(courtesy of Schocken Books)

The questions for discussion and the suggested reading list that follows are intended to enhance your group's reading of Aharon Appelfeld's The Iron Tracks. We hope this guide will provide many interesting angles from which to approach this haunting novel by one of the world's foremost writers.

Released from a concentration camp some forty years ago, Erwin Siegelbaum is still a mental prisoner, obsessively riding the trains of Austria, unable to stop his travels for more than a day or two at a time. An antique dealer, he specializes in finding abandoned sacred objects -- menorahs, holy books, kiddush cups -- from the Jewish communities that have now all but vanished.

He is tormented by memories: of his parents, fervent Communists who betrayed, and were betrayed in turn by, their fellow-Jews; of his friend Stark, another Communist who finally returned to the faith of his ancestors; of two women he loved, both irreparably damaged by the war. Most of all, he broods about Nachtigel, the Nazi officer who murdered his parents. As he travels, he lays plans for a long-deferred act of revenge.

The Iron Tracks is a powerful exploration of the complex and terrifying inner world of a Holocaust survivor. Written in the distinctively spare and evocative style Appelfeld has made his own, this apparently simple work of fiction is in reality a rich, many-layered, masterful novel by one of the world's great storytellers.

For discussion:

1. How and why do you think the narrator's yearly circuit on the trains brings him solace? "In this repetition lies a strange hopefulness," he comments, "As if our end were not extinction but a sort of constant renewal" (5). Why does he avoid "these somber places called houses" (5)?

2. "In the past I believed that travel would blunt my memory: I was wrong," Erwin states. "Over the years, I must admit, it has only grown stronger. Were it not for my memory, my life would be different--better, I assume" (9). What do you think about this statement? Is it better to forget some things, or must memory always be confronted?

3. Each of the various characters in The Iron Tracks has different ways of coping with grief and memory. How do Bella, Bertha, and Erwin differ in the way they grieve and remember?

4. What does Erwin think about Communism and about the Communists he has known, including his parents? What moral value does he find in their creed? What hope? What do you imagine the author's own attitude to be? Erwin recounts that "Rollman spoke at length and with enthusiasm about our duty to rebuild, adopt orphans, exorcise ghosts, and plant faith in people's hearts for a better life" (26). Do you think Erwin believes that this is possible?

5. Two of Erwin's friends, Gizi and Miss Hahn, have converted to Christianity. What attitude, stated or unstated, do you think Erwin has toward their conversions? Does the fact of their conversion change his feelings toward them? Several of Appelfeld's other books, including For Every Sin and the recently translated The Conversion, deal with this theme. If you have read any of them, what conclusions do you draw about the author's own feelings about conversion?

6. What is the attitude of Erwin's father toward his fellow-Jews? What is that of Erwin's mother? How have his parents and their religious and political attitudes helped to make Erwin who he is? How has Erwin's grandfather, the village rabbi, influenced his character?

7. Erwin has decided that he must, at all costs, kill Nachtigel with his own hands. Does this act of revenge bring him relief? Do you agree with Erwin that in some cases there can never be forgiveness? How does Erwin's execution of Nachtigel compare with the unnamed refugee's execution of Rollman? As a Communist whose political idealism contributed to human suffering, is Rollman someone for whom there should be no pity, no forgiveness?

8. Even after his death, Stark haunts Erwin. What is it about Stark that has made him such a key figure in Erwin's life and imagination? What does Erwin mean when he says that "Stark is a creature of a very special sort, the kind of person that is now extinct in the world" (80)? How has Stark managed to make his own life meaningful in a way that none of the other characters succeeds in doing?

9. Erwin claims to be a non-believer, yet he has made a career of collecting, saving, and preserving Jewish holy objects. Is he, in spite of his protests, a "believer"? If so, in what might his belief consist? When he hears that Stark's books have been burned by the nuns, Erwin accuses himself of having "sinned" (108). What does the use of this particular word signify?

