Book review: A Boy in Winter, by Rachel Seiffert


Where the light shines strongest, there is always shadow. … It is something I tell myself, you see. … I say to myself: where there is light, there will be shadow as well. There will always be darkness, and we must accept this. … Still, I know how it is, [s]ometimes it helps me and sometimes it doesn’t. … I get my orders.  I read them over, and I find myself asking: Is this necessary? … Must we do this? … Must it be like this? … Must it really be like this?  I do not like this … I do not like it any more than you do, … It is cruel, yes? … Is that what you are thinking? … I don’t claim to understand it … I only try to endure. I don’t know the answer. Perhaps we must all find our way. … There will be a time, you know, when all this is over. The war, I mean. And all the cruelties. … It is what helps me most, this thought: that there will be a time after. When all the fighting – when all of this – is done with. … Perhaps that might help you. To know that all this is passing. For them [several hundred detained Jewish civilians] too.

A Boy in Winter, by Rachel Seiffert, Virago Press, 240 pages, £14.99/Pa (pp. 129-132)

If you have room to squeeze in one more book while still vacating or before getting too bogged down in the grind of being back at work, I highly recommend Rachel Seiffert’s A Boy in Winter.

Novels, especially when written as literature, can be exceptionally thought-provoking, allowing the reader to vicariously experience an event, to wonder how he or she would act if found in the circumstances of the characters, and, of course, to learn from the characters’ human failings or acts of courage. For the advocate, whether prosecuting, defending, or representing victims and civil parties, it is essential to understand and experience human nature from all perspectives. Rarely is something black and white, and even when it is, human shortcoming may explain (not necessarily excuse) one’s behavior at a given moment. It may not always seem clear or even plausible to think from a person’s perspective unless one is capable of walking in that person’s shoes. One’s background may be an impediment to the task, to this imagined experience. But being unable or incapable of imaging what it would be like to be in the position of the accused, the witness, the victim, the person with responsibility, the soldier ordered to kill unarmed citizens, or the political leader who out of duty or loyalty remained in an untenable position thinking that he or she could make a difference, and so on, is a significant handicap. An advocate has to make sense of it all in presenting the client’s case. Here is where literature can be of help.

The quoted musings are those of Arnold, an SS Sturmbannführer, to his subordinate, Pohl, a German engineer. It is fall 1941 in an unnamed town in Ukraine. The Soviet Army is in retreat and the Germans are in hot pursuit. A road is being built with slave labor, but with winter closing in, there is a need for additional labor if the road is to be completed on time and in sufficiently good condition to withstand the German military hardware that is expected to pass through.

Pohl is summoned to a defunct brick factory where the rounded-up Jews of the town and of the surrounding villages are warehoused. He is ordered to select among the detained men, who are not experienced construction workers or hardened individuals capable of manual slave labor but “shopkeepers and clerks, schoolteachers; respectable and indoor people in suits and spectacles.” Appalled, Pohl adamantly refuses. He does know what awaits the Jews, or that he might have been able to spare the lives (at least temporarily) of anyone he would have selected to work on the road. This act of defiance will also cost Pohl.

Despite Arnold’s seeming misgivings we see from his musings with Pohl, he orders the execution of the detained Jews – as commanded. The Jewish men, women, and children are instructed to undress (one final act of humiliation and dehumanization) before they are shot and buried in mass graves. Maybe Arnold pondered after reading his orders: is this necessary? must we do this? And maybe he dislikes or finds cruel what he is ordered to do. But in finding his way – as he suggested that Pohl should do – he nonetheless followed his orders, thinking, as what can be inferred from his remarks, that his actions are as natural as they are inevitable: where there is light …  there will always be darkness.  

Occasionally, one comes across a novel that weaves accurate historical events into a realistic plot loaded with pervasive motifs, poignant metaphors, moral compromises, choices prompted by convenience, actions taken that result in horrific unintended consequences, and more, from which anyone working in international criminal justice can draw from. Usually such novels deal with events where mass atrocities have occurred. The characters may be fictional, but their physical and psychological experiences, the moral or amoral choices made by or for them, their inability to see clearly due to the fog of events or their lack of insight, are as real as what one encounters in prosecuting or defending or judging a case in any of the international or national tribunals dealing with mass atrocities.

A Boy in Winter is such a novel. A gripping read, in tight Hemingwayesque prose, conveying cinematic black and white images that facilitate sensing the events that take place during a three-day period, closely based on events from the infamous Nazi plan for genocide and ethnic cleansing in Eastern Europe from 1941 to 1945 known as the Generalplan Ost (Master Plan for the East). In Ukraine, it is estimated that nearly a million Jews were rounded-up and systematically executed. Though the Generalplan Ost was supervised by the SS, assistance from the local population – the essential collaborators (see e.g. my review of The Right Wrong Man) – was indispensable to the brutal efficiency and success demanded by the Nazi German government.

In A Boy in Winter, the Germans are initially seen, almost, as a welcomed relief for the Ukrainian farmers who labored under Soviet collectivization. The Germans reassure the Ukrainians through leaflets that are dropped from aircraft, that they have “no quarrel with those who live a peaceful life, with those who wish Ukraine to prosper.” In restoring civil order they call upon the Ukrainians to assist them. And some do.

One character of the novel is particularly noteworthy, Mykola, a young man who defects from the Red Army to become an auxiliary policeman under the Germans. He is motivated by money so he can marry his sweetheart, Yasia – a remarkable character in the novel. Mykola is on to the Germans; he sees them for what they are – new occupiers, who, like the Soviets, will someday go away. He is a bit full of himself, but circumstances considering, his decision to collaborate with the Nazis seems pragmatic; a decision he makes with eyes wide open, so he thinks. With a belly full of food washed back by alcohol, he is proud of his new armband – “[n]ot white like the yids’; [but] blue and yellow, the colors of [his] country.” Little does Mykola realize that his position as an auxiliary policeman comes with a heavy price, the price of having to follow an order that will require him to execute unarmed civilians, to be involved in mass murder.

I will stop here. A Boy in Winter is such a fine read, so nuanced, so elegantly written that it should not be spoiled by a review that gives away the plot or attempts to over analyze the characters. Better to just read it.



Author: Michael G. Karnavas

Michael G. Karnavas is an American trained lawyer. He is licensed in Alaska and Massachusetts and is qualified to appear before the various International tribunals, including the International Criminal Court (ICC). Residing and practicing primarily in The Hague, he is recognized as an expert in international criminal defence, including, pre-trial, trial, and appellate advocacy.

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