Surprising Thriller in Poland

Poland, a Green Land novel by the renowned Israeli author Aharon Appelfeld surprisingly reads like a slow burn thriller.
The adult son of Polish-Jewish Holocaust survivors who live in Tel-Aviv, Jakov Fein quixotically decides after their death that he wants to visit the little village they had such fond memories of.  That is, memories from before they escaping a gruesome Nazi massacre. You’d be right to wonder why. Fein never felt connected to them and he’s estranged from his wife and two daughters so he’s clearly more than looking for his past: maybe what he learns there can be a guide to his future.
Like a Gothic novel, when he arrives in Krakow and tells people where he’s headed, he’s uniformly warned off: “There’s nothing there.”  Even the cart driver taking him there seems to find his mission pointless.
Are they right?  Do they mean well?
At first, things seems rosy on the edge of the village.  He takes a room in a farmhouse with a welcoming widow, Magda, who lovingly cooks for him, treats him well, and in a major surprise, turns out to have known his family when she was a little girl.
Fein falls in love with his host and in love with the green fields, the woods and the flowing river–all of which seem so different from Israel.  He fills in more and more gaps in the lives his parents never quite shared with him, learns family history and seems to be blossoming in some strange way.
But things turn ominous very soon as the locals find out he’s Jewish.  They alternate between praise for Israelis as strong and deep-seated antisemitic venom and hatred.  He learns a lot, risks a lot, and you wonder if he’ll make it out alive.
The books’ strength is the tension that builds and the way it reads like a novel of suspense as well as some kind of fable.  That latter aspect is reinforced by all the times the author describes Fein’s.  Sadly, they don’t work: they feel way too long, too specific in detail and dialogue to actually come across as dreams.  Some readers may get bored because they slow the narrative way down.
Too often the characters in this book, no matter who they are, speak about Fate, Life, God, Jews, History, Poland, War in almost stilted, oracular fashion and it seems too much like speechifying.
I’ve read many of the late author’s books and if you want to sample him, Badenheim 1939 is truly wonderful.  This book doesn’t equal its power and depth.
Lev Raphael is the author of The German Money and twenty-six other books in genres from memoir to mystery.

My Viking Blood


The first time someone wondered if I was Norwegian I was on a beach in Israel. A Dutch man I’d briefly met at a conference nearby came over to me and pointed back to a guy further up the beach.  He said “Bjorn wants to know where you’re from in Norway.”

I shrugged it off as a fluke since I’d always assumed my family heritage was Eastern European Jewish, (Russian, Polish, Lithuanian).  But when I began traveling to Europe a lot, it started happening more often, especially in the Netherlands and Germany. I was once having dinner in Braunschweig while on a book tour for my memoir/travelogue My Germany when a man surprised me by sitting next to me at the trestle table.  He said in German, “I do a lot of business in Norway.”

That seemed like a bizarre conversation starter. I must have looked puzzled, because he said (still in German), “You’re not Norwegian?” I shook my head: “Nein, ich bin Amerikaner.” We chatted anyway through our excellent dinners in a mixture of German and English, but he looked dubious, maybe because my German was too good in his opinion to be spoken by an American?

Similar situations have happened to me many other times in different ways, and back when my hair was shoulder-length, more than one German told me, “You look like a Viking.” Flying home from Berlin on another trip, my Swedish seatmate said half-way through the flight that he was surprised when I had started speaking to him in English because he’d been sure I was Norwegian when he boarded and took the seat next to me.

I finally thought I had the opportunity to get to the heart of this mystery when I overheard some people at a hotel lobby in New Jersey who were clearly Swedish–and something else. I recognized the sound of Swedish from having watched many (un-dubbed) Swedish movies, and took a guess that the one guy in the group who sounded different was Norwegian. I hoped so, anyway. When he headed off for the men’s room and then returned, I intercepted him before he got back to his buddies.

“Are you Norwegian by any chance?” I asked.

He nodded. I quickly filled him in on my experiences being taken for one of his countrymen and asked, “So, do I look Norwegian to you?”

He scanned up and done and shrugged. “What does a Norwegian look like?”

Update 2021: A recent DNA analysis says I’m 5.4% Scandinavian, so all those people saw something that was always there and my family had no clue about. That could explain my deep affinity for Scandinavian crime fiction and adventure on screen like Vikings, The Last Kingdom and Wallander.  And could it explain that I felt so comfortable learning Swedish that friends with Swedish relatives said my accent was so good?

Jag vat inte.  I don’t know.  Ar jag skandinavisk?  Could very well be……

Lev Raphael is the author of 27 books from memoir to mystery and he coaches writers at

(Norwegian flag image by DavidRockDesign from Pixabay)