Analysis of Aharon Appelfeld’s Badenheim 1939

Badenheim 1939 is a skillful fictional answer to the question that many have asked about the Holocaust: Why was there not more resistance? Perhaps the answer to the question is something much more simple than has been considered, as Holocaust survivor and acclaimed author Aharon Appelfeld (1932–2018) suggests in one of his best-known novels.

Although Badenheim is the name of a fictional town, the year 1939 has complications outside of Appelfeld’s fi ctional treatise. The author raises hysteria through an acute portrayal of characters caught in a world that without doubt resembles the real world of 1939. The months before Adolf Hitler began his campaign to conquer lands throughout Europe and systematically massacre millions of human beings. Appelfeld situates his narrative—and admittedly lackluster characters—in a time that both rejects and anticipates the violence and monstrosity of World War II. The realism of Appelfeld’s fictional creation, thoroughly echoing a very real and unforgettable historical time period, allows for the despair to rise like a crescendo throughout the actions and minds of the characters. Readers are made to feel as though they are as complicit as the characters that both witness and assist their own destruction.

Aharon Appelfeld / David Rubinge

Aharon Appelfeld / David Rubinge

On the surface, Badenheim 1939 is the simple tale of a group of characters who gather in 1939 at a resort town, presumably near Vienna, for relaxation and entertainment. The primary concern of both the town’s residents and vacationers at the beginning of the novel is whether the impresario, Dr. Pappenheim, will deliver on his promises of committing prominent musical artists to the town’s festivities. The characters assume that the gradually more visible Sanitation Department is working with Dr. Pappenheim to provide them with an unforgettable Music Festival and celebration. The status of Dr. Pappenheim as an able impresario and the town of Badenheim as an enviable resort become connected, almost inevitably, with the progressive work of the Sanitation Department. Dr. Pappenheim’s Jewishness is spotlighted by the Sanitation Department’s “modest announcement” requiring all Jews to register with them. The townspeople, the vacationers, and the visiting musicians assume that Dr. Pappenheim is connected with the Sanitation Department because he is Jewish. After registration begins for emigration to Poland, Dr. Pappenheim becomes representative of life in an alien country; people swear allegiance to his Jewish Order to go even if they are not Jewish. Dr. Pappenheim, with his knowledge of such details as the impending train journey to Poland, is increasingly recognized as having an authority that has been delegated to him by the Sanitation Department.

Underlying the novel’s events is a rising despair, a feeling that what has been will never be again and, even more so, cannot be regained by the characters and by the town of Badenheim. The Sanitation Department’s requirement that all Jews register, according to its regulations, transforms both visitors and inhabitants of Badenheim: “[I]t was as if some alien spirit had descended on the town.” While Appelfeld’s dreary, naïve characters do not verbalize their questions about the Sanitation Department’s actions, there is a growing feeling of forced capitulation to an authorized system that has overtaken them. The festiveness of the advertisements for life in Poland that soon adorn the Sanitation Department’s office mocks the characters’ belief in their annual artists’ festival. The increasing confinement of Badenheim is ironically coupled with the growth of the Sanitation Department into a reference center and Poland souvenir shop for all of the townspeople, vacationers, and musicians. As the food supply in the hotel decreases, there is a collective frightening awareness: “[T]hey understood: there was no more going back.”

One of the guiding questions of the events of Badenheim 1939 is the trouble with reconciling the characters’ attitudes and actions with what is going on around them in the resort town. Specifically, the characters do not seem to be aware of the consequences of what appear to be standard yet peculiar events in Badenheim. They replace their questions about the work of the Sanitation Department with the cheeriness of springtime and future events to look forward to. Certainly one of the more crushing early moments in the novel occurs when the characters allow their concerns about the Sanitation Department to be pacified by an increasing and unfulfilled appetite for sweets from the pastry shop. Appelfeld plays with the characters’ trusted assumptions about the Sanitation Department’s work and authority in order to slowly reveal its sinister nature. The Department’s order and efficiency echo the frightening systematization of murder that would come to be the hallmark of Hitler’s Nazi regime. As will occur in an overwhelming number of European cities, the Sanitation Department becomes a cog in the wheel of a bureaucracy designed to register, confine, transfer, and eradicate entire populations of human beings.

Perhaps what causes Badenheim 1939 to stand out among Appelfeld’s works is the intensity and hopelessness felt by readers of this novel. Badenheim 1939 is yet another one of Appelfeld’s distinctly profound, emotionally and psychologically challenging explorations of the Holocaust. One of the most poignant moments in the novel occurs after the Jews have registered, the town of Badenheim has been barred and gated with sentries, the post office has been closed, and the water supply to the hotel’s swimming pool has been shut off. Letters to the various vacationers begin to arrive, causing the people to become aware of their deprivation of personal freedom. However, the rising despair and confusion of the townspeople and vacationers give way to relief when the Sanitation Department posts emigration procedures; at that point hope returns to a group of people who live in their expectations of an illusive life in Poland. The majesty of Appelfeld’s prose captures the twin emotions of anxiety and festiveness as the people, released from their isolation, walk to the train station. Only the dirtiness of the train cars that arrive to transport them hint at the conclusion of their lives that they have been inevitably living for during the spring of 1939 in Badenheim.

Budick, Emily Miller. “Literature, Ideology, and the Measure of Moral Freedom: The Case of Aharon Appelfeld’s Badenhaim `ir nofesh.” Modern Language Quarterly: A Journal of Literary History 60, no. 2 (1999): 223–249.
Shacham, Chaya. “Language on the Verge of Death: On Language and Language Criticism in Badenheim 1939 by Aharon Appelfeld.” Orbis Litterarum: International Review of Literary Studies 59, no. 3 (2004): 188–203.
Walden, Daniel. “Psychoanalysis of Dreams: Dream Theory and its Relationship to Literature and Popular Culture: Freud, Billy Joel, Appelfeld, and Abe.” Journal of Popular Culture 32, no. 1 (1998): 113–120.

Categories: Literature, Novel Analysis

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