The Personal And the Political

By Stephen Marche

Published February 13, 2007, issue of February 09, 2007.
  • Print
  • Share Share

All Whom I Have Loved
By Aharon Appelfeld
Schocken, 256 pages, $23.

At the beginning of Aharon Appelfeld’s new novel, “All Whom I Have Loved,” 9-year-old Paul Rosenfeld is on summer vacation with his mother, enjoying what are perhaps his last moments of undiluted happiness. He remembers, “Once she put some squares of halva-covered chocolate on her palm and said, ‘Take it my love, it’s tasty.’” That night, the nearby town celebrates a Christian festival with a mass slaughter of pigs and cattle, and Paul dreams of a sky filled with blood. The entire novel is in that juxtaposition: small moments of sweetness and light collected under the glare of oncoming horror.

But what is remarkable about “All Whom I Have Loved,” considering that it is set in the Ukraine and in Romania in 1938, is that Paul’s sense of the world falling apart is only dimly informed by the world’s growing antisemitism, so focused is he on the dissolution of his post-divorce family. His father, an avant-garde painter admired and then rejected in his native Czernowitz for his “decadent” art, wanders around his hometown drunk and angry. The true breakdown begins, however, when Paul’s mother takes a job in the small town of Storozynetz as a schoolteacher for children of peasants in Ruthenia, which was a province of Western Ukraine. Paul immediately feels himself growing distant from his mother, which increases when she meets a tall, blond Christian fellow schoolteacher.

Because both of his parents are secular and assimilated, Paul begins the novel unaware that he is even a Jew. Only when he reaches Storozynetz, where he encounters “old” Jews, and where a series of Ruthenian housekeepers describe for him the value of being Jewish (“All Jewish children excel at their studies,” “Jews are the sons of kings”), does he begin to sense his identity. As the novel progresses, antisemitism grows more and more unavoidable, moving from mentally defective homeless men outside the hospital to the tavern drunks under the cover of night and eventually to ordinary citizens on the streets by day. Appelfeld captures in a particularly harrowing way how Christian philo-Semitism can morph, seemingly in a breath, into antisemitism. An innkeeper laments to Paul’s father the fact that the Jews have left his part of the Ukraine, to which the painter replies that they left because they weren’t wanted.

“We loved the old Jews,” said the innkeeper, a faint smile spreading across his lips.

“And the pogroms?”

“The old Jews were used to pogroms. People beat them and they accept their suffering with love.”

“You make it sound like a law of nature.”

“If you like — ”

“That’s one crazy law!”

“Look, anyone who does not recognize the divinity of Jesus deserves to be beaten. They have to be beaten for their stubbornness.”

When Paul’s mother converts to Christianity in order to marry a Ruthenian colleague, Paul goes to live with his father back in Czernowitz. His education from that point on is gained not at school, from which his father has had him exempted on the trumped-up excuse that he is asthmatic, but by long walks through the city’s bars, and through conversations with the landlord of their squalid single room. Even when a stroke of good luck lands them in a comfortable situation in Bucharest, Paul’s father, when given a chance to paint, produces nothing but images of demons. “Sometimes it seemed that the demons were nothing but small animals that Father bred in cages and now found it hard to part with. ‘They must be driven out! They belong outside and not at home!’ I wanted to blurt out, but of course I didn’t.”

The final third of the novel is a portrait of Arthur Rosenfeld’s steady decline and death under the combined effects of art criticism, antisemitism, drink and bitterness. Craftily, the novel’s conclusion never reveals whether he is destroyed in the end by his own personal demons or by the more general demons haunting the Ukraine in 1938, but this confusion is at the core of the novel’s most significant idea — that the line between personal and political suffering is erased as the Holocaust approaches.

Paul survives the catastrophes of his young life by holding on to little pockets of beauty and hope that he finds scattered along the way. The final lines of “All Whom I Have Loved” are deceptively simple but also perfectly illuminating. Paul arrives at an orphanage in Czernowitz, where a clerk greets him. “‘Your father won’t be coming so quickly. You have to have patience, and in the meantime you have to eat something,’ said the clerk, and he went off to make a sandwich.” The sandwich will no doubt be less tasty than the piece of halvah-covered chocolate he ate off his mother’s hand at the book’s beginning, but it will keep him going.






Find us on Facebook!
  • Undeterred by the conflict, 24 Jews participated in the first ever Jewish National Fund— JDate singles trip to Israel. Translation: Jews age 30 to 45 travelled to Israel to get it on in the sun, with a side of hummus.
  • "It pains and shocks me to say this, but here goes: My father was right all along. He always told me, as I spouted liberal talking points at the Shabbos table and challenged his hawkish views on Israel and the Palestinians to his unending chagrin, that I would one day change my tune." Have you had a similar experience?
  • "'What’s this, mommy?' she asked, while pulling at the purple sleeve to unwrap this mysterious little gift mom keeps hidden in the inside pocket of her bag. Oh boy, how do I answer?"
  • "I fear that we are witnessing the end of politics in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I see no possibility for resolution right now. I look into the future and see only a void." What do you think?
  • Not a gazillionaire? Take the "poor door."
  • "We will do what we must to protect our people. We have that right. We are not less deserving of life and quiet than anyone else. No more apologies."
  • "Woody Allen should have quit while he was ahead." Ezra Glinter's review of "Magic in the Moonlight": http://jd.fo/f4Q1Q
  • Jon Stewart responds to his critics: “Look, obviously there are many strong opinions on this. But just merely mentioning Israel or questioning in any way the effectiveness or humanity of Israel’s policies is not the same thing as being pro-Hamas.”
  • "My bat mitzvah party took place in our living room. There were only a few Jewish kids there, and only one from my Sunday school class. She sat in the corner, wearing the right clothes, asking her mom when they could go." The latest in our Promised Lands series — what state should we visit next?
  • Former Israeli National Security Advisor Yaakov Amidror: “A cease-fire will mean that anytime Hamas wants to fight it can. Occupation of Gaza will bring longer-term quiet, but the price will be very high.” What do you think?
  • Should couples sign a pre-pregnancy contract, outlining how caring for the infant will be equally divided between the two parties involved? Just think of it as a ketubah for expectant parents:
  • Many #Israelis can't make it to bomb shelters in time. One of them is Amos Oz.
  • According to Israeli professor Mordechai Kedar, “the only thing that can deter terrorists, like those who kidnapped the children and killed them, is the knowledge that their sister or their mother will be raped."
  • Why does ultra-Orthodox group Agudath Israel of America receive its largest donation from the majority owners of Walmart? Find out here: http://jd.fo/q4XfI
  • Woody Allen on the situation in #Gaza: It's “a terrible, tragic thing. Innocent lives are lost left and right, and it’s a horrible situation that eventually has to right itself.”
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.