The novel featured in my last post, Jacob’s Oath: A Novel, is set in the immediate post-war period and tells the story of two Holocaust survivors trying to rebuild their shattered lives. The subject of this post, Badenheim 1939, when compared to Jacob’s Oath: A Novel feels like a prequel. Set in 1939 on the eve of WWII, it tells the story of a community of Jews confined to the Austrian resort village of Badenheim. Originally drawn to Badenheim for its annuals arts festival, they now find themselves unable to leave. After forced by the authorities to register as Jews with the “Sanitation Department” a languid and almost dream-like atmosphere descends upon Badenheim. Largely self-absorbed with their own personal dramas and petty concerns, a growing sense of uneasiness begins to take root among the confined Jews concerning their future: a vaguely defined forced resettlement to Poland. Needless to say any reader possessing even most the basic knowledge of WWII knows this will not end well.
Originally published in Hebrew in Israel in 1979 with an English-language edition appearing in the United States a year later, Appelfeld’s novel has been called many things. Many have called it an allegorical satire of the Holocaust. Some have called it a work of romantic realism. Others have deemed it a pro-Zionist piece of literature. With it’s slowly unfolding sense of tragedy, some have labeled it Kafkaesque. At the same time many have felt the novel’s characters seem straight out of a play by Chekhov.
Alas, it’s these characters that’s spawned the more vigorous debate Some readers have called them one-dimensional and I’m tempted to agree. (While I do have a soft spot for the village’s two prostitutes who happen to be sisters.) A few critics have gone far enough to blast Appelfeld for portraying his characters in such a negative light as to be deserved the horrible fate that ultimately befell them. As for me, Badenheim 1939 is a somewhat dark and provocative allegory for the Holocaust. I also saw it as a window into pre-war Jewish Europe. This makes it a nice companion novel to Jacob’s Oath. And as you might remember from my previous post, I thought Jacob’s Oath made a nice companion read to Savage Continent. So, with that in mind all three books complement each other. And that’s never a bad thing.