Experience IV - Silence: Aharon Appelfeld’s The Story of a Life and Tzili: The Story of a Life


I was ten years old and I lived in the forest.

Aharon Appelfeld is wandering in the fields and forests. He is ten years old; he has escaped from a concentration camp. His heard his mother die – shot to death, but he still dreams of her with love. He left his father behind in the camp, but he dreams his parents will save him. He dreams, too, of God - the same God who sat between the lions on the Holy Ark he saw with his grandparents. Surely God will save him. Surely his parents will return for him.

The child passes through the fields and the forests. Sometimes he stays with peasants. He does not tell them he is a Jew. He works for them, but then he leaves for the fields and the forests.

When he comes close to a house, he places his ear to the ground. He listens. He will hear whether they are good or they are wicked. When he meets human beings, he does not listen to what they say, but looks at their hands and their faces to see what they will do and whether they mean good or ill.

He is a wary animal. An animal like the others in the fields and the forests.

To read Appelfeld’s memoir, The Story of a Life, is to learn how he would come to speak of the silence in those fields and forests. The sections of the book set in the forest have extraordinary power. But the book is also about how he came to be able to write thus.


Israel, the late 1940s. The young Appelfeld has escaped to Israel. On all sides, rivers of words had started to flow. Testimonies. Everyone is writing and talking.

The newspapers are full of social realism. Appelfeld, instead, reads Hasidic classics with his friend Leib Roichman. From Dov Sadan, he learns Jewish life has passed through a rupture; the fragments of Jewish life that had splintered off must be joined together once more. A new Jewish life had to be created from Hasidism, its Lithuanian opponents, the Jewish Enlightenment and the Jewish rebirth in Israel. Now instead of the ideologues who surround him, demanding that Jews give up what they call their Diaspora mentality, their bourgeois outlook and their egoism, Sadan guides Appelfeld to heed the legacy he bears within him. It is from this legacy he will begin live and write, remembering his life before the Nazis, and knowing how that life flowed from a deeper current of Jewish tradition, epitomised by his Yiddish speaking grandparents, who were religiously observant, unlike his own parents.

The first words that I wrote were a kind of desperate cry to find the silence that had enfolded me during the war.

Appelfeld keeps a diary; he writes of his longing for silence, for the fields and the forests. Then, he was silent and alert. Then, he was close to animals. He played with them and slept beside them as he once slept beside his parents.

But how will write of the silence of the fields and forests that he has left behind? How to experience that silence as propitious, understanding it to be linked what he will later call memory and religion?

Appelfeld, unlike the others around him lacks the capacity for testimony; he has forgotten much of what happened:

I could not remember the names of people or places - only gloom, rustlings, and movements.

This gloom, these rustlings and movements do not assemble themselves into discreet memories.

Only much later did I understand that this raw material is the very marrow of literature.

But that was much later. For the moment, only botched writings – the cries of a wounded animal.

In the mid 1950s, Appelfeld studies Yiddish and Hebrew literature at university. He studies with Scholem and Buber, seeking what he calls 'an authentic form of Judaism'; he is not religious, but loves the synagogues for a spirituality which connects him to the world of his grandparents. His poems, he says, remained abstract; they are full of abstract words from which prose will save him. Appelfeld, marked out as an observer of life before the Nazis, comes to prefer small, quiet words that respond to what is small and quiet in scents and sounds. He is still the wary animal, the watcher and listener.


Silence. There are other kinds of silence. Hunger, says Appelfeld, has no need of speech.

The hunger for bread, the thirst for water, the fear of death - all these make words superfluous. There's really no need for them. In the ghetto and in the camp, only people who had lost their minds talked, explained, or tried to persuade. Those who were sane didn't speak.

Most are silent. The wicked are silent, preferring darkness and hiddenness; so too are the good, who do not brag of their own deeds. After the war, orphans were seduced by perverts and criminals. Abused children were silent; they never cried.

Above all, in the face of terrible catastrophe, events that defy explanation, words seem superfluous.

Words are powerless when confronted by catastrophe; they're pitiable, wretched, and easily distorted. Even ancient prayers are powerless in the face of the disaster.

Yet there is a propitiousness within that silence:

The really huge catastrophes are the ones that we tend to surround with words so as to protect ourselves from them. The first words that I wrote were a kind of desperate cry to find the silence that had enfolded me during the war. A sixth sense told me that my soul was enveloped in this same silence, and that if I managed to revive it perhaps the right words would come.

The right words. Appelfeld will learn to write by observing tiny details and minute facts. He will write with small and quiet words. The Story of a Life is written from that quietness. So too is Tzili, subtitled in English translation, The Story of A Life.


Appelfeld tells Philip Roth that Tzili was written at a time when he had become fascinated by what he calls naiveté:

When I wrote Tzili, I was about forty. At that time I was interested in the possibilities of naiveness in art. Can there be a naive modern art? It seemed to me without naiveté still found among children and old people, and, to some extend, in ourselves, the work of art would be flawed. [In Tzili] I tried to correct that flaw.

