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In an Anti-Semitic Cloud

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BORN in Bukovina, the Israeli author Aharon Appelfeld has evoked the lost world of pre-Holocaust Eastern Europe in novels like "Badenheim 1939," "The Age of Wonders," "Tzili," and "To the Land of the Cattails."

While no one could accuse Appelfeld, a survivor of the concentration camps, of investing his novels with a sense of nostalgia for a vanished age of simplicity, his portrayal of the pre-World War II period is marked by a sense of the innocence - and ignorance - that blinded the future victims of the Nazis to the horrible fate that would overtake them.

The quiet middle-class resort of "Badenheim," the rural, rather backward "land of the cattails" are strewn with signs and portents of things to come, but destruction on the scale of Auschwitz seems all but unimaginable.

But in Appelfeld's latest novel, "Katerina," the seeds of the coming catastrophe, like dragon's teeth, are everywhere, and they cut very sharply into the consciousness of the reader and eponymous narrator alike.

"Katerina" is the story of a Ruthenian peasant woman, a Christian who is brought up with all the anti-Jewish prejudices typical of her fellow countrymen, but who later forms a deep attachment to the Jewish families and individuals she comes to know through working as a housekeeper in their homes.

The novel opens with 80-year-old Katerina returning to her native village. Living from day to day in a state of strangely visionary tranquillity, she recollects the many and troubling events of her life:

"The years in a foreign land distanced me from these marvels, and they were obliterated from my memory, but not, apparently, from my heart. Now I know that light is what drew me back."

In the light of "brilliant summer nights, when the line between heaven and earth is erased," Katerina first recalls her youth. The pastoral landscape concealed a harsh, even brutal world of dictatorial fathers, riotous drunkenness, and coarse sensuality.

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