Seiffert, Rachel. “A Boy in Winter: A Novel”, Vintage International, 2018.
On a grey November morning in 1941, just weeks after the German invasion, a small Ukrainian town is overrun by the SS. The three days that followed changed everything. Ephraim was penned in with other Jews with the threat of deportation looming overhead and he has no idea what happened to his sons who have been missing since daybreak. Yasia has gone to find her lover and bring him home again and keep him away from the SS invaders but she soon realizes that there are new truths to face about the people she loves. At the same time, German engineer Otto Pohl is facing a crime happening behind the lines and he has no one to turn to or rely upon. And there is Yankel, a youngster who is determined to survive this no matter what, even if it means throwing in his lot with strangers.
The stories come together and each of our characters faces a compromise in order to get through what is happening as fear becomes obsessive and hope for courage dims as terror takes over. Here is a story of hope when there is nothing to hope for and there is no sense of mercy left.
When the SS begins to shoot, we find ourselves afraid because we have read this many times and many times the conclusion is bad. Here is where the surprise comes.
This is not a gruesome depiction of the Nazis’ murderous campaign against European Jews but an upending of those dire expectations. We see light in the darkness and humanity in the inhumane. After the horror there is hope and a new story begins.
This is quite an emotional read as we zero in on several characters on the day that the Germans come to their village to round up the Jews. As we experience this alongside those characters, we do away with the horrific images we usually get. The kindness that you find here may make you stand up and take notice yet there remains a festering wound that will be there forever. In a period of just three days, we experience every emotion possible rendered to us in Seiffert’s gorgeous prose. The times are captured vividly and terribly. I had to remind myself that I was actually reading and not experiencing what I read. We cannot say that about many authors.