A Boy in Winter, by Rachel Seiffert

This brief novel by Rachel Seiffert has a misleading title. The boy in A Boy in Winter, Yankel, frequently takes backstage to other characters. While Yankel is off stage, hiding and caring for his younger brother, we visit three other narrators. These narrators relate the events of a terrible few days in a western Ukrainian village, the days when the SS and Wehrmacht take the Jews away.

The first narrator we meet is the one I’m most conflicted about. Based on an actual German engineer, Otto Pohl has been sent to Ukraine to built a road across the marshes. At times, he reminded me of Lieutenant Colonel Nicholson from The Bridge on the River Kwai. Otto has only joined the Nazi Party and the Wehrmacht to avoid bigger trouble. His wife thoroughly disapproves. And yet, Otto wants to built a road that will last. He tries very hard not to think about the fact that the immediate use for the road is for the German Army Group South to funnel men, weaponry, and supplies deeper into Soviet territory. He has also turned his attention firmly away from the concentration camps and brutality of the Nazis all around him.

The second narrator is a sudden hero. When she discovers Yankel and his brother about to go into a house that has been raided by the SS, Yasia hides them in her cousin’s woodworking shop in town. Unlike a lot of her other fellow Ukrainians, Yasia seems much more interested in surviving the near future instead of claiming independence from the Soviets, the way her family and fiancé are. She doesn’t think about the consequences when she spirits the two young boys away. The third narrator, who only appears in a few chapters, is Yankel’s father, Ephraim. Through his eyes, we see the bewilderment and fear of the Jewish people who have been forced into an old factory before a terrible, terrible event occurs.

A lot is packed into A Boy in Winter. All of our narrators provide troves of backstory and history, without bogging down the pace of a plot that unspools over a couple of days. On paper (‘scuze the pun), I should have liked this novel better. There are heroes. There is well described scenery and plenty of emotional depth. But I’m left feeling dissatisfied by A Boy in Winter. Perhaps it’s because I wanted to know more about the silent boy in question. Perhaps it’s because I had no time for Otto’s cluelessness and cowardice. Yasia did a lot to keep me reading, but not enough for me to recommend this book to other readers.


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