A Boy in Win­ter: A Novel

Rachel Seif­fert
  • Review
By – September 22, 2017

A Boy in Win­ter: A Nov­el by Rachel Seif­fert | Jew­ish Book Coun­cil

Would you be guilty of com­plic­i­ty if you refused to select round­ed-up Jews for phys­i­cal­ly atro­cious labor, only to find out that with your non-choice you con­demned them to their death lat­er that day?

Would you earn the sta­tus of hero if you acci­den­tal­ly and reluc­tant­ly did not turn in two Jew­ish chil­dren on the run and, forced by cir­cum­stance, end­ed up lead­ing them to even­tu­al shelter?

Would you qual­i­fy as a hard­core Nazi if you had just desert­ed the Red Army under penal­ty of death, and signed on as an Aux­il­iary to the occu­py­ing Ger­man Wehrma­cht in your Ukrain­ian vil­lage to obtain food, shel­ter, and the salary to buy seeds to rebuild your fam­i­ly farm burnt down by the retreat­ing Rus­sians? What if you were nau­se­at­ed by the mass mur­ders being com­mit­ted and tried to run away, but were plied with alco­hol and forced to par­tic­i­pate — or else?

As with her pre­vi­ous nov­el, The Dark Room, Rachel Seif­fert presents astute and com­pli­cat­ed moral ques­tions, and is care­ful not to pro­vide clear answers. Her char­ac­ters are drawn with great psy­cho­log­i­cal com­plex­i­ty and nuance, chal­leng­ing all cus­tom­ary stereo­typ­ing. As her char­ac­ters, whose fates inter­sect dra­mat­i­cal­ly, wres­tle with respon­si­bil­i­ty, guilt, fear, betray­al, rejec­tion, indif­fer­ence, and com­pas­sion, so does the read­er, who is imme­di­ate­ly drawn into the omi­nous and preda­to­ry atmos­phere of a small Ukrain­ian town in Novem­ber 1941 at the start of the Ger­man invasion.

By now, the facts of the destruc­tion of Jew­ish life and cul­ture in Ukraine are well-researched. And yet, Seif­fert capa­bly offers a nov­el per­spec­tive to all the known facts: a minute to minute close-up of ordi­nary human beings in their ordi­nary con­texts, being forced to make extra­or­di­nary, split-sec­ond deci­sions about life and death, their own and that of oth­ers. She imper­cep­ti­bly invites iden­ti­fi­ca­tion with each of the indi­vid­u­als, no mat­ter their role, beg­ging the ques­tion of how we, the read­ers, would act today, if politi­cians pro­claimed get­ting rid” of a spe­cif­ic minor­i­ty would be advan­ta­geous for the major­i­ty. There are reluc­tant heroes in Seiffert’s nov­el. Some sur­vive, some don’t, by hap­pen­stance. How­ev­er, nobody escapes being for­ev­er marked and altered by the events of those days. May we heed her warning.

Rein­hild Draeger-Muenke left her native Ger­many as a young adult and has lived in the Unit­ed States for almost 40 years. She is a psy­chol­o­gist and fam­i­ly ther­a­pist in the Philadel­phia area, help­ing peo­ple heal from inter­gen­er­a­tional­ly trans­mit­ted trauma.

Discussion Questions