“Mykola had stuck with the nervous, the reluctant like himself among the newly recruited, until he’d learned that another man’s fear was nothing to trust in. Give the fearful a knife or a rifle, they will use it; in the midst of the fray, give them a flame, they will lay waste.”
Novelist Rachel Seiffert takes her readers into an eerie, quiet landscape of fear and flight. It is 1941 and the SS has just invaded a small town in rural Ukraine. As the German soldiers brutally round up and quickly slaughter the area’s Jewish residents, “A Boy in Winter” flits back and forth across the stories of four characters, with two carrying thing majority of the narrative.
There is Otto Pohl, a German engineer tasked with building a road through the area for the Nazis. Pohl is a reluctant participant in the Nazi cause, but he is complicit all the same. His narrative focuses primarily on his inner dialogue, including the things he wishes he could say to his wife to justify his collusion.
“It is a road for when this war is over. No more tans will have to roll then. Pohl has told Dorle this, over and over – in his thoughts this time, not in his letters to her: that would be too dangerous. It is for when Hitler loses, as he surely must, my love. Just look at all his over-reaching madness – the man means to conquer Russia now: I ask you! It can only be a matter of time. Still aware of her soreness, and how his letters can do little to soothe it, Pohl has assured her repeatedly – even if only inwardly – that he has come to build a road here, good and broad, and fit for civilians. Fit for civilisation, not some thousand-year abomination. And even if he’d sooner tell her in person, it has still eased him to say these things.”
There is also Yasia, a young woman from the farmlands who has come closer to town seeking to reclaim her lover from German recruiters. Finally there are Ephraim, a father rounded up with his fellow Jews, and Yankel, a young boy with a superhuman will to survive.
“There are a dozen SS around him – hounding him, hounding his mother – and there are still others beyond them: they seem to fill the small town’s streets and alleyways. So many more than he thought; the schoolmaster had not anticipated even nearly so large a force. But now he is run past whole packs of soldiers, of policemen crowded at the corners, standing wide-legged at the house doors and pounding.
If he had only known this.
That soldiers would come hauling people out of their houses.
That police would come looking in such numbers. For any who refused to comply with the instruction.”
Unlike most World War II era/holocaust atrocity-centered stories I’ve read, “A Boy in Winter” deals more with the impact on the people and places ‘incidental’ to the invasion, rather than focusing expressly on its most obvious victims. In some sense, this novel felt a bit like the embodiment of the Martin Niemöller quote “First they came for the socialists…”. Seiffert is exploring the roles of the towns and villages invaded by the Nazis, unpacking the part so many played as they backed into a corner, averted their eyes, and felt compelled to save themselves and not risk standing up for their neighbors. “A Boy in Winter” is a novel about guilt, but also about hope. It is about those extraordinary few who couldn’t bear to turn away, whose human instincts won out over fear and self-preservation.
“A Boy in Winter” is written in cold, simplistic language; it is awash in grays. I haven’t read anything else by Seiffert, so I cannot speak to whether or not this is her typical ‘voice’, but I can say that in my mind, it was exactly the right tone for a story of cold despair, of shuttered doors and cloaked neighbors, and of ultimate terror.