Interview with Aharon Appelfeld. “I came to Israel without language.”

Israeli novelist and poet Aharon Appelfeld, born on February 16, 1932 in Jadova (near Czernowitz, then in Romania, now in Ukraine) and deceased January 4, 2018 in Petah Tikva, Israel, never ceased to “translate” his experience as a child who survived the destruction of the Jews of Europe. We are pleased to publish in K. the interview – never translated in English – conducted in Jerusalem by psychoanalyst Antoine Nastasi in August 2010 for the French magazine Esquisse(s), for which Nastasi was the editor-in-chief[1]. In it, the author of The Story of a Life speaks of writing and words, of the Hebrew “which has shaped the character of the Jewish people” and delves into his own linguistic travels, from the mother tongue of German to the adopted language of Hebrew, in passing by Yiddish.


Arrival of a Jewish child in Israel in 1947. Wikipedia Commons


>>> Read in K. “The languages of Aharon Appelfeld”, by Valérie Zenatti.


Esquisse(s) – Antoine Nastasi: In The Story of a Life, you write: “Grandfather says that one should hurry to the synagogue but walk slowly away from it.” This sentence makes one think and remains an enigma; how to extend it, how to hear what is about movement and transformation? When one emerges from it, has anything changed?

Aharon Appelfeld: Yes, but it is a kind of rule. A rule that enjoins one to hurry to the sacred place, and on the contrary, when you leave it, to take your time. You keep something with you, you honor this place. This is what is behind this sentence.

“From them [poets] I learned how to respond to a line of poetry, and indeed to an individual word, and to understand that every word has meaning”. Would you go so far as to think that sound opens a window to something beyond meaning?

Yes, or one could say to another meaning. That sound can open to another meaning of the word of the sentence, of the image, is not a rational notion. This idea of the isolated sound, separated from the context somewhere, is very difficult to realize. Perhaps, when the writer writes, he is also in tune with the music of the words. I feel it in my practice, I put it into practice.

Could it be that sound is linked to emotion?

Yes, of course. It is intertwined with emotion.

About Hebrew, about the choice of language, you write, “Its orphan status resonated with my orphan status”. What is an orphan language? How can modern Hebrew be in this position?

It is very difficult to generalize this idea. In fact, I came to Israel in 1946 with no language. I had only fragments of language: fragments of German, my mother tongue; fragments of Ukrainian, the language in which I was immersed during the war; fragments of the language of my grandparents, Yiddish. So I came to Israel without language or education from the age of six. I was thirteen and a half years old and I went to the kibbutz. My knowledge was scanty, my language very poor, and I didn’t know Hebrew at all. So, in the fields, I adopted Hebrew. In a way, Hebrew became my adopted mother tongue. I am constantly trying to cultivate this language. That’s how I gave up all the languages of my childhood to connect with Hebrew.

Even Yiddish?

For Yiddish it’s a little different, but I had to make a choice: Yiddish or Hebrew. To tell you the truth, it wasn’t a choice because here I didn’t live in a Yiddish environment. Nobody spoke Yiddish here, this was the land of Hebrew. That’s why Hebrew became my adopted mother tongue. I was lucky because Hebrew is the language of the Jews, the old language of the Jewish people. I came from a very assimilated family, there was no Jewishness in my home.

But there was German?

Indeed, we were a German Jewish family. My parents never denied that they were Jewish. But they were Jews without Jewishness, without religion, without history… Hebrew allowed me to connect with my Jewish roots. Through Hebrew, I became a Jew. I didn’t become a Zionist when I came to Israel, I became a Jew. That’s another thing.

But for you, was there a connection between German and Yiddish?

No. Although of course there is an etymological link: Yiddish is seventy percent German, “mittel hochdeutsch.” But Yiddish is the language of my grandparents, of the Carpathians, of my grandparents and their religiosity.

Your writings are studded with remarks about the importance of what remains below, held in reserve during the translation. “… It was not necessary to bring out of their hiding place the words of before and the visions that had no place here” or again, about one of your character, “His word is and would be interior”. Is it in this reserve that life resists? This is found in your interviews with Philip Roth, for example, in the idea of a halfway point between amnesia and memory, translating would then be giving life to an object where memory and oblivion are mixed.

I speak several languages, but I don’t check the translations of my books. That would distract me from my real work because reviewing translations would mean rationalizing everything, determining what is said, what is not said, what has been lost. I can’t do that, I leave that to the translator.

The word translation can also be understood in its broadest sense. I don’t know if you would agree with the idea that something in the writer’s task proceeds from the translation, even if much of the meaning remains hidden. Maybe this closeness between forgetting and remembering has something to do with the hidden part of the translator’s task, which is not to move from one language to another, but to translate a feeling, a thought, or something that is not really thought or not yet thought.