Then I wonder whether Tzili will give me the answer to a question I asked myself at the end of my last post. What was the meaning of silence in Appelfeld's The Story of a Life? Why did the young man he was want to retreat back into the silence of the years he spent in the fields of the forests? Why was that silence - born out of his aloneness, his missing parents, and the savagery of the peasants for whom he worked - linked to writing?

Perhaps because it was also that silence that came forward in him when he heard the ideologues of the new Israel. The refusal of grandiloquence and pomp. He is on the side of the stutterers, says Appelfeld in his memoir, remembering, perhaps, how Moses was said to stutter. And he is on the side of the silence from which his writing comes. A silence, he says, that is also a melody, a kind of religion. Is that how one is to understand naiveté?


The light broke above her and poured into her head. A few solitary animal cries drifted through the valley and a loud chorus of barks immediately rose to join them. She sat and listened. The distant sounds cradled her. Without thinking she fell asleep.

Tzili is in the forest. She is alone, a Jew, and these are the years of the Nazis.

She is the youngest of a large family. She grew up neglected, quiet, charmless and mute. Small and skinny, she was ignored by the others. She goes to school, but she is uneducable. Her non-observant family employ a tutor to teach her her prayers.

Tzili feels an intimacy with the abandoned things in the old shed. It is also her hiding place; she spends most of her time out of doors with the other abandoned things. Then the Nazis come; her family flees; Tzili is left to look after the house. She has been abandoned again; the house is hers, but now it is like the old shed. She is fearful; she runs away from the house and into the fields and the forests.

Now her journey begins. She meets a blind man in the forest who tells her the Jews are being killed. ‘They’re killing the Jews. The pests. Let them go to America’. He tries to rape her, but she escapes, crawling on all fours back to the field. There she falls asleep, dreaming of her tutor, from whom she asks for a blessing. ‘I am setting out on a long journey. Give me your blessing, teacher’. But he is indifferent to her as ever.

She awakens and wanders. The next day, she menstruates for the first time, she who has been taught nothing of menstruation. She thinks she might be dying. She bandages her loins with her shawl and walks on into the night. She is no longer afraid. She sees the night sky and washes her face in the river.

Time passes. It is autumn. Tzili lives in the fields and the forest. Her memories of home are disappearing. She learns which berries can be eaten and which cannot. She finds shelter in deserted barns, claiming always to be one of the daughters of Maria, a well-known local prostitute. This will be her alibi; there are many such daughters after all, and though they are disliked, they are not hated as the Jews are hated.

Winter through Spring she works for Katerina, a prostitute. She tells Katernia, too, she is Maria's daughter. Katerina knew Maria back in the city. Perhaps she guesses Tzili is a Jew. No matter; she, like Maria, likes Jews. But Katerina, who is drink and given to violent rages, turns on Tzili. She wants to prostitute Tzili; the girl flees.

In autumn, she shelters with an old couple. Again, she says she is Maria's daughter. Again, she is beaten. Amidst all this, there are times of contentedness. With the cows, in their warmth presence. In the meadows. Often, she muses about Katerina. She had learnt a great deal from her. How to carry out household chores. About men, and what men want. And about perfume and gilt powder boxes. Winter passes at the house of the old couple. She is beaten, but the snows have melted and she can leave.

One morning soon after, she wakes in a field. Then she sees him: Mark, a tired looking man in a business suit.

Mark asks Tzili, where are your parents? When she says she doesn't know, he guesses the truth and says, 'So you're one of us’. One of us. He had left behind his wife and children in the concentration camps when he fled. They were too fearful to flee; now he hides in a mountain forest. Mark tells her everyone can tell he's a Jew; he can't hide it. Tzili, he says, does not look like a Jew. He asks her how this is possible. She doesn't know.

He has clothes - children's clothes, his wife's clothes. Tzili takes each item of clothing down to the villages in turn and trades them for bread and sausage and vodka. A long time passes on the mountain. It is quiet there. Mark digs a bunker. For a time, he drinks a great deal, then, as the clothes begin to run out, he drinks less. He passes through periods of grief and contemplation, despair and hopefulness.

Then, one day, he tells her he loves her. She has never had anyone tell her that. In the darkness of the bunker, they lie together. She knows happiness in this intimacy, she who was once among the abandoned things in the family yard, she who seemed educable only by the visiting tutor.

Mark decides to go down to the villages to look around. He needs to find out what is happening in the world. No doubt he is captured; he does not return.

Now Tzili is alone again. She is alone and she knows she is pregnant, and without many more clothes to trade. She must leave the forest.

From now on, she will have visions of Mark. I find these very beautiful. So far, we have known Tzili through her actions, through her simple desire to survive and her fear when she hears the Jews cursed. True, she has dreamt of her tutor and mused on Katerina, but both were hostile and indifferent to her. Later in the book we learn she was addressed by her mother – when she was out in the yard at home, her mother would now and then call, ‘Tzili’ and Tzili would reply ‘here I am’.

