Yaakov Fein grows up in the bustling metropolis of Tel Aviv, a world away from Szydowce, his family’s ancestral village in the Polish countryside. And yet Szydowce, no more than a farming village of a few hundred peasants, haunts Yaakov’s childhood. Pervasive sadness and silence reign in his home. When his parents speak of their past, they do so in chilling fragments. “I see them in front of me,” his mother will suddenly say, apropos of nothing Yaakov can fathom. Each twenty-sixth of Kislev, fellow émigrés — who are “short, stocky, [and] closed” — come calling, bringing with them “the winds of their distant village … cold winds mixed with the smell of steaming soup … ” As a young man, Yaakov resents the intrusion of his family’s harrowing and provincial past on his modern Israeli life. He does everything he can to free himself from this grim legacy; and for the most part he succeeds, becoming an exemplary secular Israeli: a soldier, a businessman, and an atheist.
Only after his parents have died, once he’s disposed of their Old World tchotchkes and modernized their textile store, does Yaakov’s struggle with inherited trauma begin in earnest. His mother and father appear to him in dreams night after night, speaking more clearly and coherently than they ever did in life about the horrors they endured during the war. These nightmares function in the narrative as a hero’s call to adventure; they awaken in middle-aged Yaakov an irrepressible need to see for himself the world his parents came from. The novel opens with Yaakov Fein beginning his journey to Szydowce, where he’ll “enter a world that had been hidden inside him,” one that his parents have “buried there carefully, with great cunning.”
In the chapters that follow, Appelfeld masterfully weaves multiple narrative threads that entwine and inform one another: Yaakov’s encounters with his parents’ Polish neighbors, his vivid dream life, and the long-repressed memories of his childhood.
The journey Aharon Appelfeld sets up in this novel is inherently tense. Yaakov is a lone Jew, unarmed and defenseless, in a village whose residents have never come to terms with their wartime crimes. “You should know,” an elderly farmer tells Yaakov during one of his walks through the countryside, “ever since they burned the Jews there has been a curse hanging over this village … ” In a less friendly episode, another peasant tells him that the “Jews were a bone in our throat.”
While the novel does not shy away from depicting the strange and ugly vagaries of Polish antisemitism, Appelfeld’s portrayal of Polish peasantry is nuanced and complex. He offers no easy solutions, yet the book does explore the possibility of certain types of reconciliation between Poles and Jews. By far the most admirable character in the novel is Magda, a hardworking farmer who takes Yaakov in and protects him during his stay in Szydowce. Magda remembers Yaakov’s family, and it is through this Catholic peasant’s account of them that Yaakov communes most deeply with his parents as they were before the Holocaust. Magda’s memory is rich and passionate; she presents Yaakov’s parents as refined, well-read, kind, and brave. Listening to her, Yaakov feels that “if any living shred remained of his family, it was hidden in the body of this woman.”
Appelfeld, who died in 2018, wrote over forty works of fiction. Poland, A Green Land is the most recent addition to his English-language oeuvre. Touching and profound, this book transports the reader to the disappeared world of the Polish shtetl, revealing how its tragic past continues to haunt both Jewish émigrés and the Polish village.
Basia Winograd, a New York City – based writer and filmmaker, teaches creative writing at Hunter College.