For Every Sin

By Aharon Appelfeld

Translated from Hebrew by Jeffrey M. Green

Vintage Books, 1990, 168 pages

Cost $9.76


This is the third Aharon Appelfeld book that I read this week. I posted reviews for “Unto the Soul” and “Laish.” I read each of the books in two ways. I enjoyed the story itself without seeking an inner meaning, and I read each as an allegory. I agree with the professional reviewers who consider Appelfeld a superb writer of over forty novels and one of Israel’s best novelists.

This story is about Theo, a Jew with no connection to Judaism, whose parents were secularists, who has just been released from a concentration camp. Unlike his fellow former inmates who leave together, he refuses to join them. He wants to be alone and he wants to return to his home in Austria where he grew up, even though his parents who had been murdered are no longer there. He will walk home. He calculates that it will take him two months if he walks in a straight line.

But Theo discovers that he is not walking in a straight line. Sometimes he deviates to the right or left to avoid meeting fellow refugees. At other times he circles back to a place where he had been previously, as when he discovered a hut which was previously a command post by Nazi soldiers, a place stocked full of cigarettes, coffee, and sardines. He meets a woman there, Mina, who had been terribly treated in the camps and, contrary to his prior resolve, he wants to help her. When she disappears, he forgets his plan to go home for a while and looks for her for days. Should we understand his behavior that he is subconsciously rejecting his plan to go home?

Theo meets and speaks to many people during his wanderings and we learn about their lives and desires. At times he wants to stay with them, but they want to be alone. As he walks, he recalls his upbringing with his neurotic spendthrift mother and his docile father. He was and is even now enchanted by his lovely somewhat insane mother who had to be institutionalized. He feels he must convert to Christianity because his mother loved the music composer Bach and loved the inside of churches, and Theo felt that this is what his mother wanted. He mentions his intention to some survivors who he meets from time to time, and each reacts with feelings of disgust, for how can a Jew who experienced the tortures of the camp convert? Are we to think that he has inherited some of her traits or is his behavior the consequence of his three year imprisonment in the camp? Will Theo continue home? Will he realize that his dream of home in Austria is an illusion?

Does the protagonist‘s name “Theo,” which means “God,” suggest that the underlying theme of the tale is an allegory about God? Is it suggesting that God is wandering, so to speak, back and forth, seeking to come home to the early biblical days when there was a divine relationship with humans, like the protagonist seeking to return to his dead deranged mother, yet, like the human protagonist in the tale, going back and forth and not making progress, diverted from the divine desire by various events and people? Is this tale suggesting that God is troubled by the actions of people, the horrors that humans commit against each other, the insanity that humans display, but is unable to resolve whether to remain transcendental and uninvolved in human affairs, to allow humans to do what they want, to be uninvolved and alone as the human protagonist frequently desires, or should God manifest in the world and join, so to speak, with humans? Is it God who is sinning?

The woman who Theo searches for is called Mina. The word min in Hebrew means “creature.” Does this support the view that God is searching for a relationship with humans?

Or should we read that the sinners are the humans who are unable to work together in harmony, respectfully?

The title, “For Every Sin,” suggests the end of the sentence, “For every sin there is a consequence.” How should we apply this idea if the allegorical protagonist is God? Is the consequence of God’s absence the horrors that people commit against each other? If the protagonists in the allegory are humans who act improperly, isn’t the consequence the same?