A desire to return home

Aharon Appelfeld’s novel of wartime survival among Jewish partisans in Nazi Europe

Israeli author Aharon Appelfeld’s haunting novel, written in 2012 but translated into English just this year, is the perfect read for this time of pandemic and social distancing. Its characters are wrenched from their normal lives, isolated from their society, unable to see their loved ones, and in danger of sudden death by forces over which they have no control. To the Edge of Sorrow is filled with yearning and memory, dislocation and loss—and in spite of it all, hope. It’s threaded throughout with the promise of home.

Appelfeld, who died in 2018, has been called one of Israel’s leading chroniclers of the Holocaust. Born in 1932 in Bukovina (now Ukraine), he was deported to a forced labor camp at age nine. He escaped and lived for several years in the forest, surviving by his wits and the kindness of strangers, before becoming a cook for the Soviet army. After the war, Appelfeld went to Palestine and learned Hebrew—the language in which he would eventually write.

Appelfeld’s prose is direct and spare, and To the Edge of Sorrow reads like a diary with short episodic chapters. Its narrator, Edmund, is a 17-year-old boy, an only child of doting middle-class parents who at a critical moment order him to leave them. We meet him hiding in the forest and mountains of Ruthenia (be­tween Hungary and Ukraine), pining to return to his home. Through Ed­mund’s eyes we meet members of the ragtag band of Jewish partisans who have rescued him and whose physical survival depends on their ability to blend into the countryside and hide from German soldiers.