Watching the men of the Burial Society drop the compact body of Aharon Appelfeld into its grave just weeks ago, I kept thinking of the satisfaction that was denied to all the murderers who had wanted to kill this man while he was still a child.
I wondered: What did Appelfeld gain by putting off this inevitable death? What did he gain by surviving in the forest, with the prostitute who housed him, with the gang of thieves and, later, the Soviet soldiers who adopted him, for their own reasons, during the years of the Second World War? What did he gain by walking through Eastern Europe alongside other survivors to the Displaced Persons Camps in Germany and Italy, by immigrating to British Mandate Palestine, by fighting in the War of Independence to establish the state of Israel and then, for many years, by teaching working youth and helping them complete their diplomas? What did Appelfeld gain by surviving all the wars fought by Israel, the terrorism and poverty of the city he called home, the struggle to make his name known as a writer despite prejudices held against his Diasporic themes and characters?
Undoubtedly, the first and foremost thing he gained was a family, his wife and children, and later his grandchildren, whom Appelfeld not only loved but visibly cherished. But there was something else, something more individual and perhaps symbolic, that he seemed to gain at the moment I saw his body slide into its grave. He had gained the right to a natural death, decreed by forces beyond our understanding, as well as the right to a Jewish burial, in the Holy City of Jerusalem, where his grandparents — even before they were killed by anti-Semites — could only have dreamed of finding their eternal rest.
Appelfeld’s funeral was, like his life, modest and sincere. As people gathered, a quiet murmur filled the outdoor hall where a few speeches would be made, and from which his body, covered in a shroud, would be carried to its grave. Softly-spoken Hebrew words could be heard alongside an occasional word in Spanish or Russian, and here and there a few Yiddish phrases made themselves heard too. People were sad but they also seemed out of place — as if going to Appelfeld’s funeral wasn’t exactly the way they’d intended to spend time with Appelfeld. I had the feeling that we were there because there simply wasn’t another way to be with him anymore. But that didn’t mean it was meant to be that way. There was something inherently out of place about the situation — even if it was the only situation that could exist at that point.
A few of those who were closest to Appelfeld spoke — his eldest son Meir Appelfeld, a painter, his son Isaac, his daughter Batya, and his wife Yehudit, as well as Esther Hayut, President of Israel’s Supreme Court, the writer Gail Hareven, and the editor and critic Yigal Schwartz. They each spoke from their own place of pain, shock, and deep appreciation. They each highlighted different facets of Appelfeld’s gift to others: his gift of quiet presence.
And yet I couldn’t help but think of certain scenes from his books, like the memoiristic Table for One or the fictional Immortal Bartfuss, where cognac and cigarettes are referenced repeatedly. This was not a man who’d been spared — either physically or emotionally — or whose serenity had been naturally endowed. It was a man whose wisdom and inner quiet was hard-earned, a human being who’d battled the demons he inherited along with the demons forced upon him, a person who had suffered hunger and terror and loss, and whose response, despite himself, was to write books about what it’s like to feel hunger, terror, loss.
As each one of Appelfeld’s loved ones spoke, it became increasingly difficult to hold in the pain. I was crying, but that wasn’t the hard part. What was hard was the extremely painful lump I felt in my throat. Whatever had been lost, whatever loss was being shared by the people in that space, was elemental. It was not the Holocaust but the spirit of survival — and the integrity of one of its most loyal witnesses — who had passed on from our world. As Appelfeld’s body was carried from the hall to the minivan that would carry it to its grave, I watched all of that survival become a mass of flesh, bones, and organs that no longer functioned to keep the spirit inside the body. Everything that this man had managed to achieve in his life, both as a person and as a writer, was now in the hands of those who survived him – heirs to his personal and literary legacy.
I’d been to more than one funeral in the Mount of Rest Cemetery, but I’d never been to the Friends of Jerusalem section where Appelfeld was to be buried. I listened to the directions that were given and set out on foot.
I’d never walked down this way before and what I saw surprised me: The entire road, all the way to the entrance of the cemetery, was lined with workshops where sculptors, young and old, sat in tin-roofed shacks carving stone, with completed tombstones out on display. It was the kind of thing, I thought, that Appelfeld would have written about had he wanted to describe the Jewish cemeteries he had seen up in the Carpathian Mountains.
I wasn’t alone on this march: most of the people from the funeral were also walking to the grave. Here we were, like the survivors and refugees of Appelfeld’s books, striding along in small groups — some animated, others sulking — all of us coping in our own way, refugees of a world where just a day before Aharon Appelfeld was still among the living. We were following the van that held his body, but we were also expressing our commitment to the sentiments embodied in his books. It’s not that we were like characters in one of his books — we were the living spirit from which he drew his characters. Appelfeld’s books, one way or another, all spoke of the choice to share a common fate, despite the risks, of a people – maintaining our bonds to the historical, cultural, and religious implications of what it means to affirm the existential fact of being a Jew.
Further down the road, as the procession neared one of the entrances to the cemetery, a series of tombs and shrines erected to various saintly rabbis came into sight. I had never seen these, since I’d always entered the cemetery from the other side, and I noted their similarity to tombs and holy sights up in the north, where Kabbalists are said to have been buried. Appelfeld wrote about these kinds of tombs and graves, locating them in the Carpathian Mountains, and increasingly I saw how the imagined lands of his familial past were in fact repurposed observations of the Jerusalem in which he’d lived. His books, I thought, are not images of the past, they’re reflections of the present. All along, people thought he was a writer of the Holocaust, when actually he was a writer of today’s Israel. All you needed in order to realize this was to come here and experience it for yourself. The key was the place.
The burial was quick, according to Jewish tradition, and before I realized it, the men of the Burial Society were piling dirt onto Appelfeld’s grave. It was a warm sunny day, but it’d rained the day before, and the dry Jerusalem earth had turned muddy. As people came up to shovel some mud into the grave, their shoes became caked with mud, and so, one by one, they walked back to the paved road and either stamped their feet or scraped them on the curb.
The family had settled under the shade of a fir tree, and to reach them the other mourners had to walk through a section of muddy earth. A line formed, with a few journalists in the back standing and taking interviews from some of the public figures in the crowd, while each person waded through the mud to express their condolences to the family.Then, as each person came back to the pavement, they started what became a ritual of stamping and scraping mud off their shoes. Suddenly, perfectly respectable people who’d come to the sorrowful funeral of one of Israel’s greatest writers, were standing in the sun stamping and scraping, scraping and stamping, leaving trails of dirt behind them as they tried to free themselves of mud that had caked itself onto their shoes.
The men of the Burial Society stood on the side, smoking, using the shovel to rid themselves of the mud. They conversed, respectfully but unconcernedly, without seeming to acknowledge the full stature of the man whom they’d just covered with dirt. For me the loss was elemental. I looked at them and thought: the Holocaust hadn’t ended in 1945, it continues to torment and terrorize its victims, direct and indirect, decade after decade. Appelfeld had worked hard to stand against this demonic trauma, insisting on the most basic human accomplishment: a life of uncompromising integrity and love. And, with his passing, I was suddenly afraid to face a world in which evil still existed, and where Appelfeld was no longer physically present to remind us that there is a life beyond.