Early on a grey November morning in 1941, only weeks after the German invasion, a small Ukrainian town is overrun by the SS. Deft, spare and devastating, A Boy in Winter tells of the three days that follow and the lives that are overturned in the process.
Man Booker shortlisted Rachel Seiffert‘s new novel is out now. Read an extract below and visit her website at rachelseiffert.com. You can also read Rachel’s brilliant piece on the inspiration for A Boy in Winter over on the Guardian website.
Ukraine, November 1941
He is out and running in the first grey of morning. Ducked and noiseless, hurrying through the fog drifts with his brother just behind him; feeling the tug of his small fingers twisted in a fistful of his jerkin, crossing the cobbles of the empty town streets, just as day is breaking. Already they have made it past the railway station, the distillery and the cooper’s yard, and then all along the silent length of the market street. Unseen, unheard – at least as yet.
When they reach the old church at the corner, the boy stops, pulling his young brother close, pressing both of them to the stone walls and listening a moment. He hears nothing and no one; no sounds of movement. The boy’s darting eyes see no lamplight behind the curtains, only shutters drawn across the windows. They have been flitting from street to street and hiding, but the boy
sees no place here they can slip inside. The fog hangs damp between the houses, and along the winding street before him, shrouding the low roofs and the lane mouths, the huddle of timbered house fronts. At least there is no one here yet to find them.
Soon, he thinks. It will come soon now. Didn’t the schoolmaster say so?
His brother tugs at his fingers, holding up his arms to be lifted, and the boy pulls him onto his back to carry him; still cautious and casting looks about himself, but picking up his pace too. They left the house in darkness, only now the low clouds are paling, and he feels the day and its dangers drawing nearer. He feels his brother shivering too, clutched to his shoulders, the short night’s bed- warmth long out of him. But it is better they do this. Better they make for the old schoolmaster’s lodgings. They still have more than half the town to cross, but even so, the boy thinks the old schoolmaster will know – who they can turn to, or the best place to lie low.
Then comes the flare of headlamps, a sudden glare in the fog beyond them; the crunch of tyres, of heavy vehicles halting on flagstones. His brother grips him, small fists tight and fearful, and then already the boy is turning, already is he is running, making for the shelter of one of the town’s many alleyways – even before he hears the rumbling of all the many vehicles following.
Otto Pohl wakes to the noise of a door slam. One truck door, then another, below his boarding- house window: loud reports echoing across the town square beyond his halfdrawn curtains. He must have left them half drawn last night, too weary and chilled to notice. Still fogged with sleep, for a short time, all Pohl can see is the leaded squares above his bedpost, framing the town- hall clock and schoolhouse, squat in the autumn mist; this squat and damp place he’s been posted.
Is it German? Pohl thinks he hears Ukrainian shouted. But his foremen and workers are all quartered well beyond here, out in open country, and it is too early to be waking, surely. The grey outside is a before- dawn kind, and he has not slept well since he arrived here; Pohl has not been able, and he needs to rest. There is that shouting again.
Shrill and coarse. Some fool out there is playing at soldiers. Pohl pulls the blankets higher around his shoulders: he will pay them no regard. Who can have any regard for what soldiers do? For armies? he asks his Dorle. Although she is miles from here. His wife is far away in Münster, but Pohl talks to her most mornings. Silently, inwardly, he turns his thoughts homewards, seeking comfort. Thinking of the sound of her, somewhere in the house beyond him; of rising to find her buttoning her coat at the hallway mirror, tucking her curls under the firm hold of her hat brim, then pulling out just enough of them as the bells sound the first service. Or waiting in the pews with their small daughter while she takes communion, before walking home again, arm in arm
through the Sunday Altstadt quiet.
But now more trucks are arriving, loud below his window. And although Pohl has his covers pulled against them, he is awake. Thoughts of home can’t block them out. Or that shouting either.
‘Ihr sollt euch zeigen!’
Too loud to ignore, it has Pohl confounded; it has him disordered, sitting up, pulling on his shirt. He can’t find his glasses. He has to get up to feel for them on the desk at his bedside, in his engineering corps trousers hanging on the chair back; and all the while it continues, this bellowing and ordering, this ungodly noise at this ungodly hour of the morning.
Pohl hears dull thuds falling as he fumbles down the unlit stairwell. Are they hammer blows? Discharges? He can only half make them out through the thick boarding- house walls as he reaches the foot of the staircase, searching his tunic pockets, still looking for his glasses. The stoves are all dark, and there is no one in the kitchen. Up even before the housemaid, Pohl has the out- of- sorts feeling this day has started far too early; it has started all wrong somehow.
Stooping at the window beside the low front entrance, he finds his glasses, finally, and hooks them over his ears, peering across to the town hall, looking for the clock, sure it has
missed its hourly strike – or is he the one who has missed it? What he sees out there brings him up short. Soldiers. On the town square. Field- grey uniforms: Wehrmacht in the fog. It is not the first time he’s seen field grey here. Although he’s told Dorle the territory is secure now. It has been secured for rebuilding; they are done with their Blitzkrieg, I can promise you this much.
