Rachel Seiffert writes beautiful spare stories about the struggle of ordinary people who are faced with making moral decisions in difficult circumstances. In her latest book, she has written about a small provincial Ukraine town in November 1941, caught in a vice between the retreating Red Army and the new Nazi occupiers. Seifert’s own maternal grandparents were members of the Nazi Party, and she is interested in what motivates people making ethical choices.
The novel opens as the Germans have advanced into Ukraine, and on a cold gray morning they were rounding up the Jewish townspeople for evacuation. While this is the backdrop of the story, the author moves forward from here with four main characters and their struggle with conscience. We first meet Otto Pohl, a German engineer who has been sent to the front to oversee the building of a road through the Ukrainian marshlands to advance the front. Pohl, through letters to his wife, detests the brutality of the German army, and struggles with his response to what he is witnessing.
As the Jews are being herded into a central location, two young boys slip away without a clear plan or idea of what is actually happening. The older boy, Yankel who is 13 just knows he doesn’t want to be part of what he sees happening to his family. He takes his very young brother with him. As they more or less wander aimlessly through the town which is under curfew, they come across a peasant girl, Yasia, who ignorant of events, has come to town bringing apples to her uncle to sell, also in the hope of seeing her boyfriend who is a member of the provincial police. Not realizing the boys are Jewish, presuming they are war orphans, she takes them to shelter for the night in her uncle’s barn and feeds them. It is only when she overhears them speaking Yiddish that she realized the danger she is in for hiding them.
It isn’t long before her uncle and neighbors realize the danger they all could be in. She is advised to leave the town and head back to her family’s farm. Set loose, the boys follow her. Yasia fears for her family’s safety if she brings the boys home, yet she knows she cannot desert them. She makes the decision to head into the marshland to an isolated village where her uncle lives. Their three day journey through the frozen swampland emphasizes the physical struggle of the journey as well as the struggle Yasia has with her conscience. The themes of loneliness and isolation occur throughout the book.
Seifert’s writing is strong and she is able to handle the sadness of people caught up in war between two enemies on either side of Ukraine in a realistic way that is not maudlin. Her characters all have to make decisions that reveal their strength of character. I highly recommend this book to all readers. It is an excellent choice for reading groups.