Johanna Thomas-Corr

Cries and whispers | 15 June 2017

Rachel Seiffert understands how, in Nazi-occupied Ukraine, it became all too easy to loathe the victims of misfortune

There’s a moment in A Boy in Winter where a young Ukrainian policeman has to escort his town’s Jewish population to a churned-up field under the watchful eyes of his new Nazi masters. It’s November 1941 and Mykola has been told that all he has to do is relieve the Jews of their luggage and move them along. He assumes that they know what’s coming to them.

In his mind, the Germans are ‘bastards’ but no worse than his former Soviet occupiers, who burned his family’s fields and grain stores as they fled eastwards. So Mykola has deserted the Red Army and joined the auxiliary police under the Germans, the only way to make a living in the occupied town. As he watches ‘policemen with their coshes raised, and the Jews bent under them’, his instinct is not only anger at the situation but also impatience with the victims. ‘All the people here are ugly in their cowering and in their raging; he hates their fear most of all, and he wants only to get away from them.’

Rachel Seiffert’s speciality is human blind spots, how ordinary people are drawn, often incrementally, into humanity’s bleakest episodes. The British author — whose grandparents were Nazis — came to fame with The Dark Room, her 2001 Booker-nominated novel about the legacy of the Third Reich on German lives. Here, she turns to the largely neglected history of the Ukrainian holocaust — where an estimated one and a half million Jews were shot dead by the SS — and the complicity of the locals, which still remains a controversial topic.

The question of what it feels like to be in the wrong place at the wrong time is threaded throughout the interlocking stories of men, women and children in an agrarian backwater.

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