Edmund, a 17-year-old who has lost his parents to the German genocide, narrates this tale of Jewish partisans in Ukraine on a mission to save Jews who are being sent by train to death camps.
Holed up in the forest, the fighters conduct raids on farmhouses and peasants’ homes for food and supplies, doing their best to limit themselves to "considerate looting." That need increases as their ranks swell from the mid-40s to nearly 200 with the addition of freed prisoners who need to be nursed back to health. The only doctor in the group, an anti-Semite they abducted from his home, tends to the ill and the wounded against his will. The fighters' spiritual priestess of sorts is the frail Grandma Tsirl, who comes to believe that the physical and spiritual worlds are one—that "death is an illusion." Edmund, who suffers intense guilt over abandoning his parents (at their insistence, to escape the Nazis), reconnects with them through dreams. One of the book's key themes is the need to reconnect with one's heritage even when faced with evil incarnate. Music and literature play a large role in sustaining the Jewish fighters' ties to humanity. First published in Israel in 2012, the book is immediately recognizable as Appelfeld's through its spare, eerily understated approach, which records atrocities from a grim remove. Unlike many of the brilliantly allusive author's novels, this one makes explicit reference to the Holocaust, but there's still a dreamlike quality at work. The naturalness of the setting is in contrast to the artfully detached feel of the dialogue. In Schoffman's translation (his first of an Appelfeld novel), the language lacks the seductive pull of other works by Appelfeld, but the story moves toward its climax with the usual disquieting force.
Another haunting and heartbreaking tale of the Holocaust from one who survived it.