A Boy in Winter

Written by Rachel Seiffert
Review by Doug Kemp

A small, unnamed town in Ukraine on the periphery of extensive marshlands in the autumn of 1941 is under German occupation. One foggy morning, all of the town’s and outlying area’s Jewish population is rounded up and forced to stand for hours in a factory. Otto Pohl is a civil engineer, who escaped enlistment into the Wehrmacht, and is working on managing a road construction project in occupied Ukraine; he is appalled by the brutality of the German troops and their Ukrainian assistants. Yasia is in her late teens, a maternal Ukrainian girl, living with her family on a local farm. Her intended is Mykola, a young farmer’s son, who has deserted from the Red Army, but volunteers to work for the Germans. The appalling events over the few days of the round-up of the Jewish people and its aftermath are narrated through these main characters. Although the overall narrative of these horrific years is now well known, it is still an absorbing and shocking story, and one that does need to be re-told and re-imagined (if that can be possible to those of us fortunate enough not to live through such times).

The events are unfolded with intelligence and in elegant prose. It is a little bizarre that Otto Pohl has a very similar name to Oswald Pohl, who was a senior and now-notorious figure in the SS, and it seems strange that the main “action” against the Jewish people takes place at the margins of the town, so that the shooting and disturbance is known to all the population, whereas I was under the impression that such atrocities were generally performed in rural areas, away from the ears and eyes of the local population.