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Three swift, terrifying days of Nazi takeover of small, Ukrainian town

Anthony Russo for The Boston Globe

All fascists eventually murder, even though their main goal is really reality replacement.

Germany was not the loser of a devastating war, Hitler promised, but heir to a thousand-year Reich. A noble tradition.

Since nothing holds as much reality as a human being, the Nazis built the world’s most efficient killing machine to destroy that reality.

There is, however, no container quite so effective at retaining memory as a story. The list of books that support this resistance is long and vast, but it will never be enough.

Into this gaping need, with her latest novel, “A Boy in Winter,” Rachel Seiffert has added not one, but two essential tales. Not restorations, because they are fictions, but rather narratives that imagine and reimagine the lives shaped by these crimes. Including the perpetrators’.


Her Booker-nominated 2001 debut, “The Dark Room,” linked three novellas from 1920s Germany to the near present, when a young man discovers — as many Germans did — that his grandfather was a member of the Waffen SS.

Cutting across time periods, Seiffert beautifully revealed the occlusions and dim awareness and then outrage that make up part of remembrance within Germany.

“A Boy in Winter” is a very different kind of book. Unfolding over three days in November in 1941, the novel charts the escalation of skips in the reality reel as the SS take over a small Ukrainian town.

Seiffert is such a patient and poised storyteller that, even though history tells us otherwise, like all the characters in the book, we read toward its terrible climax believing — perhaps it will not happen.

As in her other two novels and story collection, Seiffert packs a great deal into a small amount of space. Her prose style resembles a cello onstage played in the pitch dark. Sonorous and somber and yet what use it makes of just a few notes.


There’s a big cast for a short book. Two boys stumble across town, dodging Nazi soldiers proliferating in alleys. A young woman named Yasia awaits her boyfriend’s return from the Red Army. A German engineer called Pohl frets over the construction of his road.

Finally, a Jewish man known as Ephraim stumbles into a brick factory, prodded by rifle butt, and spends three days worrying over the disappearance of his two sons.

Moving from character to character, sometimes even within chapters, Seiffert rapidly builds a tense and uncertain environment. First it’s boots on the pavement, then there are leaflets in the sky, then it’s perhaps it will not be so bad.

Since none of the book’s main cast are SS officers or soldiers, the reader must study events and messages (often not translated from German) for clues, just as Seifert’s characters do.

As one day turns to two, the rage of industry the Nazis apply against the town suggest a greater sense of purpose than anyone lets on. One of the finest aspects of this book is how delicately Seiffert scripts Pohl’s evolution.

In early days, before the war, which we learn of in flashback, Pohl’s behavior feels if not sane, then somehow understandable. He has lied his way into a field where he can at least do no harm. As the days grow, his doubts do too.

When a group of women from the town begin fearfully pleading after being rejected for work crews for being “not strong enough,’’ Pohl who “has never seen labour teams selected before’’ wonders: “Is it always like this?’’


In one of the book’s most startling set pieces, Pohl finally begins to realize a portion of what awaits the town’s Jews. Pohl’s SS superior briefly drops his guard and tries to comfort him, and they speak as human beings hollowed out by what they have witnessed — perhaps. “Where the light shines strongest,’’ the Sturnbannführer rationalizes, “there is always shadow.’’

Or perhaps it’s a ruse to get Pohl to expose himself.

One of the many great things about “A Boy in Winter” is how deftly Seiffert strings these moments of not-knowing from one to the next, then circles back upon them as they are replaced with new forms of not-knowing.

Part of what makes the town’s residents susceptible to indulging hope in such a dark moment be they Jewish or Ukrainian or both — is that they have all already suffered at the hands of the retreating Red Army, which punished Ukraine as it retreated, burning crops and salting the earth.

How much worse can the Nazis be? They soon discover as the the pressure of uncertainty quickly leads to fractures in the bedrock of fellowship upon which humanity normally stands.

This breakdown of moral order is a staple of Holocaust literature, but understandbly so. How after all would any of us behave?

Few recent novels — shy of Hans Fallada’s recently translated “Every Man Dies Alone,” or Nathan Englander’s “What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank” — have scripted this moral cascade so well.


Within the space of a day of the SS arrival, Jewish neighbors become yids in conversation between Ukrainian characters, at fault for their own fate. Collaborating with local police forces turns into a crime or an act of bitter intelligence, depending on who is judging.

As we shuttle from character to character, Seiffert gives us nowhere to hide: All of her cast thinks or says such things. All of them contemplate doing unthinkable things. Bravery, she reveals, is a kind of fantasy, until it is not — it becomes a choice.

Eventually, what this book has been building toward happens, and there are few passages in modern literature as harrowing and as necessary to read.

SS soldiers drink and jeer; loudspeakers play songs as if what’s about to happen is a patriotic rally; the enlisted collaborator police force drinks and weeps as they go about their work. They form a circle around the entrapped Jews of the town, who have been tricked. The people at the center panic.

It is the longest passage of this swift and terrifying novel, or at least it feels this way. One of the remarkable things about “A Boy in Winter” is that Seiffert puts us both inside and outside this terrible circle and asks us to look. In doing that, she has done a tremendous service to memory, and she has given us not a way out, but deeper in, where we must go.



By Rachel Seiffert

Pantheon, 242 pp., $25.95

John Freeman is the editor of Freeman’s and author of “Maps,” a collection of poems forthcoming from Copper Canyon.