In Memoriam: Aharon Appelfeld’s Schlemiel/Schlimazl Characters and the Power of Memory

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It was with great sadness that I learned this morning of the passing of Aharon Appelfeld. He is one of my favorite Israeli novelists and some of his novels have, literally, changed the way I think about the novel and its relationship to history.  It also changed the way I looked at the schlemiel character.   Strangely enough, however, I couldn’t find words to articulate what he had done with the character vis-a-vis the Holocaust.   What Appelfeld does, better than the majority of Jewish American writers, is to illustrate the power of the retrospective gaze.   It is easier to understand Nathan Englander’s short story, “The Tummlers,” and the story’s main goal, which was to illustrate that I.B. Singer’s Chelm characters don’t fit into the world of the Holocaust but are at odds with it.   It’s message is clear (which is not to say it is correct).  The parody is obvious.   But when it comes to Appelfeld’s characters, those who are schlemiels are harder to place.    Appelfeld’s schlemiel characters have a depth that is lacking in most of I.B. Singer’s characters or Englander’s, for that matter.

In today’s New York Times obituary,  Joseph Berger hits the nail on the head when he describes Appelfeld’s characters in terms of a kind of childish naiveté that bears marked contrast to the harsh realities taught to him by the Holocaust:

As someone whose mother was killed at the beginning of World War II, and who escaped a labor camp to hide among hostile peasants, Mr. Appelfeld made the Holocaust his great subject. Yet he told his stories from a seemingly naïve eye, a baffled child’s eye, working by indirection and intimation. The horrors, as critics pointed out, happened offstage; his novels rarely identified the threat explicitly as storm troopers with whips or concentration camps with poison-gas showers.

This ironic contrast brings the tragic into a tension with the comic and, for this reason, shows us how the schlemiel character – strangely enough – can give us an insight into the depth of evil.    Berger notes that Appelfeld saw himself and his most “ingenious” characters – writers, for instance, like the main character of The Age of Wonders, who was a lover of Kafka – as “schlimazels.”

“The ingenuous person is always a shlimazl, a clownish victim of misfortune, never hearing the danger signals in time, getting mixed up, tangled up and finally falling in the trap,” Mr. Appelfeld told Philip Roth in a conversation published in The New York Times Book Review in 1988. “Those weaknesses charmed me. I fell in love with them. The myth that the Jews run the world with their machinations turned out to be somewhat exaggerated.”

The oddity of Appelfeld’s statement, however, is that he mistakes the “shlimazl” (as per the New York times transliteration) for the schlemiel.   The schlemiel is not – like the shlimazel – solely a victim of circumstance.  He makes decisions.  And these decisions – in Appelfeld’s case,  not to heed the warnings that the German and Austrian people didn’t care for Jews or that the Holocaust was coming – have enormous consequences.  They are – in part – to blame for “falling into the trap” (as Appelfeld says).

All schlemiels have blindspots – which is something that Englander and Singer well know – but the blindspots of Appelfeld’s characters are much more powerful because of 1) the depth of their assimilation (which is something many Jews, who live in what is called the “post-assimilation” era know well); and 2) their misunderstanding of what is to come.

Appelfeld was “charmed” – like Arendt was “charmed” (she uses the same word in relation to the schlemiel in her celebrated “Jew as Pariah” essay) – by the “weaknesses” of these schlemiel characters.  He “fell in love with them” – in much the same way millions have fallen in love with Woody Allen, Seth Rogen, Amy Shumer, Charlie Chaplin, Sholom Aleichem, etc etc’s characters.

As he suggests, the schlemiel character – with all his and her blindspots – effaces the myth that “the Jews run the world with their machinations.”  The schlemiel character, as Sander Gilman notes, can’t control his or her world.  She misses much of it.    While Englander suggests that the schlemiel died in the Shoah, Appelfeld suggests something else.   It is true that most of the schlemiel characters that Appelfeld represents do end up going to Auschwitz (whether in Badenheim 1939 or The Age of Wonder, etc), but what remains most touching for him is their humanity (their weaknesses and blindspots).

Memory is a key motif in Appelfeld’s work.  He wants us to remember the schlemiel.   Yet, on the other hand, he wants us to be shocked by his or her blindspots.  Does that mean – as some people would interpret his books – that this kind of naiveté must be negated at every turn by post-Holocaust Jewry?  Or does it mean that there is something worth salvaging about Jewishness – its weakness and charm is that which is figured in the schlemiel?  Both questions exist side by side.

While some – like Englander and many Israeli writers (see Sidra DeKoven Ezrahi’s Booking Passage – want to pronounce the death sentence of the schlemiel, the character lives on not only in film and TV today (as this blog details, in depth) but in the post-Holocaust memory.   Like Marcel Proust, Appelfeld was charmed by his memory and drawn to it.  And the memory he cherishes most can be found in his memory of real-life schlemiels who live on…in his fiction.  These things are past, but schlemiels are still worthy of our love and memory.  What – after all – would humanity be without its blindspots?  Ask Alexi or Google?  They have that answer.  In fact, they are that answer.

May Aharon Appelfeld’s memory be for a blessing and may we turn to his novels to understand the shock and meaning of the Holocaust as seen – in retrospect – through the schlemiel character.

2 thoughts on “In Memoriam: Aharon Appelfeld’s Schlemiel/Schlimazl Characters and the Power of Memory

  1. I recall meeting many fiction students at Boston University’s Creative Writing Graduate program where Appelfeld taught, who, like schlimazels, made a decision to ignore him as a teacher, because he would ask them to read from translations of Hebrew scripture.

    “How am I going to learn from the Bible to write fiction?”, they’d complain.

    Appelfeld was already being missed in 1989. How sorely we still need him.

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