Perhaps, I have never experienced translation. Several times I was tempted to do it: from English, from German, from Yiddish, but I never did it. It seemed to me that I had to stick to my writing, to my imagination, and not to go towards other meanings. Of course, there is no doubt that translation is a creative process. You draw from one language to convey in another. I feel different when I speak English, German, Russian, Yiddish, or Romanian. Something happens to me when I speak another language, I don’t know exactly what, but something happens to me.

Would creation be, rather than a translation, a movement to translate something that happens inside?

Yes, one can also say it like that: something happens to you, has happened to you, and you try to find words: yes, there is something that one tries to find, something to put there; in other words, one tries to find words for an experience, for what one has seen… But, it is different when you translate a text from one language into another language; the text is something artificial compared to the experience, to the lived experience. A text has been constructed, worked on and refined; here (in writing) the thing is still very raw, without form, and you are trying to give it a form.

How to transform visions into words, that’s what it’s all about. When I write, I see a place, a man, a woman, the atmosphere, and the question is, “How do I put them into words?”

Writers most often try to accumulate words, details, and we can’t see anything anymore. The writer, in his weakness, seems to say, “Let me add more and more details so that the reader will understand or feel.” This is a mistake.

That would mean that the formless has an existence… Have you ever read any of your writings in another language?

No, I prefer to read them in Hebrew; I could do that, but it would be weird, I would feel like I was talking with a mask.

In Suddenly, Love, Ernst says, “…at last the visions and the words connect. Is this, in the end, the essence of translation understood as creation? The link between words and visions?

Absolutely. The question is how to convey, how to transform visions into words, that’s what it’s all about. When I write, I see a place, a man, a woman, the atmosphere, and the question is: “How do I put them into words?” since, in the end, words are artificial objects. So how do we detach ourselves from the vision and capture it in seven, eight, or nine words? Because we are permanently submerged by hundreds of details, wherever we are. How do we pick up two details, two words that will deliver the experience? Writers most often try to accumulate words, details, and we can’t see anything anymore. The writer, in his weakness, seems to say, “Let me add more and more details so that the reader will understand or feel.” This is a mistake, and this is the whole problem of European languages, which does not exist in Hebrew. In European languages, you have an infinite vocabulary and you play with words. You come from the French language, you know what it means to play with words. But word play does not allow you to reach the feeling, sometimes it covers it. If you use five hundred words, the feeling will be buried, you will never have a feeling, you will only have words. Hebrew taught me that less is more. Use two words for a feeling, sometimes only one word, don’t hide the feelings behind words forever. Don’t be in love with words!

A French writer and poet, Yves Bonnefoy, having written extensively on painting, writes: “Yes many wanted to detach themselves from these signs that had usurped things.”

This is absolutely right. That is why I thank God for allowing me to learn Hebrew rather than French or German.

A little further on, in Suddenly, Love you write, “Ernest knows that without the right words the visions will disappear, as if they had never existed”. Could something be erased?

Indeed, it is like earlier, when we mentioned the idea of form and formlessness.

Didn’t the loss of Hebrew that characterized a significant part of Central European Judaism end up making an essential part of Jewish being untranslatable?

Without a doubt. Hebrew is in a certain way the essence of Jewishness. Without Hebrew, most Jewish sources remain unknown to you. It would be like being French without French literature. Being Jewish is more complicated because Hebrew is linked to the Jewish faith, in fact, Hebrew is the Jewish faith, it is the language of prayer and study. In past generations, one could speak another language, but one always prayed and studied in Hebrew, it was an obligation. We pray and study in Hebrew every day. So this language has shaped the character of the Jewish people.

Has modern Hebrew lost something of the original language?

For two thousand years, Hebrew was a religious language, it was not a spoken language, it was a language of prayer and study. Prayer is emotion and study is rationalization; these were the two facets of Hebrew, neither of which had any connection with real life, with secular life.

In your opinion, is modern Hebrew a secular language?

There have been attempts to secularize it. For example: in ancient Hebrew, “avoda” means “to worship” in the religious sense, in modern Hebrew it means “to work”; this is a big difference. There has been this tendency to secularize the language, so a long list of words have been secularized.

You write that Hebrew has become the language of orders.

Yes, one of the places of secularization is the army. Hebrew becomes: “go”, “get up”.

In my dreams, when I speak to my mother, it is always in German, not in Hebrew.

You mention all your languages of origin and the special place of German as a mother tongue, and you say that you learned Yiddish, the language of your grandparents, to chase away German, both your mother tongue and language of the murderers. You say that when you arrived in Israel, your head was buzzing with languages, but the truth is that you didn’t have one of your own. However, you chose Hebrew as the language of writing, the language of separation and of hard learning. Hebrew is the language that has become your mother tongue, the language of writing that carries and translates what belongs to you, the childhood from which you draw your creativity and your work.

