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Israeli author and Holocaust survivor Aharon Appelfeld dies at 85

Philippe Merle, AFP | Aharon Appelfeld pictured during an interview in Lyon in May 2010.

Israeli novelist Aharon Appelfeld, a Holocaust survivor who became one of the foremost contemporary Hebrew-language writers, died on Thursday aged 85, officials said.

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Israeli public radio said that he passed away at Beilinson hospital near Tel Aviv in the early hours of Thursday morning.

Maariv newspaper said he would be buried in Jerusalem on Sunday.

Born in 1932 in a village near what was then the Romanian city of Czernowitz -- today part of Ukraine -- his mother was murdered during the Nazi Holocaust and at the age of eight he was sent to a concentration camp with his father.

He told AFP in a 2010 interview how he escaped in 1942 and fled into the forests, where he was "adopted by a gang of Ukrainian criminals".

He was recruited as a kitchen orderly into the advancing Red Army until 1945 when he parted company with the force in Yugoslavia and then made his way to Italy.

The following year he sailed to Palestine arriving, in his own words, "small, lean and speechless," having no knowledge of Hebrew.

"No one wanted orphans in Europe. The only place we could go was Palestine," he told AFP.

He learned Hebrew, studied literature at Jerusalem's Hebrew University and in later life became a professor of Hebrew literature at Ben Gurion University in southern Israel.

In 1957 he discovered that his father had also survived and they were reunited in Israel.

'Writing means you're alive'

He published the first of 46 novels and collections of poetry in 1962 and won several awards throughout his career.

They included the prestigious Israel Prize in 1983 and France's Prix Medicis literary award for best foreign book in 2004 for his 1999 autobiography "Story of a Life".

To his longtime literary editor Yigal Schwartz, Appelfeld was "one of the greatest writers of the 20th century."

"He is the Kafka of the second half of the (20th) century," he told Israeli army radio on Thursday.

Although much of his writing is of Jewish life in Europe before, during and after World War II, Appelfeld refused to be classified as a Holocaust writer.

"You cannot be a writer of death. Writing means you're alive," he said.

But American writer Philip Roth, one of Appelfeld's friends, called him "fiction's foremost chronicler of the Holocaust," according to London's Independent daily.

In his later years he could be seen at a cafe in the Jerusalem suburb where he lived, writing in his notebooks, wearing a seaman's cap and speaking slowly in a strong Romanian accent.

"I like writing in cafes. I lived in the forest and I still need to be surrounded by people," he explained in a 2008 TV interview on Israel's state-owned Channel One.

Israeli President Reuven Rivlin wrote on Twitter that he and his wife Nechama were "deeply saddened at the passing of our cherished author Aharon Appelfeld. May his memory and his works be blessed."

Israeli Culture Minister Miri Regev said Appelfeld "left us stories of life that will remain in our collective and personal memory".

(AFP)

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