming old spa town. Same as every summer.

But this time the spa town that gradually becomes a prison, and then a way station, to who knows where.

The tone of the book is simple as a child's fable; the monsters(Here called only the "Sanitation Department") are largely offstage. The Jews of Badenheim take each blow and each deprivation and shrug and try to deal and try to survive as the walls close in. The author is patient with them, but not loving - he holds them and us at a distance.

We sit wisely in the year 2013, we know what is going to happen. Is the book about us, then?

The Jews of Badenheim - - -they don't know what is going to happen. Or do they?

A little bit of Magic Mountain with a touch of Kafka but curiously without the menace or the surrealism of either.

Can't recommend it. The author lived through this and has the right to tell his story - but his story didn't work for me.

Why did he write this? I'll tell you . . . I don't know.
  magicians_nephew | Jun 17, 2014 |
For years, vacationers have been coming to Badenheim in Austria for its pleasant air, charming atmosphere, and convivial social scene. In the summer of 1939 the city has taken on a darker mood. The “Sanitation Department” has been measuring rooms, promoting resettlement in Poland, and registering Jews. Increasingly cut off for the outside world, the visitors can do nothing but wait. If you are a fan of Katherine Anne Porter’s “Ship of Fools” or Ann Patchett’s “Bel Canto” you will enjoy this book. Of all the books I read in 2011, this one made the strongest impression.
  vplprl | May 15, 2014 |
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Badenheim 1939 owes everything to its author's astonishing capacity to recreate the energies and confusions of innocent and uncomprehending victims who, always loyal to civility and social graces, fail to even dimly see the cruel terms of their imminent fate.

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