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A Boy in Winter

Review

A Boy in Winter

A BOY IN WINTER takes place over three days in November 1941 in a small Ukrainian town ravaged by Russian troops. Now, Hitler’s massive army, along with the dreaded SS officers, invades the modest village. Author Rachel Seiffert has garnered numerous awards for her previous books, both fiction and nonfiction. In an interview, she talked about her family’s heritage. Her German grandparents were both Nazis, National Socialist Party members who were loyal to politics but not to SS atrocities. She credits her mother for keeping ties with the German side of her family in Hamburg, while raising her children in London. She recalled with vivid emotion memories of her German family, who had to deal with being “born on the wrong side” of the war.

Researching material for quite a different story, Seiffert discovered papers written by a German engineer, in mid-life, who was willing to serve the war effort but chose to work as a civilian employed by the army to build a road in the captured Ukraine countryside. Digesting his words, she felt compelled to write his story. Today, literary offerings give us accounts of the hardships, atrocities and human drama, multinational politics and personal memories of World War II. A compelling piece of fiction, A BOY IN WINTER transports readers to a distant country in 1941.

"A BOY IN WINTER is a visual masterpiece that depicts history from the viewpoints of multiple human realities.... I highly recommend this novel as a colorful reminder about justice and injustice in wartime."

German engineer Otto Pohl holds temporary residence in a boarding house in Nemirow. Awakened in pre-dawn hours by the noisy rumble of German armored vehicles in the street, Otto peeks through a window slat to observe. Both Ukrainians and Germans commingle in angry shouts, curt orders and frantic mayhem. Nazi SS officers order their soldiers to round up all Jews in the area. Bellowed instructions allow one suitcase per family. Groggy men, women and children stream from their homes into the cold outside. Soldiers shove them into single-file lines, pushing all toward an abandoned brick factory. Once inside, doors slam behind the quaking Jews, barricading them from the outside world.

One father, Ephraim, shelters his wife but is fearful for his two young sons, who have disappeared after heavy tires sounded near their home. The man is beside himself, hoping first that Yankel and his little brother have escaped but terrified that they will join the herd inside this cold place. He has seen others, including a schoolmaster, nearly trampled by the shoving crowd. Epraim’s fears increase by the minute.

Meanwhile, a young Ukrainian farmer’s daughter has traveled by early morning light to the town to sell produce from the family farm. Yasia takes refuge at an uncle’s home when the chaos begins. She takes a bed in a loft above the main room and will stay there until the marketplace reopens. She ventures outside to observe events beyond her control and spots two boys scrambling into an alley nearby. Recognizing them as Jews, Yasia offers them refuge with her in the loft, putting them all in danger. Yankel shelters his brother, often carrying him when they flee from the soldiers. Having grown up in the town, he knows by instinct that marshland beyond its borders is his only hope of refuge. Far beyond the bogs lies a possible route across the west to safety. Yasia’s uncle is terrified of reprisals from harboring the fugitives and orders them to leave. His own neighbors may turn him in to the authorities. The boys, along with Yasia, dash into the cold for a chance at freedom.

Otto has driven to his workplace to escape the horrific cries of those taken to the brickyard early the same day. He has written letters to his wife about the daily injustices he has witnessed. Both remain faithful to their country but not to its politics. Otto writes carefully in order to remain free from suspicion. But this morning’s events have shaken him to the core. He must bury himself in building the road, to escape the mental anguish he feels. Marshlands offer the biggest resistance to his work. Bogs must be cleared before the road can be constructed, a nearly impossible challenge. This day, Otto travels toward a destination that will forever impact his life.

A BOY IN WINTER is a visual masterpiece that depicts history from the viewpoints of multiple human realities. People united by fate find themselves commingled for righteous reasons. Seiffert dares ask the reader to share her questions about the Holocaust, the dignity of a human being, the conscience of so-called “good Germans,” and the impact each life has on another, however far apart their background. Her prose details each event with mental images, imprints on our minds. I highly recommend this novel as a colorful reminder about justice and injustice in wartime.

Reviewed by Judy Gigstad on September 15, 2017

A Boy in Winter
by Rachel Seiffert

  • Publication Date: August 1, 2017
  • Genres: Fiction, Historical Fiction
  • Hardcover: 256 pages
  • Publisher: Pantheon
  • ISBN-10: 0307908836
  • ISBN-13: 9780307908834