“For Every Sin” by Aharon Appelfeld

Today I finished reading a novel by Aharon Appelfeld titled For Every Sin.

In it, the protagonist, Theo, is a young adult who has survived the Holocaust and is trying to walk all the way back to his hometown. En route, he continually encounters “refugees” – other Jews like him who have survived the camps but for whom he has disdain and with whom he doesn’t think he has much in common.

“Theo, for some reason, added, ‘No one should mix into anyone else’s business. For many years we were together. Now the time has come for everyone to be by himself. That togetherness brought many calamities down upon us. Now it’s every man for himself. Let no one else mix into anyone else’s business.'”

One of the subtle paradoxes of the book is that the refugees – in their dependency, mutuality, and helplessness – seem to be leading a more human existence than the independent individual who is irritated by the noise and ugliness of others and just wants to get home. And what a paradox of human nature: we are surely not made for bondage, but perhaps we are closer to God and to humanity when we are enslaved than when are “free”. What, after all, does it mean to be free? And what good is it for us, anyway?

Throughout the story, Theo is again and again offered a cup of coffee by the eclectic characters he encounters along his way. And each time, it seems to him like an obstacle to his return home.

With subtlety, character development, and lots of evocative metaphors, Appelfeld shows that home isn’t so much a place to which we ought to return as it is a receptivity of the soul to the generosity of others who pour themselves out for us, warming our once-hardened hearts.