A Boy in Winter starts early on a grey November morning in 1941, when a small Ukrainian town is overrun by the SS. For all of my characters – whether Jewish, German or Ukrainian – the next three days will be decisive.
The Nazis had invaded Ukraine that summer; their pact with Stalin having broken down, they were aiming to conquer Russia, and take as much land as they could in the process. The country had been in Russian hands until then, and the German soldiers were greeted as liberators by many when they first arrived. The Nazis made use of this goodwill, recruiting from among the local population – labour teams were put together from the villages to help rebuild and repair the all the damage done by the retreating Russians; many young men joined the police auxiliaries, and eventually the Ukrainian SS divisions too. But while they were promised new freedoms, and while the local farmers had their lands returned to them from the Stalinist collectives, they were, in time, to be removed entirely.
What the Nazis really sought in the Ukraine was Lebensraum – space to expand their vision of an Aryan future. They intended to populate the country’s rich farmlands with German agriculturalists, to build modern road systems and motorways to speed the transport of goods and services, eventually to industrialise the country – all for the profit of Germany and Germans. Over the years of the Nazi occupation, Ukrainians were rounded up in their tens of thousands and transported to Germany to work as slave labourers in factories, on farms, and clearing the bombed cities.
All this was still to come. In the meantime, the first to suffer were Ukraine’s Jews.
They lived under curfew from the start, forbidden to work, trade or hold office; many were forced to move into ghettos, sometimes far away from their homes. The Final Solution was still a year away from implementation, but already the ground was being laid for the Holocaust. Indeed, in many areas under German rule, it had already begun. Local populations all over Poland were already being transported or massacred; in Babi Yar, outside Kiev, one of the largest mass shootings took the lives of over thirty thousand.
What would my characters have known of this?
Very little, if anything. This was wartime in a rural backwater: any accounts would have been third hand and piecemeal – and humans have a habit of seeing only what they want to.
So the day before my novel begins, Ephraim, father of three and Jewish merchant, packed up his home as instructed and prepared his young family for life in a ghetto, because his kind had suffered this fate before, and he felt sure they would outlast it as they always had. Otto Pohl, German engineer, who had come to the Ukraine to avoid fighting in a war he considered criminal, wrote up the day’s report on the road building project he was overseeing, grateful not to be a soldier. Mykola, a farmer’s son, who joined the police auxiliaries after seeing his father’s fields and grain stores burned by the Russians, turned in for the night in his barrack room on the town outskirts, knowing he was earning a wage that would buy his family tools and seed come springtime. While Yankel, thirteen and headstrong, took himself from his bed in the watches of the night, and sought a place to hide rather than line up for the Germans – because what is the worst the Germans can do when they find him missing?
All would have gone to sleep, certain they had done their best, and woken to find themselves in the worst of all imaginable moments.