For Every Sin
See Under: Love
There is an episode in Aharon Appelfeld’s The Age of Wonders (1978) in which the main character, Bruno, takes a trip from Jerusalem, where he lives, to Knospen, his birthplace in Austria. Wandering along Habsburg Avenue, he recalls lost people and gone times: father, mother, aunts, uncles, the music teacher Mr. Danzig, the maid Louise. The town itself has hardly changed.
Even the Jewish shops have preserved their outward appearance, like the Lauffers’ drapery shop. None of them has survived but their shop is still standing at exactly the same angle as before, perfectly preserved, even the geraniums in their pots. Now a different man is sitting there with a different woman. Strange—they don’t look like murderers.
The last reflection is startling in a novel by Appelfeld. He rarely allows his characters to utter such feelings, even though he gives them cause for nearly any utterance. Generally in his novels, when someone is going off the rails, the narrative voice counsels patience, hard thing though it is.
Aharon Appelfeld was born in 1932 in Czernowitz, a town that is now part of the USSR but was then in the Bukovina region of Romania. His parents were assimilated Jews, they spoke German, refused to have anything to do with the Yiddish of their rowdier neighbors, and considered their domestic culture a superior form of humanism. These distinctions did not count when the Germans took over the town in 1940, deported Aharon’s parents—“they were lost in the Holocaust”—and sent him to a work camp in Transnistria. He escaped and spent the wartime years as a fugitive in the forests of Europe. In 1944 he was picked up by Russian soldiers and brought to the Ukraine. By the end of the war he was in Italy, and from there, with the aid of relatives, he got to Tel Aviv. Since 1946 he has made his home in Tel Aviv and, more recently, in Jerusalem.
Seven of Appelfeld’s novels have now been translated into English: in addition to The Immortal Bartfuss, For Every Sin, and The Age of Wonders, we have Tzili: The Story of a Life, which transfers to a young girl experiences contiguous to his own as a boy on the loose in Europe; The Retreat; To the Land of the Cattails; and, Appelfeld’s most celebrated novel, Badenheim 1939, which records the absurdity of much petit-bourgeois Jewish life in Europe before the war, and the drastic form of its collapse.
Three themes haunt Appelfeld’s fiction: lost childhood, lost language, and the fortune or the fate of surviving the Holocaust. In For Every Sin, as in The Age of Wonders, the survivor tries to go back; just after the war is over, Theo Braun decides to walk home to Baden-bei-Wien. The book describes his encounters on the road—with another survivor, Mina, various refugees bent on vengeance, a man who looks like his Uncle Salo. He comes upon a transit camp, where those accused …