A Boy in Winter is remarkable in a number of ways. It portrays a single fictional episode from a war that inflicted countless tragedies. But without ever lifting its gaze from a small cast of characters to look at the wider theatre of war it manages to evoke the immeasurable suffering taking place at every point on the map touched by the Third Reich.

The story takes place in a small town in Ukraine in November 1941. The Russians have retreated before the German advance, destroying anything which might be of use to the Germans, which, of course, damages the local population far more than the enemy forces.

It begins on a day that has “started all wrong somehow”. Big somehow. Men in grey uniforms have descended on the town at the crack of dawn to round up all the Jews in the area. The central fact of the novel is the detention of around 300 Jews and their subsequent massacre, depicted as the intense, overwhelming rush of images and sensations experienced by one of its eyewitnesses, a police auxiliary who has to dull his senses with alcohol to get through it.

Loading article content

Seiffert is herself the granddaughter of Nazis, and through her characters she explores the theme of complicity and the failure to realise the consequences of one’s actions until it’s too late. Among them is Otto Pohl, a German who has gone to Ukraine to supervise the building of a strategically important road under the watchful eyes of the SS. He has deep reservations about Nazi ideology, expressing his doubt in letters to his wife which largely end up in his waste paper basket. But these events force him to realise that his attempts to maintain a moral distance between himself and the regime are a sham.

In contrast, Yasia, a girl from a farming family, has come to town to try to find her fiance Mykola, a Ukrainian deserter from the Red Army who has joined the police auxiliary.

She stumbles across two Jewish brothers who have escaped the Nazi dragnet, 13-year-old Yankel and his younger brother Momik, and finds them a place to hide, without realising that they’re Jewish and not thinking of the possible consequences for her or the other townsfolk for defying the authorities.

Seiffert’s unsentimental eye and understated prose is a perfect fit for her thematic concerns and adds to the overall chill of the foggy Ukrainian marshlands.

In what should feel like a close-knit community, one gets very little sense of strong bonds of loyalty and solidarity between these people, as though they have been eroded by the presence of first their Soviet and now Nazi conquerors.

The villagers are sadly indifferent to the fates of their Jewish neighbours. Even when Yasia goes on the run with the two brothers, Seiffert makes the significant decision to show next to no camaraderie between her and them. Like every authorial decision she makes in this outstanding novel, it makes the rare glimpses of humanity all the more precious and poignant.

ALASTAIR MABBOTT