Rachel Seiffert's hypnotic wartime story

Stoddard Martin says Rachel Seiffert's new book would make a great film


Ukraine, autumn 1941. The Red Army has evacuated to the east, leaving scorched villages in its wake. The SS is moving in from the west. They need to build usable roads quickly, before ubiquitous mud and winter snows immobilise them.

Pohl is the German engineer supervising this task. He needs more workmen, lots of them. Arnold, the SS Sturmbannführer, has an offer: take what you want from the Jews of the town, who are being rounded up and corralled in an out-of-use brickworks. Pohl is appalled by what he is taken to see.

So, too, is Mykola, a Ukrainian deserter from the Red Army, now a recruit in the local police. He has been directed to herd the Jews. Drink schnapps and don’t think about it, he is told. Scruples must be abandoned.

Ephraim, Miryam and their daughter Rosa are among those crammed into a holding room. They have clothes in layers on their backs and all they have been able to stuff in their bags, but they don’t know where they are going or what they are destined for. Ephraim frets that his sons are not with them. He believes that safety is in sticking together.

Miryam knows better. She knows that her boys are in flight. She knows that the elder will protect the younger and that they must rely on the kindness of strangers. One appears in the form of a Ukrainian farm girl, Yasia, one-time fiancée of Mykola. Spotting the boys lurking in a side street after curfew, she spirits them to shelter in her uncle’s loft.

But danger is everywhere. The streets have eyes. Others have spotted the Jewish boys. Yasia’s uncle is threatened; Yasia is compelled to flee. Uninvited, the boys follow her. Crossing town after dark in a broken-down cart, they encounter Pohl, who is preparing to desert his post. He hustles them on lest the patrol should come. They escape north towards the marshlands, where partisans rule unmolested, hidden in birch forests under heavy skies.

The refugees have little food. They lose direction. Winter arrives: rain, sleet and frost. The younger boy goes blue with fever. Yasia falls ill, too. The elder boy searches for help through the vast empty landscape. A village is reached. Aid comes just in time.

This is a tale of suspense, terror and flight, but also of existential dilemma, moral courage and endurance. Rachel Seiffert is a prize-winning author, and it shows. Her descriptions are succinct and brilliant. The dreariness of town and landscape becomes hypnotically compelling; the characters all seem purely human; monstrosities are born out of events, system and a fate that no one can oppose except at peril, by ingenuity, with luck.

A short book, it proceeds at rapid pace, in the present tense, like a screenplay rendered in prose.

Its ending may shock some and inspire others. One longs to see, hear and react to its emotions on screen. Some day it may rank as a classic of the Wild East.


A Boy in Winter by Rachel Seiffert is published by William Collins (£14.99) 


Stoddard Martin is a writer and critic

Share via

Want more from the JC?

To continue reading, we just need a few details...

Want more from
the JC?

To continue reading, we just
need a few details...

Get the best news and views from across the Jewish world Get subscriber-only offers from our partners Subscribe to get access to our e-paper and archive