Aharon Appelfeld, one of Israel’s most celebrated novelists and a writer internationally renowned for haunting depictions of a child’s survival of the Holocaust, was awarded the Prix Médicis Etranger, France’s top literary award for a foreign writer and one of Europe’s most important awards, last Wednesday. Previous Médicis prize laureates include John Updike, Philip Roth and Umberto Eco.
The momentous announcement — the Médicis is considered by many to be an imprimatur of greatness — seemed to get lost, even in Israel, in the waves of coverage of the American presidential election. In fact, it was the Forward that broke the news to Appelfeld’s wife, Judith, who teared up when this reporter called for comment.
Appelfeld, 72, a child survivor of the Holocaust who escaped a concentration camp alone at the age of 8, has received almost every Israeli literary award, including the Israel Prize. Born in Czernowitz, Romania, in 1932, he was deported with his father at the age of 7. He escaped and then scraped his way to survival, eating berries and other wild fruit. For a while, Appelfeld was hidden and protected by a Ukranian prostitute, a figure who recurs often in his fiction, as does his mother, who was shot early during the war — within earshot of her young son.
Appelfeld arrived in Mandatory Palestine in 1946, at the age of 14, and almost immediately began to write. His first book, a collection of poems, was published in 1959.
He has published more than 25 novels and short story collections, and has been translated into more than 20 languages. Appelfeld was awarded the Médicis prize for his recently published memoir, “The Story of A Life” (Schocken Books), a spare, nonfictional account of the destruction of his life in Europe and of his arrival in Israel.
Appelfeld was informed of the prize by a call from his French publisher, L’Olivier. Making complimentary reference to France as “a cultural empire” Appelfeld underscored the specific resonance of having been selected by a premier European jury. “I was born in Europe, so this obviously has special significance,” he said in an interview with the Forward. “I hope that those who gave me this prize understand this significance, as well. I mean that I am a Jewish author who grew up in Europe, and the war took from me everything I had ever had and deposited me here.”
“My parents were Europeans, so I am a European. I write in Hebrew, so I am Israeli. And within me you’ll find both these heritages, and both are hugely important to me.”
Israeli critics, mindful of rising antisemitism and anti-Israeli sentiments in France, pounced on the award’s potential political significance.
“I’m very happy he got it,” said commentator and author Ariel Hirschfeld. “He’s a very interesting writer. And he is an author who contributes a lot specifically to the European context relative to the destiny of the Jews. He is indispensable in this regard; he is probably more important to them than he even is to Hebrew literature. So I’m glad he got it for him, but I’m even more glad for those who gave it to him: It is not easy in the French and European cultural context to understand the nuanced and complex rather than predicable and banal picture he presents.”
Ioram Melcer, an Israeli novelist and book reviewer for the daily newspaper Ma’ariv, exulted: “Finally this is an opening for Appelfeld’s recognition not as a ‘Holocaust writer’ but as a writer for whom the Holocaust is part of an artistic language and the establishment of a profound mythic and moral world of Jewish literature.”