Pohl is careful with his words to her; in his weekly letters, of course, because – the times being what they are – heaven knows who might read them; but also in his daily mumbled thoughts and reports, because Pohl feels Dorle deserves this care – she would hate so much of what he sees here. The SS convoys, for one thing. Here in such numbers, they rake through the countryside. There were SS jeeps only the day before yesterday, passing in a dark line along the horizon beyond Pohl’s roadworks. His foreman pointed them out.
A man of few words, he tilted his chin in the convoy’s direction, and then they both raised their heads from Pohl’s vehicles while the labourers toiled on behind them. The jeeps were too far to hear against the pickaxe blows and the prevailing wind, but they were swift, that much was certain, seen against the slow crawl of their building progress. Pohl had his fingers gripped to the road plans, the wind tugging at his paper version of the highway they were already behind on, but he stood and watched the convoy instead of returning to the task before him. Because close behind the
SS jeeps came another unit: Order Police first, sent from Germany, and then so many Wehrmacht vehicles, such a long line of them. One jeep, one truck after another. Enough soldiers to have Pohl counting, to have Pohl mistrustful. Why so many soldiers behind the lines?
Now here he is at the window. Rooted, caught by the figures gathering on the town square: it is the same mix of grey and black uniforms in front of the schoolhouse. Has the same convoy come to the town?
Such a crowd of them; it seems there are always more, and Pohl can’t understand all their calling. Some is German, some just unintelligible, and he doesn’t like their urgency, or the way they are always moving; always more groups of them forming, as though readying for something. Still he has to keep watching because in amongst the shouting come new sounds: not just hammering but cracking too now, and splintering. And then Pohl hears rather than sees the schoolhouse door kicked open.
The noise of this jars him.
He sees lights inside the school, and they are moving.
Electric torches; Pohl follows their progress as they pass the windows. The soldiers pass along the ground floor first, then up the back stairs – so they are searching the place. More: it sounds as though they are hurling things; school desks and school chairs.
A pane is struck, upstairs; a window on the upper floor, the glass bursting outwards, then scattering across the flagstones. Are they turning the place over? Pohl hears shouting – harsh, from inside – and then the soldiers spill out again. Glass shards grinding underfoot, torch beams swinging this way and that, they surge back onto the town square – such a mass of them – while he can only stand and watch, still with the feeling that he is barely keeping up, not understanding nearly enough.
And then an old man and an even older woman are bundled out of the doorway and onto the paving. Grey and stooped, his schoolmaster’s frock coat torn across the shoulders, the old man puts an arm up, pleading. It is a shielding arm above the older woman’s frame, Pohl can see this. Her face, pale in the torch beams, is turned upward in confusion, to the booted figures who have come to stand over them.
They are ordered to stand.
They are ordered to run. They are herded; they are herded – Pohl can find no other word for it. Three soldiers behind them, even more ahead, the two old people are run down the cobbled street.
The schoolmaster hears boots on flagstones, ahead and behind him; slammed doors, slammed windows, as he is chased through the grey lanes beyond the town hall.
‘Raus! Aus den Häusern!’
Stumbling in the half- light and confusion, he reaches for his mother amid the fog and the calling.
‘Alle Juden! Alle Juden draussen.’
So close to his mother tongue, his mother’s Yiddish tones, the old teacher can understand the orders, even before they are repeated in Ukrainian. ‘All Jews, outside!’ Even as he struggles to keep pace with the SS men who bellow them.
‘All Jews! All of you!’
‘Now, we say!’
There are a dozen SS around him – hounding him, hounding his mother – and there are still others beyond them: they seem to fill the small town’s streets and alleyways. So many more than he thought, the schoolmaster had not anticipated even nearly so large a force. But now they are run past whole packs of soldiers, of policemen crowded at the corners, standing wide- legged at the house doors and pounding. If he had only known this. That soldiers would come hauling people out of their houses. That police would come looking in such numbers. For any who refused to comply with the instruction.
‘Juden, zeigt euch!’
‘All Jews are to show themselves.’
They were to be at the brickworks at six. One suitcase of belongings, winter clothing, food for three days’ travel; make ready for your resettlement. But the schoolmaster had decided he was too long in the tooth to be given such orders, and his mother too frail for travelling anywhere. Her old cheeks wrinkled like winter apples, old eyes searching his. ‘But we are not allowed,’ she’d told him, as he hushed her, ushering her through the schoolhouse doorway yesterday evening. ‘You are not allowed in here, meyn yingle.’ There are so many things forbidden them since the Germans came, and she is frail now, in mind as well as limb, it was too hard for her to understand why they should lie low there, in the disused classrooms; it was all too convoluted – and too dispiriting – to explain to her.
