Ervin Appelfeld was born in Jadova Commune, Storojineţ County, in the Bukovina region of the Kingdom of Romania, now Ukraine. In 1941, when he was nine years old, the Romanian Army retook his hometown after a year of Soviet occupation and his mother was murdered. Appelfeld was deported with his father to a Nazi concentration camp in Romanian-controlled Transnistria. He escaped and hid for three years before joining the Soviet army as a cook. After World War II, Appelfeld spent several months in a displaced persons camp in Italy before immigrating to Palestine in 1946, two years before Israel's independence. He was reunited with his father after finding his name on a Jewish Agency list. The father had been sent to a ma'abara (refugee camp) in Be'er Tuvia. The reunion was so emotional that Appelfeld has never been able to write about it.
In Israel, Appelfeld made up for his lack of formal schooling and learned Hebrew, the language in which he began to write. His first literary efforts were short stories, but gradually he progressed to novels. He completed his studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Today, Appelfeld lives in Mevaseret Zion and teaches literature at Ben Gurion University of the Negev.
In 2007, Appelfeld's Badenheim 1939 was adapted for the stage and performed at the Gerard Behar Center in Jerusalem.
Appelfeld is one of Israel's foremost living Hebrew-language authors, despite the fact that he did not learn the language until he was a teenager. His mother tongue is German, but he also understands Yiddish, Ukrainian, Romanian, Russian, English, and Italian. With his subject matter revolving around the Holocaust and the sufferings of the Jews in Europe, he could not bring himself to write in German. He chose Hebrew as his literary vehicle for its succinctness and biblical imagery.
Appelfeld purchased his first Hebrew book at the age of 25: King of Flesh and Blood by Moshe Shamir. In an interview with the newspaper Haaretz, he said he agonized over it, because it was written in Mishnaic Hebrew and he had to look up every word in the dictionary.
In an interview in the Boston Review, Appelfeld explained his choice of Hebrew: "I’m lucky that I’m writing in Hebrew. Hebrew is a very precise language, you have to be very precise–no over-saying. This is because of your Bible tradition. In the Bible tradition you have very small sentences, very concise and autonomic. Every sentence, in itself, has to have its own meaning."
Many Holocaust survivors have written an autobiographical account of their survival, but Appelfeld does not offer a realistic depiction of the events. He writes short stories that can be interpreted in a metaphoric way. Instead of his personal experience, he sometimes evokes the Holocaust without even relating to it directly. His style is clear and precise, but also very modernistic.
Appelfeld resides in Israel but writes little about life there. Most of his work focuses on Jewish life in Europe before, during and after World War II. As an orphan from a young age, the search for a mother figure is central to his work. During the Holocaust he was separated from his father, and only met him again 20 years later.
Silence, muteness and stuttering are motifs that run through much of Appelfeld's work. Disability becomes a source of strength and power. Philip Roth described Appelfeld as “a displaced writer of displaced fiction, who has made of displacement and disorientation a subject uniquely his own.” 1975 Brenner Prize for literature.
1979 Bialik Prize for literature (jointly with Avot Yeshurun).
1983 Israel Prize for literature.
1989 National Jewish Book Award for fiction (Badenheim 1939 (ISBN 0-87923-799-6 ) and The Immortal Bartfuss (ISBN 0-8021-3358-4))
1997 Foreign Honorary Member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.
2004 Prix Médicis (foreign works category) for his autobiography, The Story of a Life: A Memoir (2003, ISBN 0-8052-4178-7)
2005 Nelly Sachs Prize by the city of Dortmund.
2012 Independent Foreign Fiction Prize for Blooms of Darkness: at the time, Appelfeld was the oldest ever recipient of the prize:
2016 Sydney Taylor Book Award for Adam & Thomas