Author: Sam Apple
Sam Apple, author of Schlepping Through The Alps: My Search For Austria’s Jewish Past With Its Last Wandering Shepherd, first encounters Yiddish folk-singer Hans Breuer at a concert and slide show in New York. Breuer, as Apple points out, is not just your ordinary run-of-the mill Yiddish folk-singer, rather he is truly a wandering Jew and as he reveals in his book, “If you ever happen to be hiking the Alps and you see a man singing Yiddish songs as he watches a dog chasing a sheep in a raincoat, no need for concern.”
Apple, who grew up in Houston and now makes his home in Brooklyn, was quite intrigued by this forty-five year old Austrian shepherd. The result was a one thousand word article that eventually has being turned into a witty yet insightful book, wherein much of Apple’s research was accumulated while traveling in Austria as an apprentice to Breuer.
During their first encounter in New York, Breuer mentioned to Apple that he wanted to bring Yiddish to the uninitiated in the Austrian Alps. When asked if he wanted these individuals to remember their Yiddish neighbors, his reply was: “I want to make them confront for the first time in their lives this culture that their uncles and fathers destroyed.” With this in mind Apple decided to voyage to Austria and find out for himself what it was like to be a shepherd in the twenty-first century and to make sense of Han’s Jewish identity or as he states, what it really meant for him to sing in Yiddish. He also wanted to learn about sheep, Yiddish music and anti-Semitism.
Apple’s engaging narrative is what Yiddish speaking readers would probably classify as a good “meinsa,” something akin to an old wife’s tale only this story is actually true. Apple beckons us to follow his meandering through the Alps following a herd of sheep, a shepherd, his mistress and young lamb herders, while picking up along the way various shepherding tips from his mentor and learning about Austria’s past and present political landscape.
During the course of his apprentice with Breuer, Apple learns about Austria’s post-war anti-Nazi legislation that led to the sentencing to death of several Nazis and the conviction and incarceration of thousands of low-ranking Nazis. However, a few years after the enactment of this legislation, a general amnesty came into effect and all but a handful of the worst offenders were free to live happily every after. In fact, the government’s constant line about complaints about Austria’s behavior during the Holocaust was that if you have one take it to Germany.
Quite telling of Breuer’s psyche is that he associates the Austrian countryside with fascism and anti-Semitism. When he encounters people along his shepherding path, he believes that they are all staring at him with cold eyes, aware that he is not one of them. Apple notes that Breuer enjoys being a living part of a dying tradition, where Yiddish and shepherding are relics of another time- nonetheless he takes great pride in both. Moreover, he is not quite sure how much of his own romanticizing of wandering and Jewishness has drawn him to Breuer. However, what he observes about Breuer’s shepherding is “the rejection of modern society in the aftermath of the Holocaust. In his Yiddish songs I inevitably listened for the millions of missing Yiddish voices that should have been singing along.”
Apple does an excellent job of capturing the flavor of the Austrian Alps with its little villages and inhabitants who seem to either have collective amnesia pertaining to their past or consider themselves blameless. Although he never does find as many anti-Semites as he originally feared, Apple does provide his readers with some serious insights, spiced up with enough lively and sometimes humorous commentary that will unquestionably keep readers turning the pages all the way to the end.
The above review was contributed by: NORM GOLDMAN: Editor of Bookpleasures. Here are more of Norm Goldman's Reviews