Bearing Silent Witness
Until the Dawn’s Light
By Aharon Appelfeld, Translated by Jeffrey M. Green
Schocken Books, 240 pages, $26
‘Until the Dawn’s Light” opens with a mother and son on the run. What they are escaping, as they travel by train from city to city across Europe, is revealed only just before the novel’s end. But there’s a notable lack of suspense in this story; at no point does the reader stop to wonder why the two are running.
And perhaps there’s good reason for that. Israeli author Aharon Appelfeld, one of the foremost chroniclers of Jewish suffering through fiction, and one of the few Holocaust survivors still writing at all, is less interested in sequential cause and effect, in plot and resolution, than he is in exploring the tragedy of the human condition. So, while there is in fact a specific reason that mother and son are in flight, what becomes clear fairly early on in this novel is that their escape is one that could not have been averted — that as humans, and specifically as European Jews, they are by definition refugees: rootless and wandering.
Indeed, a sense of place, and the lack thereof, looms large in “Until the Dawn’s Light.” The novel tells of Blanca, an Austrian Jew living at the turn of the 20th century who rather inexplicably converts to Christianity in order to marry a gentile, Adolf (his name is a heavy-handed bit of foreshadowing), and then bears a son, Otto. Shortly after the two are married, Blanca discovers that her husband is crass and cruel, often returning drunk from evenings out, spewing anti-Semitic slurs and turning their home, for Blanca, into a place of “oppressive rooms.” To earn her keep, Blanca finds a job working at a Jewish old age home in the countryside — a space that, while it separates her from her cherished son, provides a reprieve from her husband’s wild outbursts.
Here, too, however, the space is problematic; an old woman complains of being so far from home: “This alien place is delaying death.” And when the synagogue in Blanca’s town finally closes its doors for lack of funds — the Jews of the town are mostly assimilated or have converted to Christianity — Blanca’s grandmother, a crazed old woman who rebukes the town’s Jews for abandoning God and tradition, says that this marks the closing of the gates of prayer in the world. When the inevitable happens and she is forced to run for her life, Blanca sets off “with no destination in mind.”
For Blanca, a heavy darkness permeates not only her surroundings, but also her very body itself. When she takes to stealing from patients at the old age home in order to put together some escape money, she feels unclean, as she had when she married Adolf.
Blanca experiences intense feelings of alienation — from home, from her husband, even from her own physical actions. She makes gestures that “didn’t seem to come from within her own body.” And although the book’s title suggests that time will bring some reprieve, there is no such luck for Blanca, who finds that time, too, is stuck in a “heavy batter.” There is no dawn ahead, only nostalgia for what lay behind: her youth and the promise it once held.
As in much of Appelfeld’s work, from “The Story of a Life: A Memoir” to novels like “Tzili” and more recently “Blooms of Darkness,” the character’s sense of being alone and lost is felt most acutely in her inability to communicate. In an imaginary conversation with a friend, Blanca says:
There are no words in my mouth. Once I knew how to talk, how to express things in detail and with precision, but now, when I stand next to Adolf, my tongue cleaves to the roof of my mouth and I can’t think of a single sentence with which to answer him.
In another instance, “Blanca felt the muteness that blocked her mouth.” It is as if her own mouth were foreign to her. Even with her son, she can barely make conversation. When she does call him, it is as though the “word slipped out of her mouth.” And his response, “What, mama?” is met with “Nothing.” Such conversations repeat themselves throughout this book, a sort of signature Appelfeld motif that underscores the impossibility of communication.
Like so many of Appelfeld’s works, this one is marked by terse prose that suggests a reticence on the part of the author, as if, despite being a prolific man of letters, he remains a person of very few words. Indeed, now nearing 80, Appelfeld shows no signs of loosening up. If anything, he has become more tight-lipped than ever, which can make for a frustrating read, as this novel is at times. But perhaps there is no other way to be for an author whose subject is deeply painful and even more deeply real. Throughout his impressive oeuvre, one senses that Appelfeld is not mining his imagination to concoct tragic stories — rather, he is simply telling and retelling the story of his life as a child survivor of the Holocaust: a story of loss, suffering and confusion.
In this case, it is Blanca who must bear the burden of pain. Her life with Adolf is like the abandoned ruins she encounters on her travels, “barren and full of damp darkness.” And for her, “death isn’t darkness… it’s just a change in place.”
In a sense, to read Appelfeld is to bear witness, to share in that burden of pain. And while this is far from his strongest novel, it nevertheless succeeds in this regard — something that is especially important now, with the last generation of survivors fading away.
Shoshana Olidort is a freelance writer and editor who is a frequent contributor to the Forward.