10. Erwin's competitors are jealous and are eager to learn the secret of his success. What do you think is the secret of his success?

11. Erwin remembers a conversation with Bertha in which she chided herself for her nostalgia: "One mustn't yearn for a city that murdered its sons and daughters. I have to wrench such yearnings from my heart and accept that I no longer have a permanent place in the world" (146). Do you think a similar conviction contributes to Erwin's compulsive wandering? What other reasons might he have?

12. Erwin's friend Kron continues all his life to be a good Communist. Of Kron's attraction to Communism, Erwin recounts: "he blamed his religious education, which he said deadened his imagination and his ambition to do great deeds. And he blamed his father, who used to force him to study ancient books night and day, moldy old books that had nothing to do with reality. When he spoke of his youth, his memory was clear, but he had forgotten the name of his beloved mother, for some reason"(148). What does this tell us about Kron and his parents? About Kron's ambitions? How might Kron define "great deeds" and "reality"?

13. Erwin says that "man is an insect" (153); his father, on the other hand, stated that man is corrupted only by his conditions, and that if they should be removed, "man will be revealed to you in all his glory" (153). What do you think are the reasons for each man's view of humanity?

14. Why do you think Erwin wants to burn Wirblbahn down? Do you think he will actually go through with it?

15. Is Erwin, in your opinion, a reliable narrator--that is, does he say what he is really feeling, or does he hide his true motivations and emotions from the reader? At the end, when he says, "I knew that my deeds had neither dedication nor beauty" (195), do you think he means this?

16. Compare another novel you've read by Appelfeld with The Iron Tracks. If you decide the style of the two novels differs, why do you think Appelfeld chose to write the story in The Iron Tracks the way he did?

Suggestions for further reading:

Helen Darville, The Hand That Signed the Paper; Ida Fink, A Scrap of Time; Daniel Jonah Goldhagen, Hitler's Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust; Melissa Fay Greene, The Temple Bombing; Aaron Hass, The Aftermath: Living with the Holocaust; Etty Hillesum, An Interrupted Life: The Diaries of Etty Hillesum; Thomas Keneally, Schindler's List; Gerda Weissman Klein, All But My Life; Jerzy Kosinski, The Painted Bird; Primo Levi, The Drowned and the Saved; Anne Michaels, Fugitive Pieces; Cynthia Ozick, The Shawl; Chaim Potok, In the Beginning; Bernhard Schlink, The Reader; Art Spiegelman, Maus; William Styron, Sophie's Choice; Elie Wiesel, All Rivers Run to the Sea; Elie Wiesel, The Fifth Son; Simon Wiesenthal, The Sunflower: On the Possibilities and Limits of Forgiveness; Binjamin Wilkomirski, Fragments: Memories of a Wartime Childhood.

About Aharon Appelfeld:

Aharon Appelfeld was born in 1932 in Czernovitz, Bukovina (now part of the Ukraine). At the age of nine he was imprisoned in a Nazi concentration camp, from which he escaped. Having lost his mother to the Nazis and having been separated from his father, Appelfeld hid in the forests. He eventually joined the Soviet army as a kitchen boy, immigrating to Palestine in 1946. Appelfeld is the author of twelve internationally acclaimed novels and is the recipient of the Harold U. Ribelow Prize and the Israel Prize. He lives in Jerusalem, Israel.

Other books by Aharon Appelfeld (see introductions and selections): For Every Sin (1989) The Retreat (1984) The Conversion (1998) Badenheim 1939 (1980) The Age of Wonders (1981) Tzili: The Story of a Life (1983) To the Land of the Cattails (1986) The Immortal Bartfuss (1988) The Healer (1990) Katerina (1993) Beyond Despair: Three Lectures and a Conversation with Philip Roth (1994)

Purchase any of Aharon Appelfeld's books online

Introduction to Appelfeld's Iron Tracks



Subscribe to the JHOM mailing list for updates.

Contact us

Tell a friend