Dislocation in Assimilation and Trauma: Jewish Corruption and Self-Delusion in Badenheim 1939

In his New York Times interview with Aharon Appelfeld, Phillip Roth connects the writer’s biography to his work, pronouncing, “Appelfeld is a displaced writer of displaced fiction, who has made of displacement and disorientation a subject uniquely his own.” In Appelfeld’s novel Badenheim 1939, this notion of dislocation acquires a leading role in all aspects of the story, from the plotline and the setting to the dialogue and the character development. By exploring the ahistorical surrealism, allegorical characters, and tragic satire that pervade the novel, we may better grasp Appelfeld’s construction of the condition of displacement that so characterizes his writing. Appelfeld employs this potent sense of dislocation as a marker of the Jewish experience in the face of trauma and assimilation. Articulating different manifestations of assimilation through the wide cast of otherwise hallow characters, Appelfeld illustrates how the disorientation of the Jewish identity compounds into corruption and self-delusion, the ultimate defense mechanism against fear and trauma.

Badenheim 1939 takes place in an Austrian resort town, where middle-class Jewish residents and vacationers indulge in sweets, sun, banquets, alcohol, and an annual cultural festival. Other than the name of the town and the year (the exact title of the English translation, in fact), Appelfeld does not provide any direct references to the historical reality of Austria before WWII. With the knowledge of the Holocaust constantly at the forefront of our minds, readers are charged with the task of filling in the historical setting on our own. More and more hints of Holocaust activity appear throughout the novel, but the author avoids any direct mention of political figures or historical events. When “the public was informed that the jurisdiction of the Sanitation Department had been extended, and that it had been authorized to conduct independent investigations,” readers, unable to escape the retrospective knowledge of the Holocaust, understand the pending danger foreshadowed by this inexplicit reference to pre-Holocaust societal transformations (11). By omitting any straightforward acknowledgement of the Holocaust, Appelfeld usurps the readers’ instinct to root the story in historical fact, while still maintaining a consistent allegorical connection between fiction and reality. In doing so, the novel resides in an amorphous space between creative parable and history. The author refuses to include specific historical details, instead relying on the readers’ previous knowledge of events, in order for this allegory to function. The reader’s uneasy ambiguity augments the sense of disorientation that characterizes Badenheim 1939.

Dislocation plagues all of Badenheim—the characters, the physical town itself, the music, the plot, even the temporality. The structure of the novel lends itself to this depiction of placelessness. The novel does not follow a linear storyline with a clear beginning, middle, and end. There are not a few main characters whom we follow through drama or internal transformation. Instead, Appelfeld offers short glimpses into the activities and dialogues of a wide array of personalities. These characters are often seen doing a repeated action or saying a repeated phrase with only slight variation. Mysteriously, these minor variations eventually lead to a completely transformed place and community, but one has trouble recollecting how the characters arrived there. Time is blurred and confusing, marked only by the mention of seasons. The timeline often feels cyclical, or folded upon itself, rather than linear. The physical space of Badenheim possesses a certain disorienting power of its own, the forest spreading feelings of tranquility, fear, delusion, and pain. The sun in Badenheim, too, has a similar surreal agency. Appelfeld writes, “A cold light broke out of the north and spread through the long corridor. It seemed not like light but needles cutting the carpet into squares. The people hugged the walls like shadows” (55). The sense of dislocation characterizes the town as it gradually becomes a location of transition for the Jews awaiting deportation to Poland. Dialogue consistently teeters between the need to “return to where you came from” and an optimism about a better future in Poland. As the post office shuts down and the gates to the city are closed, Badenheim becomes isolated from the spatial reality of the outside world. This placeless isolation is evident in the conversations between Martin and Trude:

“Martin asked his wife about Poland as if she were an oracle. Ever since the pharmacy had been looted his world had collapsed. He sat in the room and never went out. Trude sometimes said, ‘Why don’t you go out? Aren’t you interested in the outside world anymore?’” (95).

By the end of the novel, the entire town is plagued with feelings of impatient, transitory waiting. Their lives seem pointless and flat as they await the day they leave for Poland. When Dr. Pappenheim announces that “’The emigration arrangements are evidently not yet complete,’” Mandelbaum replies, “’In that case we’ll have to waste our time here doing nothing’” (129-130). The entirety of this placelessness is summed up in the conductor’s words: “This is only a transition” (143). By injecting such a sense of disorientation into all aspects of the novel, Appelfeld depicts an overwhelming condition of dislocation in Badenheim 1939.

Within this space of displacement and disorientation, Judaism, too, becomes disoriented. The old rabbi, a symbol of the traditional observant Judaism of the “old world” that has been lost and rejected, returns to the resort town, handicapped and misunderstood. The yanuka, a child prodigy who brings the music and culture of traditional. Eastern European Judaism, loses his identity completely, as the novel reads,

“The time he had spent in Badenheim had changed him. The flickering fear had disappeared from his eyes. He had grown fat, his cheeks had grown pink, and he had learned to understand German. His voice had apparently been lost altogether, and the few things he remembered about his home, his parents, and the orphanage in Vienna were quite gone” (134-135).