What I feel is complicated when I say that German is my mother tongue. It is my mother tongue; many German words still connect me to my parents; many expressions related to feelings come from German. And in my dreams, when I speak to my mother, it is always in German, not in Hebrew. But German is not my cultural language and never has been. It’s a kind of mother tongue, in the limited sense of the word. It has no resonance, no cultural resonance, outside the relationship between my mother and me, my father and me. I was the only son, we were always three. When I write, I hit on multiple cultural references, but this is not true for me with the German language. In Yiddish it’s different, it’s the language of my grandparents, full of Jewishness. I wanted to cut myself off from the German culture and forge ever closer ties with my Hebrew heritage.

Is that possible?

I believe so. It is possible because my experience of the German language, apart from the relationship with my parents, was that of the encounter with murderous Germans. Who would want to be identified with murderers? This led me to refuse to read German, to cultivate the language.

Never again?

No, never again; I understand it, I speak it; it is the language of intimacy between my parents and me, but nothing more.

We all have this kind of reaction, but isn’t it difficult not to read Rilke, for example?

Yes, but it’s a matter of choice; everyone has to draw a circle around themselves: “This I can do, this I can’t do.” When I was young, I wanted to know more about Zen Buddhism, Japanese Buddhism; everything interested me. In the end, I realized that I couldn’t do it. If I wanted to have a mystical experience, I had to turn to Jewish mysticism; I couldn’t spread out to the four corners of the world, like the men of the Renaissance; I had to set limits for myself. It is more natural for me to turn to Jewish mysticism than to Chinese, Japanese, Buddhist or other mysticism. Rilke is of course one of the great poets I love and read from time to time, but I have to make choices. It’s Hebrew texts that I’m going to read first and go deeper into: for example, rather than Rilke, medieval Jewish poetry: Yehuda Halevi, Ibn Gabirol, there are a lot of wonderful poets.

Aharon Appelfeld

Could we insist on this strange experience of dreaming in other languages, in several languages? It would be like a foundation, something that sustains us; it seems that even in dreams, it is very important to resist translation.

Absolutely; for me, I find refuge in the Yiddish language. I still cherish Yiddish, I love to speak it, I have spent a lot of time cultivating it. It is my foundation. It is not related to my parents, but to my grandparents. It’s important because I usually spent the summer at my grandparents’ house in the Carpathians. These wonderful mountains were my grandparents’ natural environment, and since they were isolated and there were no Jews nearby, they had their own synagogue.

On the farm?

Yes, on the farm, a small synagogue, a wooden synagogue. It’s strange that a family has its own synagogue. On Saturdays and holidays, it welcomed the Jews from the surrounding area.

“There was, of course, an inescapable dillema: that language had been German—the language of those who murdered my mother.” [In The Story of a Life]. Is it a question of translating, of reconstructing the maternal presence, of representing it through writing? But it will have been necessary to wait for the learning of Hebrew while Yiddish, a sacred language, that of the grandparents, forbidden in childhood, is untranslatable and unusable. It is as if one had to kill a language, German, in order to dive into an unknown another, Hebrew; can we speak of a reunion with Yiddish, which becomes, according to your expression, a grand-maternal language of adoption?

Yes, indeed. Sometimes you have to dive in. It’s not just a question of language. In my mind, German is associated with assimilation, with becoming German. After the war, this became for me not only an impossible thing, but something I opposed with all my might. My parents wanted us all to become German, or, to put it another way, to be of German culture, Jews rooted in German culture. For me, after the war, this was impossible, so there were two paths: German would make me a German, and Hebrew would make me a Jew. I preferred to be what I am, because I am Jewish; why split my identity? “Be what you are.”

Would writing be an address to God?

Yes, the Jewish prayer is a prayer in Hebrew. Only in the late 19th century did some German, Anglo-Saxon and French Jews write introductions in secular languages, but the Jewish prayer book has always been in Hebrew. I come from a deeply assimilated family, and the prayer that connects man to God had no place there. As an author, when I write, if it is about my parents, I am an assimilated Jew – I myself am an assimilated Jew, I know exactly what “assimilation” means – but if it is about my grandparents, I am a religious Jew, nothing is alien to me. Hebrew helps me draw closer to my grandfather and his views.

Even his religious views?

Yes, I feel totally religious, there is no barrier between my grandparents and me, I am with them.

So you can say that when you write in Hebrew, it is as if you were praying?

Not always, because when I write about my parents, they are not prayers; it is only when it is about my grandparents that I pray.

Is there a word in German that remains emotionally charged?

To tell the truth, there are many words that have remained fixed in my memory. I’ll give you one that I always have in mind, because it doesn’t necessarily have an equivalent in Hebrew or any other language: my mother used to say, “Ich habe keine ahnung,” an expression that means, “I don’t know, I can’t guess.”

In “ahnung” there is the idea of “intuition?”

Absolutely, it has to do with intuition.

Aharon Appelfeld

Interview by Antoine Nastasi for Esquisse(s), n°17, Fall 2020, Kimé.

Thanks to Daniel Zaoui and the editorial board of Esquisse(s) for allowing us to republish this interview.


1 “Entretien avec Aharon Appelfeld”, in Esquisse(s), Traduire, 17, Fall 2020. Paris, Editions Kimé.

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