Short selection

Our story opens in an Austrian city, two generations before the Holocaust, where almost all the Jews have converted to Christianity. The church bells are pealing today for Karl, an ambitious young civil servant whose conversion will clear his path to a coveted high government post. For Karl and his friends, most of whom have already converted, Judaism is an obstacle to their advancement that is easily discarded. The only Jews left are their impoverished relatives in the outlying Carpathian mountains and a few merchants whose shoddy stalls in the center of the town have triggered a campaign to remove them in the name of progress and civic beauty.

Karl's future looks bright, but with his promotion comes a political crisis that turns his conversion into a baptism by fire, unexpectedly reuniting Karl with his past and kindling a love affair that will force him to take a stand he could never have imagined.

Images of the past overwhelmed him. Silent and bright, they filled his sleep: his father and mother in the kitchen, the eternal kitchen, conjuring memories. After an hour of this, the Carpathian Mountains, where they had been born, invaded the narrow kitchen, filling it till there was no room to breathe. Then their faces took on a different character. A glimmer of their fathers' faith illuminated their brows. Not only did their faces change, but also their language, as if German were excised from their mouths, and another language, somehow related to it, rose and up and made their lips speak. It was clear to Karl that this was their true language, and only in its words could they express the fulfillness of their hearts.

"I don't understand a word," laughed the little boy Karl, spreading out his tiny palms. "It's Yiddish," said the mother, picking him up. "Whose language it that?"

His parents had stopped speaking their language, and only at night, when Karl was sound. "The Jews'" asleep, did they return to it. Since childhood he had harbored fondness for its sounds. Often he would ask, "Mother, why don't you speak the secret language?" "What do you mean?" "Why don't you speak the Jews' language?" "We must speak German. In Austria everyone speaks German."

He loved his parents' secret language, as he did the pretty girls who entered the store. The Czech girls were the prettiest of all. They were buxom, and the braids on their backs were thick and black. And their happiness contrasted with his parents' misery. Earning a living had darkened their faces....

Occasionally, as if from oblivion, an uncle of his would emerge from the Carpathians. A tall man, thin, with a bent back. In a moment the house would change. The man would sit and, in a hushed and monotonous voice, tell stories about life's shame and struggles. Then the secret language would become the language of pain....

Introduction to Appelfeld's Iron Tracks



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