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Ron Charach
From:   Dungenessque. Signature Editions, 2001

At a grand conference to honour Aharon Appelfeld,
Israeli novelist of Holocaust Aftermath,
three panelists discussed the great man's work.
One, sweet-looking as an elderly Jewish mother,
was a septuagenerian from Montreal
who wrote epic Yiddish novels.
Why, she asked, before a packed house,
were all his books approximately 200 pages in length?
Why did he present concentration-camp survivors
as empty and depraved?
Why were so few healthy Jewish women portrayed?
Why was the most marriageable woman in The Conversion
a Christian who kept house in a Jewish home
who, in charge of the Jewish rituals,
became more Jewish than her employers?
Could Mr. Appelfeld--may he enjoy 120 years of life--
not do any better than that
by his own people?

A hush fell at the surprise attack
on a man who had crossed an ocean
to speak to us, to teach,
a Jewish writer of more than a dozen novels
worthy of a Nobel Prize,
all of them read by so many seated.

Beside her on the panel,
the youthful Yiddishist shook his head.
The greatness, the universality
of works such as Badenheim 1939!
A masterpiece! It had stunned him into awareness
of his own calling as a Jewish writer.

Third on the panel, a psychiatrist/orator,
stared the old woman down.
In Appelfeld's books, he insisted,
the absence of horrific Holocaust detail
was akin to the great speeches in tragedies
by couriers who recount events
too horrible, too profane to demonstrate,
all the more real for that fact.

At the end of the discussion,
slight, balding, the giant
Appelfeld rose from his seat
and thanked the panel by gently retelling
a priceless anecdote from the repertoire
of Reb Nachman of Bretslav:

A king and his first minister
learned that this year's crop of grain
would make everyone in the kingdom mad.
The minister urged that he and the king
eat only of last year's.
"Let the people eat of the deadly crop."
But the king said, "No,
we must join them in partaking of it.
But we will paint a sign on each other's brow,
so that every time we look at one another,
we will know that we are insane."

Indeed, the epic novelist had been dead wrong,
grinding her own axe at Appelfeld's expense.
He might have asked,
"Why did you want to read
the book I didn't write
when you can write it yourself?"

And yet, what will be the reaction
to the portraits of empty, depraved survivors
by readers who know little, if anything,
who never spoke to anyone
directly or even indirectly
touched by that Horror?
As slowly the pen turned in my hand,
in its frail girth I felt
an easily hidden

Ron Charach's works copyright © to the author.

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