John Klassen


Aharon Appelfeld: Badenhiem 1939 and Walter Kempowski: All for Nothing

Aharon Appelfeld (1932-2018) was a prolific Israeli novelist. Badenheim 1939 was originally published in 1978 and then in English in 1980 (translated by Dalya Bilu). Walter Kempowski (1929-2007) was a prolific German author (with a very limited number of his books translated into English). All for Nothing was published in 2006; translated into English by Anthea Bell and published by New York Review Books in 2018.


At first glance, there seems to be little in common between these two novels. The first is set in a small resort town in Austria in the summer of 1939. Most of the vacationers are Jewish middleclass, the town is losing its appeal as a holiday destination, there are problems with the summer festival, and the slow, almost imperceptible, imposition of anti-Jewish laws turns the town into a prison camp. The framework for the second is East Prussia in January 1945 as hundreds of thousands of Germans flee westwards to escape the Red Army. The novel is centred around the once rich von Globigs who live in a run-down estate and interact, not always comfortably, with people and officials in the area, plus a steady stream of refugees of various nationalities, from all walks of life, trying to get to relative safety further west.

These two novels bookend the war from quite different perspectives and historical moments. What unites them, what makes them complement each other, is the skill of both authors in presenting the human condition in dense, finely drawn characters and their interactions, most particularly in extreme circumstances that foster delusion, denial, and delay with death hovering. This is true whatever the social, political or economic status or class. Both novels also explore the disintegration of social coherence in the face of great pressures and the drive to survive.

The novels are historical set-pieces and because we know the outcome of events, the pathos is even more striking. At the end of Badenheim 1939, the Jews are forced to gather at the train station: “An engine, an engine coupled to four filthy freight cars, emerged from the hills and stopped at the station.” People are “all sucked in...Nevertheless Dr. Pappenheim found time to make the following remark: "If the coaches are so dirty it must mean that we have not far to go". In All for Nothing characters discuss the prospects for further Russian advances. One opines that “Our men will throw them straight back to the Urals”, and another notes that, “In the First War we softened up the Russians too.” No one in either novel can envisage the scope and completeness of the death and destruction to be visited upon them. In both contexts, some will survive while others die, not because of planning or the lack of it, but because of luck and the happenstance of life.

There are strong similarities in style. Both authors develop strong and well defined characters. The stories unfold on their own through descriptions but no flourishes. Both authors write clearly, directly, succinctly. Here are two random examples:

From Badenheim 1939:

“The dewy light of spring nights settled softly on the pavements. The musicians sat on the verandah and surveyed the town with sharp, nervous looks. The solitary Dr. Pappenheim sat in a corner and calculated sadly to himself: the trio had betrayed him. The people would never forgive him. And they would be right. If only he had known, he would have designed the whole program differently.”

From All for Nothing:

“Discipline and good order reigned in the youth hostel. The washrooms were tip-top quality, and every group of refugees had been given a place in the great meeting hall. They sat close together in families, with their suitcases and rucksacks, and the horses were stabled in the gymnasium. Members of the National Socialist Nurses’ Association went round giving out food parcels. Peter had to show his papers.”

Some might think the contexts of these two novels could be depressing. I would urge otherwise. They are both very fine, deeply introspective novels. They are set in very different historical moments, but reading them together reinforces these lucid, gripping explorations of hopes, fears, good, evil, and behaviour in extreme circumstances.

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