But the schoolmaster had thought they only need lie low for a day or two, so he’d urged his mother gently up the wooden stairway, cracking and groaning under their combined weight, all the while thinking how he’d taught the town officials who issued this German order. Men he’d thought were decent, but who had offered their services to the new authorities, hot- foot, so soon after the invasion. Such opportunists. What has happened to their scruples? Two generations, three generations; for three decades, almost, he’d taught this town’s children. Reading and writing, respect for their elders. Wrong from right, too. Have they retained nothing?
These thoughts consumed him last night, and now he could curse himself for thinking them. Holding tight to his mother, the master berates himself for wasting time, as he keeps her from stumbling. All those hours he spent resenting, he should have been thinking on the morning; on what the SS might do when he wasn’t at the brickworks as ordered, and when they found his house deserted.
Because now they are driven past one house front after another where the soldiers swarm, furious; all the front doors flung wide, half the windows also.
The SS shout from the upper floors, disgusted at finding them empty.
‘Scheissjuden! Ich sag’s dir!’
The policemen tear down the curtains, they tip the linen chests out onto the paving, and the schoolmaster is pressed onwards over all the scattered housewares, thinking those people must have been given warning. He was warned too, after all – and he knows now he should have heeded it. One of his former pupils – one of those opportunists – came to the house after the order was issued. Under cover of darkness; without his chains of office.
‘Wise to do as they ask.’ That was his best advice. He stood between the narrow walls of the old master’s stairwell, this provincial official who’d been one of his most diligent students, and he whispered: ‘You should comply. Or make yourselves scarce, you and your mother there. I am sorry. I am sorry to tell you this.’
But the schoolmaster hadn’t wanted to hear those apologies.
And his pride wouldn’t let him run from the Germans.
Now the soldiers turn on them. They turn and shout and shove at him, rough with their fists and elbows, pushing hard into his mother to stop the two of them running, and the schoolmaster has to throw his arms out to take hold of her, to stop them hurting her, as they are herded through a doorway.
They are run down a dark passageway –too dark to see the way ahead – and he keeps a firm grip of his mother’s arm, reaching out with his other palm, pressing it to the wall they are pushed along, trying to hold himself upright. The floor below is brick and damp and worn away, and he has to press hard to keep both of them from falling; the old teacher struggles to keep pace with the soldiers, and all the while he tries to place himself: they have been chased through half the town’s streets and he has not been able to follow where the soldiers have taken them.
But then the soldiers fall abruptly away from them.
The noise of their shouting recedes, the passage widens and clears, and he can slow again; he can look around himself. There are high brick walls on either side, and high works doorways: they’ve been brought to the old brick factory. They have been brought here anyway. The order was to be here at six. It can’t be much later now, the schoolmaster thinks, as they slow to a halt in the passageway, and he grapples with his thoughts again. He has
kept hold of his mother’s arm, so thin inside its sleeve, and he feels how she leans into him, bird- boned and fearful. He had wanted to spare her this. He had wanted to spare her, but
here they are anyway – and surely this is worse, this harrying from the soldiers.
The ones who ran them here have fallen behind them and,
glancing back, still apprehensive, the schoolmaster sees they are gathering at the entrance to the passageway. Bent over, leaning at the door frame, they are catching their breath, and others are joining them out on the street beyond the doorway; did they chase down more of the townsfolk? Did more hide like him? The schoolmaster hopes – briefly – that more are still hiding. That they hid well enough for the Germans not to find them.
‘Forwards! Get moving.’
The schoolmaster does as he is told as new shouts come from ahead of them, this time all in Ukrainian.
‘Get a move on.’
Three policemen stand at the passageway’s farthest end and bark at them; they raise their truncheons, and the old teacher moves his hands swiftly to his mother’s shoulders.
The policemen stand, coshes raised, before a doorway, and grey light is leaking through there: dawn has come and he wants this harrying to be over.
The door is pushed open. He sees a room full of faces. Full of shoulders and coats, and hats and suitcases. But it is mostly the faces the schoolmaster takes in: pale and cowed, bewildered, they turn to the door and the latest to join them.
There are a hundred in there. More. Perhaps it is nearer two, or even three: it is a press of people.
The schoolmaster sees the small factory floor has been pressed full. Not just of townsfolk; it can’t be. It must be Jews from all over the district. Who knew we were so many? This throng of faces comes as a surprise to him, a sudden comfort, even. But then a cosh is pressed between his shoulder blades. The master is shoved into this crowd, his mother after him, so the nearest must jostle and shift to make room for them. Shoulders part, arms and backs, but there are too many in here already, there is no more room to be had, and the shove the old man got was too hard. He staggers forward, losing his footing. Lurching now, he lets go of his mother, for fear of her falling also.
Then a hand comes out and grasps him.
It comes from among the backs and elbows, and the old teacher reaches for his helper; he reaches in gratitude.
Only for a cosh to fall behind him.
A blow to the head that fells him.