Here I am: but where was she? Alone among abandoned things, just as she would be abandoned in turn when the family left in a hurry. She was always uneducable, always lagging behind her brothers and sisters. Then she was left behind, and she wandered. She passed for a gentile and she wandered as a worker, as an outcast, despised as one of Maria’s daughters, but not, mercifully, despised as a Jew. She has said very little, scarcely a sentence; and even when she dreams, it is only of people who are indifferent to her. Now we know Tzili as the one who is addressed by Mark, her lover, the father of her child, the one who said he loved her. Now Mark is gone from the story, but another Mark speaks to her several times in the remaining third of the book.

The first time he appears, she is starving. She sits for hours sucking melting snow. Then Mark appears:

‘Mark’, the word burst from her throat.

Mark seemed surprised. He stood still. And then he asked: ‘Why are you going to the refugees? Don't you know how bad they are?’

‘I was looking for you’.

‘You won't find me there. I keep as far away as possible from them’.

‘Where are you?’

‘Setting sail’.

‘Where to?’

But he has gone. She sees a flock of birds rise into the sky.

Tzili understood that he had only called her in order to take his leave.

He will call her several more times.


Her belly is swollen. She is pregnant.

It did not take long for her to understand: Mark was inside her.

It is as though he, the one who loved her, were folded into the embryo that was growing inside her. She has taken Mark within herself.

Heaven and hell merged into one […] she felt Mark close by her side, even closer than in the days when they had slept together in the bunker. She spoke to him simply, as if she were chattering to a companion while she worked.

To me, reading, it is as if, now, she has an internal witness. As if Mark was the one who watches out for her within her. Now she bears a witness with her in her own embryo. Now she is watched and cherished.

Eventually, she will meet up with other Jewish refugees. Close to giving birth, they carry her on a stretcher to a hospital. She loses the baby.

Does she lose Mark, too? He does not speak to her again. She has lost the baby, she has lost Mark. Perhaps she no longer needs him as a witness. Perhaps the witness, the one she is, no longer needs the name Mark.

For a while, just before she met the refugees, she works again for the peasants. When they beat her, she said, she snatches the rope and said, ‘No you won't. I'm not an animal. I'm a woman’. This reminds us of some of the things Mark says - 'after all, men are not insects' - which Tzili used to repeat to herself. Only now she no longer needs to repeat them. She speaks in her own name, as a woman. She stands on her own feet, as a woman. She is no longer lost in the world.

Then the whole book was the account of a struggle to be born – not Tzili’s child, but Tzili herself. There is little left of her childhood. After her family abandoned her, there was the memory of Maria the prostitute, a proud, strong woman who, Tzili recalls, spoke well of her Jewish clients. Then there was Katerina, with her lipstick, silk petticoats and bottles of eau de cologne, who took Tzili in believing her to be one of the daughter of Maria. Katerina taught her what her mother never passed on. But it is Mark whom, Appelfeld writes, let Tzili’s femininity blossom within her, ‘blind and sweet’. He does so in a bunker on the mountainside that is itself like a womb. At the end of the book, she meets a carbaret singer called Linda, who sings to a bottle of cognac she holds cradled in her hands. Linda says:

I too have nobody left in the world. At first I didn't understand, now I understand. There's the world, and there's Linda.

Tzili, now childless, and Linda, with her bottle, are traveling to a new world. Now we have another lost soul. One beside Tzili, like a sister, an equal.  Together, the lost are going to Palestine.

A struggle to be born. But who is born? When Mark asked her if she prayed, she said she did not. But there is in her another kind of prayer. Tzili is not Dostoevsky’s idiot, full of simple faith. She does not preach to the birds and the animals like St. Francis. If she is close to the fields and forests, she is not secure there; her milieu is not the natural world. Nor is there repose for Tzili in her memories of the past. She does not rest. Perhaps it would be better to leave the story of Tzili Kraus’s life untold’, the novel begins, ‘Her fate was a cruel and inglorious one’. No doubt, but there is a silence she carries with her through her misfortune. The silent prayer of potential, of one to be born.

Perhaps her silence is what Appelfeld looked for in his early years in Israel – the silence which drew on those moments of safety and repose in the forest, when the observer he was looked around without fear, when he played with the animals ‘until I was part of them, until forgetfulness came’. Does it allow Appelfeld to bring that silence to expression, writing in small and quiet words that would allow him to speak of what is small and quiet? ‘Every one of us has a woman in him, a child, an elderly man. Everything – we have it ourselves’, so Appelfeld, in a recent interview. Perhaps he finds in silence his way to the witness that lives in each of us.

What is called religion? What is melody? It is the silence that recedes in order to allow melody and religion to sing. It withdraws to allow the novella to come forward even as it streams in this same novella, in all its details. Modern naiveté is that art which allows what comes forward thus to resonate with that withdrawal.

Silence: Aharon Appelfeld’s The Story of a Life and Tzili: The Story of a Life is the fourth of Lars' Experience articles. His first was Leaning Against the Wind: Bernhard's Gathering Evidence, his second was The Ninth Country: Peter Handke's Repetition and his third was Absalom’s Hair: Gabriel Josipovici’s In a Hotel Garden.
-- Lars Iyer (10/10/2005)

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