Fic­tion

To the Edge of Sorrow

Aharon Appelfeld, Stu­art Schoff­man (trans.)

  • Review
By – June 1, 2020

What is so remark­able about To The Edge of Sor­row by Aharon Appelfeld is that it appears to be a sto­ry about Nazi free­dom fight­er, told very sim­ply by a sev­en­teen-year-old mem­ber of the forty-sev­en-man group. But it real­ly pro­vides a blue­print for the means of achiev­ing hap­pi­ness under unbear­able conditions.

Amid the damp, freez­ing moun­tains on which they are camped, these escapees from their ghet­tos man­age to orga­nize a way of life based on their past learn­ing and mem­o­ries of home to keep up their inspi­ra­tion in order to res­cue all the Jews on trans­ports that they can. In the evening, they gath­er togeth­er to lis­ten to a Hasidic mem­ber of the group sing the songs he remem­bers his grand­fa­ther used to sing.

Kamil, the leader, decides to lead learn­ing ses­sions of the Torah in the Hebrew lan­guage. Each day, a new Hebrew word is learned and used as a pass­word. An elder­ly, blind mem­ber makes him­self use­ful by knit­ting caps that cov­er their ears, and socks and vests to help keep them warm enough so that they do not freeze to death dur­ing their missions.

Grand­ma Tsirl, one of the few women in the group, cre­ates fla­vor­ful meals out of the few sup­plies they have. She also hands out wise words of encouragement.

One time, they raid a house emp­tied of the Jews who used to live there, and find a trove of books, which they see as a trea­sure that enrich­es their souls. Read­ing the clas­sic writ­ers pre­vents them from falling into despair, for to them, Despair is not a qual­i­ty worth hav­ing.” They do not even have despair about the young, mute boy, Mil­lio, whom they have tak­en with them and whom one mem­ber, Danzig, becomes very attached to, pos­i­tive that he will speak one day. He is reward­ed for this belief in a very poignant scene.

In the midst of all the action, the young nar­ra­tor keeps remem­ber­ing his for­mer life with par­ents who want­ed only one thing from their only son — his happiness.

That is why when they are wait­ing to be trans­port­ed to the con­cen­tra­tion camp, they urge him to run away from them and leave the train sta­tion. He lis­tened and has nev­er for­giv­en him­self for doing so. He is tor­tured by mem­o­ries of his moth­er walk­ing him to school in first grade, when oth­er boys went alone, the lux­u­ri­ous vaca­tions to hotels with his par­ents, and their oth­er kind­ness­es to him. Atone­ment seems unat­tain­able to him until Grand­ma Tsirl reminds him that giv­ing char­i­ty is one of the means of gain­ing atone­ment and he is doing that every day that he fights for the free­dom and life of every Jew he can find. This mol­li­fies him and he even becomes more char­i­ta­ble in his judg­ments of the oth­er mem­bers of the group as a result.

When they blow up part of one trans­port and res­cue many starv­ing and weak women and chil­dren with eyes swollen and legs wob­bling,” which they find hideous to look at, Kamil reminds them of a les­son impor­tant for all of us: to see only the human suf­fer­ing and not its ugliness…ugliness is only the exte­ri­or of suf­fer­ing; a soul resides with­in every­one who suffers.”

This book is real­ly a tuto­r­i­al on how to suc­cess­ful­ly sur­vive the trau­ma result­ing from unwar­rant­ed cru­el­ty and avoid per­ma­nent depres­sion. That is the clev­er­ly hid­den les­son under­ly­ing this intrigu­ing sto­ry of the small group of men and women coura­geous­ly fight­ing Nazi terror.

Eleanor Ehrenkranz received her Ph.D. from NYU and has taught at Stern Col­lege, NYU, Mer­cy Col­lege, and at Pace Uni­ver­si­ty. She has lec­tured wide­ly on Jew­ish lit­er­a­ture and recent­ly pub­lished anthol­o­gy of Jew­ish poet­ry, Explain­ing Life: The Wis­dom of Mod­ern Jew­ish Poet­ry, 1960 – 2010.

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