The Iron Tracks
By Aharon Appelfeld
Translated from the Hebrew by Jeffrey M. Green
Schocken Books; 195 pages; $21
What the agony of Jesus on the cross is to Christians, the Holocaust is to Jews. Except that the massacre of millions whose only crime was to be born Jewish has no transcendent meaning, no sacred closure. To theologize the Holocaust is meaningless even to the super-Orthodox who accept everything as God’s will. To secular skeptical Jews, the horror is still just another episode, though the worst, in the unending suspicion and hatred of the Jews.
What some piously accept and others try to explain is to Aharon Appelfeld “a central event in many people’s lives that has become a metaphor for our century. There cannot be an end to speaking and writing about it.” Appelfeld, a survivor from Czernowitz in Austrian Galicia whose first language was German, now lives in Jerusalem and writes in Hebrew. He is the most telling novelist of the Holocaust, for he has no need to describe it directly. He has put his own suffering–as a boy he saw a Nazi kill his mother–into short narratives of self-absorbed Jewish life before the war that are so ominously toneless, artfully simple and repetitious, deceptively compressed in feeling, that the reader, aware of the horror about to descend on these people, feels like screaming but knows he will not be heard.
The best-known of these narratives are Badenheim 1939 (1980) and To the Land of the Cattails (1986). In The Iron Tracks Appelfeld has reversed his usual strategy. The war ended long ago, but for Erwin Siegelbaum, who at 15 saw the Nazi officer Nachtigel murder his parents, the war has never ended. For 40 years he has been living on trains that remind him of the train on which he was once deported. His purpose is to find Nachtigel and kill him. This is mad, but it signifies the depth at which the Holocaust can enter a Jew’s soul.
Since the end of the war, I have been on this line, as they say: a long, twisted line stretching from Naples to the cold north, a line of locals, trams, taxis, and carriages. The seasons shift before my eyes like an illusion. I have learned this route with my body. Now I know every hostel and every inn, every restaurant and buffet, the vehicles that bring you to the remotest corners.
Boarding still another train, he gets “a sort of constant renewal.” One can live on trains. The officials now know him so well that they drop the loud, jangling popular music he detests on the loudspeaker and put on chamber music. Shaving on a train gives him a new start in life. There is one station where he is met by a regular driver, now a sort of friend. There are two stations on his route for which he has “love,” stations he can return to knowing he will be able to refresh himself with a solid meal and a cup of really good coffee. But for the most part “I live by signs, by codes whose meaning I alone know.” There was even a terrible moment when he spent two weeks in bed “because it seemed to me that a new war had started.”
“I confess, I have no faith in anyone outside the train.” He is so frozen inside that he remains completely detached from the occasional woman on board who attracts him:
There is nothing like love on a train. Sometimes it lasts only a station or two. The main thing is that you’ll never see the woman again. Of course, sometimes you get entangled, and you suddenly have, aside from your valise, a sluggish creature who keeps demanding coffee and cigarettes. Thus I repeat to myself: love for two stations, and no more.
In his apathy he remembers the farce lived by Jewish orators and organizers such as his Communist parents. They were always moving about, depriving him of a proper home–and always resolute. They could not take in the fact that their comrades disliked them for being Jews.
My memory is my downfall. It is a sealed well that doesn’t lose a drop, to use an old expression. Nothing can deplete it. My memory is a powerful machine that stores and constantly discharges lost years and faces. In the past I believed that travel would blunt my memory; I was wrong. Over the years, I must admit, it has only grown stronger. Were it not for my memory, my life would be different–better, I assume. My memory fills me up until I choke on a stream of daydreams. … But in recent years I have learned to overcome this. A glass of cognac, for instance, separates me from my memory for a while.
Where does he find the funds for this endless life on trains? This is one of the subtlest issues in the book. He lives by buying up old ceremonial objects retrieved from synagogues nearly destroyed by the Nazis. And in this merchandising of the once-sacred there is no relief for him, no peace. He has competitors also searching for these objects, and what is more, they too are looking for Nachtigel in order to avenge themselves.
T he peasants and army veterans Siegelbaum encounters think favorably of the war. An innkeeper who lost his hearing at Stalingrad and communicates by writing answers Siegelbaum’s saying, “Hitler deceived the world”:
“Not true,” he replied without hesitation.
“Hitler wanted to destroy the Jews, and indeed he destroyed them,” he explained.
When I didn’t answer, he added in big letters: “It was a great mission, and it succeeded.”
“But they still exist,” I couldn’t refrain from writing to him.
“A mistake,” he didn’t hesitate to reply.
Siegelbaum wants to kill the man for revealing his hidden desire. “I ought to have killed him. There is nothing simpler than killing a man, and yet for some reason, I cannot do it.” Eventually he does locate Nachtigel and, after some false pleasantries, he shoots him. The event leaves him pretty much as he was before. The Jewish need to find an answer to the Holocaust is not forthcoming. It would have to be as monumental and world-shattering as the terror itself. In the face of prosperous postwar Germany, retribution is a joke. When Siegelbaum finally cries out, “Why can’t I pray?” he cannot find an answer within himself. His “melancholy” is a well-known Jewish disease. The Communist leaders he knew even spoke grandly of a “war against melancholy.”
Its real name is despair, that central human emotion in the face of overwhelming odds of which tragedy is made. There are no accommodating solutions after the fact. There is no forgiveness for so much pain, and no one to reconcile with. But a story as piercing as this goes to the heart of the matter, for it embodies the terrible event in such a way that it steals up on us and will haunt us in our sleep.