To the Edge of Sorrow, Aharon Appelfeld’s novel about a band of Jewish refugees hiding from German patrols in the forests of Ukraine, could have been just another World War II story of strikes and counterstrikes, bullets exchanged and bombs exploding. But thankfully, Appelfeld instead gives readers an up-close, deeply moving story of characters haunted by grief and loss yet buoyed by courage and hope in the most adverse conditions.
The novel follows the group’s day-to-day efforts to survive, seen through the eyes of the young narrator, 17-year-old Edmund. Haunted by his forced separation from his parents and from his non-Jewish girlfriend after the relentless advance of German soldiers, Edmund finds uneasy comfort among this resistance group.
Guided by a somewhat reluctant leader, Kamil, the group initially strives simply to endure. Searching for food, medicine and shelter is the focus of their everyday existence. They raid local villages and farms to gather only what they need, leaving behind enough for the innocent farmers and families they’re robbing. The only luxury the group affords itself is the few books confiscated along the way, books whose words offer inspiration, comfort and faith.
But the Germans are always close behind and are determined to root them out, forcing the group deeper into the mountains of Ukraine. Infrequent reports over a stolen transistor radio and contact with other refugees are the group’s only real links to developments in the war and their place in it. It’s only upon learning that the Germans are shipping Jews by train to death camps that the group’s mission changes to one of attack and rescue. Edmund eventually earns his place as a soldier within the group’s ranks and participates in the raids. Nevertheless, most of the story revolves around the group itself, composed of stalwart victims of persecution who display enduring compassion for each other as well as relentless faith in humanity.
The author of more than 40 critically acclaimed books, Appelfeld (1932–2018) weaves a memorable chronicle of those who sought to persevere at the height of one of the world’s worst moments.