Translated by Stuart Schoffman
From the publisher:
From “fiction’s foremost chronicler of the Holocaust” (Philip Roth), here is a haunting novel about an unforgettable group of Jewish partisans fighting the Nazis during World War II.
Battling numbing cold, ever-present hunger, and German soldiers determined to hunt them down, four dozen resistance fighters—escapees from a nearby ghetto—hide in a Ukrainian forest, determined to survive the war, sabotage the German war effort, and rescue as many Jews as they can from the trains taking them to concentration camps. Their leader is relentless in his efforts to turn his ragtag band of men and boys into a disciplined force that accomplishes its goals without losing its moral compass. And so when they’re not raiding peasants’ homes for food and supplies, or training with the weapons taken from the soldiers they have ambushed and killed, the partisans read books of faith and philosophy that they have rescued from abandoned Jewish homes, and they draw strength from the women, the elderly, and the remarkably resilient orphaned children they are protecting. When they hear about the advances being made by the Soviet Army, the partisans prepare for what they know will be a furious attack on their compound by the retreating Germans. In the heartbreaking aftermath, the survivors emerge from the forest to bury their dead, care for their wounded, and grimly confront a world that is surprised by their existence—and profoundly unwelcoming.
Narrated by seventeen-year-old Edmund—a member of the group who maintains his own inner resolve with memories of his parents and their life before the war—this powerful story of Jews who fought back is suffused with the riveting detail that Aharon Appelfeld was uniquely able to bring to his award-winning novels.
The novel is a well-done story of people forced by circumstances beyond their control into a horror beyond any one’s dreams, or probably nightmares. It is told in the first person by a young boy named Edmund, who at 17 years of age is swept mercilessly from the life of a student living peacefully with his loving parents into the role of a killer.
The story begins with Edmund and his parents being forced by their captors into boarding a train. The train is to take the family to a concentration camp and the captors are German soldiers under the orders of Adolf Hitler. Edmund is told by his parents to run away from the train and hide someplace. He does so due to the prodding by his mother and father and in his traveling away meets a group of other people, all Jews that are seeking to hide from the soldiers.
The style of the narration by Edmund and reactions of other people in the group that he meets and joins is blase and describes the horrors they live with in a manner that makes them just everyday occurrences. In traveling away from the enemy and their own city, they settle on an elevated area and convert it into a defensive position. A member of the group begins drilling them in order to convert peaceful people into a group that can use weapons and fight against soldiers hunting them. They begin raiding homes and farmhouses in the area around them in order to pick up food and clothing. They use weapons taken from the soldiers that they kill as their own and expand their fighting ability.
All the while everyone involved just dreams of a day when the enemy is defeated and they can return to a normalcy that is in a distant past. The group also begins to raid trains taking people to concentration camps until they can no longer feed and care for more people.
The question posed is can these individuals, including a young teen like Edmund, ever really return to a normal life or are they marked by their forced experiences to be perpetually haunted by what has been forced on them. I came away from this read with a feeling that I have just dealt with something that will stay with me for a long long time, whether I like it or not.
1/2020 Paul Lane
TO THE EDGE OF SORROW by Aharon Appelfeld & Stuart Schoffman. Schocken (January 14, 2020). ISBN 978-0805243420. 304p.