The child not only sheds the markers of his traditional Jewish background, but he becomes morally corrupted, obsessed with chocolate indulgences and expecting to be doted upon at all times. The shunning of Jewish culture is linked to such moral indecency repeatedly throughout the novel. Mendelbaum, a respected musician who falls from the Academy—the bearers of true culture—due to his Jewishness, obsesses over his need to perfect his art and prove his worth as a member of the high cultural class. Dr. Pappenheim and the other Badenheim residents worship him, despite the incredible violence he commits against his trio. “Upstairs a sadist [Mandelbaum] was torturing innocent people, and here everybody just went on sitting as if nothing was happening” (84). The worship of non-Jewish culture leads to complacency in such immoral acts. Similarly, Princess Salpina, the pinnacle of high cultured Jewish aristocracy who “is very fond of Slavic art,” angrily looks down upon the other residents of Badenheim, calling them riffraff (74). These extreme cases are supplemented by the overarching tone of self-indulgence and self-centeredness that arrests the entire town. Badenheim, in its state of disorientation, produces the corruption and disintegration of Judaism and morality.

Dislocation is a condition of Jewishness in its interaction with assimilation and trauma. Instead of developing deep, well-rounded characters, Appelfeld creates shallow characters to serve as different manifestations of Jewishness and assimilation. For some, their Eastern European Jewish identity is embraced and treasured as a nostalgic memory, an idyllic feeling of home. Samitzky is often struck by his homesickness for Poland, and he is “overjoyed to hear his native tongue,” Polish (111). On the opposite end of the spectrum is Dr. Langmann, who assertively denies his Jewishness in any way. He tells Dr. Schultz, “’I am an Austrian born and bred, and the laws of Austria apply to me as long as I live…A Jew. What does that mean?’” (58-59). Frau Zauberblit responds, “’You can renounce the connection any time you like’” (59).

The narrator characterizes this denial of Jewish identity as a symptom of anger – “It was, of course, a delayed anger that was oppressing [Dr. Langmann], seeking an outlet” (58). The pastry shop owner is also possessed by such anger, directed especially at Dr. Pappenheim, who he despises for being an Ostjuden. Dr. Pappenheim always frames the precarious Jewish situation in Badenheim in a positive light and tries to maintain order, readily accepting the Sanitation Department’s Jewish label. This anger infects the entire town. Appelfeld writes,

“The sun was still shining, but the angry people clung stubbornly to the old words, hoarding them like antiquated gadgets that had gone out of use. Since they were unable to liberate themselves from the old words and the fear, they prowled the streets and cast their angry shadows” (92).

Like Langmann and the pastry shop owner, these Jews held onto their assimilated lives, continuing to deny their Judaism. But, in the face of registration and deportation, their efforts become “antiquated.” With this, Appelfeld illustrates the failure of assimilation to save Jews. Instead, the denial and hatred of one’s own Judaism breeds anger, violence, and a quickness to turn against other members of the community.

Unlike the angry Langmann and pastry shop owner, Dr. Pappenheim’s embrace of his Jewish identity is driven by anything but anger. He tells a fearful Sally, “’There’s room in our kingdom for all the Jews and for everyone who wants to be a Jew too. Ours is a vast kingdom… There’s nothing to be afraid of, my dear, we’ll all be leaving soon’” (46). Appelfeld demonstrates that both of these manifestations of assimilation create such potent disorientation that ultimately leads to self-delusion. Dr. Pappenheim’s readiness to accept his Ostjuden identity in an optimistic and orderly way causes him to be completely blind to, and even complicit in, his disastrous fate, of which the readers are all too aware. The satiric irony of the book’s last line, Dr. Pappenheim’s remark, “’If the coaches are so dirty it must mean that we have no far to go,’” drives home Appelfeld’s illustration of the total self-delusion possessing this placeless Jewish community (148). All of the characters remain totally imperceptive to the danger that awaits them in Poland. The rare moments of insightful prediction occur not in rational thinking but during hallucinations—when Trude sees paleness, ghosts, wolves, and her daughter returning to Badenheim, and when Frau Zauberblit sees Death approaching her. When these characters are thinking “rationally” again, they fall back in step with the other ingenuous residents of Badenheim. This ironic inversion of the average conception of rationality communicates Appelfeld’s point that the Jews’ self-delusion and blindness to their fate is, in fact, rational amid the irrational circumstances of the Holocaust. When Trude sees the disastrous fate of the Jews, she wails, cannot sleep, terrorizes her neighbors. When Frau meets Death, she coughs up blood. Is the acknowledgement of their fateful end truly preferable to the self-delusion of Dr. Pappenheim, Dr. Langmann, and the others?

Through ahistorical surrealism, satirical irony, nonlinear plot, and allegorical characters, Appelfeld depicts the condition of Jewish assimilation as one destabilized by disorientation. Rejecting Jewish identity in favor of high “culture,” the placeless, transitory Jews become complicit in self-indulgence, anger, violence, and blindness. In the face of trauma, the dislocated residents of Badenheim turn to their only defense against the irrational acts of the Holocaust—self-delusion.

By Lucille Marshall

Written for New Wave in Israeli Literature with Professor Alan Mintz at the Jewish Theological Seminary.

Works Cited

Appelfeld, Aharon. Badenheim 1939. Trans. Dayla Bilu. Boston: D.R. Godine, 1980. Print.

Roth, Phillip, and Aharon Appelfeld. “WALKING THE WAY OF THE SURVIVOR; A Talk With Aharon Appelfeld.” New York Times 28 Feb. 1988, Late City Final Edition ed., sec. 7: n. pag. Print.



About lucystarer

college student. hiker. oatmeal eater.

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