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.