In January 1945, in the waning months of World War II, a small group of people begin the longest journey of their lives: an attempt to cross the remnants of the Third Reich, from Warsaw to the Rhine if necessary, to reach the British and American lines.
Among the group is eighteen-year-old Anna Emmerich, the daughter of Prussian aristocrats. There is her lover, Callum Finella, a twenty-year-old Scottish prisoner of war who was brought from the stalag to her family’s farm as forced labor. And there is a twenty-six-year-old Wehrmacht corporal, who the pair know as Manfred–who is, in reality, Uri Singer, a Jew from Germany who managed to escape a train bound for Auschwitz.
As they work their way west, they encounter a countryside ravaged by war. Their flight will test both Anna’s and Callum’s love, as well as their friendship with Manfred–assuming any of them even survive.
Perhaps not since The English Patient has a novel so deftly captured both the power and poignancy of romance and the terror and tragedy of war. Skillfully portraying the flesh and blood of history, Chris Bohjalian has crafted a rich tapestry that puts a face on one of the twentieth century’s greatest tragedies–while creating, perhaps, a masterpiece that will haunt readers for generations.
From the Hardcover edition.
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Chris Bohjalian is the critically acclaimed author of eleven novels, including Midwives (a Publishers Weekly Best Book and an Oprah’s Book Club selection), Before You Know Kindness, and his most recent New York Times bestseller, The Double Bind. His work has been translated into nineteen languages and published in twenty-two countries. He lives in Vermont with his wife and daughter. Visit the author at www.chrisbohjalian.com.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
Bohjalian: SKELETONS AT THE FEAST
usually, it was only when one of the local soldiers was home on leave that Anna and her girlfriends ever saw the sorts of young men with whom, in different times, they might have danced. And, as the war had dragged on, the pool of marriage prospects—in Anna’s mind, often enough that meant merely her older brother Werner’s acquaintances—dried up completely. The soldiers were either missing or disfigured or dead.
But then came the POWs. Seven of them, sent from the prison camp to help with the harvest.
And a week after the POWs arrived at Kaminheim, when the corn was almost completely harvested and everyone was about to begin to gather the sugar beets and the apples, there came four naval officers in search of a plow. They were planning to mark a groove through the estate that would be the start of an antitank trench. When it was complete, the trench would span the length of the district, bisecting some farms, skirting the edges of others. Meanwhile, different officers were visiting neighboring estates as well, and the Emmerichs were told that at some point in the coming month hundreds of foreigners and old men would follow them, and descend on the estate to actually construct the trench.
And while the very idea of an antitank trench was alarming, the presence of all those handsome young men—the Germans, the Brits, and that one very young Scot—made it a burden Anna was willing to shoulder. This was true, at least in part, because she didn’t honestly believe the fighting would ever come this far west. It couldn’t. Even the naval officers said this was a mere precau- tion. And so she would flirt with the Brits during the day in the fields, where she would work, too, and dance with the naval officers in the evenings in the manor house’s small but elegant ballroom. Mutti would play the piano, joined after that first night by Callum Finella on Uncle Felix’s accordion, while her father—though distracted by the news from the east—would look on benignly. Sometimes Theo would put his toy cavalrymen away and watch as well, appalled in the manner of any ten-year-old boy that these brave and accomplished soldiers wanted to waste their time with the likes of his sister and her friends. He followed the men around like a puppy.
Helmut did, too. But Helmut actually would work with the officers as long as their father allowed him away from the har- vest, helping them to find their way around the endless acres of Kaminheim, and thus mark out the optimum design and place- ment of the trench. Then, after dinner, he would dance with Anna’s friends—girls who, previously, he had insisted were too puerile to be interesting. Seeing them now through the eyes of the navy men, however, he was suddenly discovering their charms.
Certainly Anna worried about her older brother, Werner, who had already been wounded once in this war and was fighting somewhere to the south. But she had rarely spent any time with men as interesting as this eclectic group who had descended upon their farm that autumn. She and Helmut had learned to speak English in school, though she had taken her studies far more seriously than her brother, which meant that she alone in the assemblage could speak easily to everybody—the POWs during the day and the naval officers at night—and appreciate how erudite and experienced everyone was. At least, she thought, in comparison to her. She was, on occasion, left almost dizzy as she swiveled among conversations and translated asides and remarks. And the longer stories? She felt like a star-struck child. When she was in grade school she had met English families the winter her family had gone skiing in Switzerland, but by 1944 she remembered little more than a very large man in a very poor bear costume, and the way she and the English children together had endured his clownish shenanigans because all of the parents had thought the fellow was wildly entertaining. But since the war had begun, she hadn’t been west of Berlin. In the early years, they had still taken summer holidays on the beaches of the Baltic or ventured to Danzig for concerts, but lately even those trips had ceased completely. Two of their POWs, however, had seen the pyramids; another had been to America; and Callum—the youngest of the group, the tallest of the group, and the only one from Scotland—had been born in India, where his father had been a colonial official, and had traveled extensively throughout Bengali and Burma and Madras as a little boy.
Even the German naval officers were more interesting than any of the country boys—or men—she had met in her district. They, too, had seen places in Europe and Africa she’d only read about in books.
Initially, she had worried that there might be unpleasant sparks when the Germans and the Brits crossed paths, especially on the first morning when the naval officers would be marking out a segment of the antitank trench in the very same beet fields where the POWs were working. But the two groups of men had largely ignored each other.
It was the next day, when she was working alongside the prisoners in the apple orchard, that one of the POWs—that exuberant young giant named Callum—segued from the usual flirtatious banter to which she had grown accustomed and had come to ex- pect from him, to guarded innuendos about Adolf Hitler and then (even more problematic, in some ways) to questions about the work camps.
“You’re such a nice girl, Anna, and so sharp,” he said, as the two of them stood together beside a particularly wiry tree, resting for a moment midmorning. There was a military policeman who must have been somebody’s grandfather standing guard a hundred meters away, but he was so old he probably wouldn’t have heard a word they were saying if they had been standing directly beside him. “And your family is much more hospitable than necessary—given the circumstances and all.” The POWs were sleeping in the bunkhouse that the farmhands had used before they had either run off or been commandeered by the Reich for work in the mines and the munitions factories.
“Thank you,” she said simply. She was unsure where this conversation was going, but that opening, that apparent surprise that she was such a nice girl, had her slightly wary. She’d been laughing with Callum for days, and the thought crossed her mind that perhaps she had misjudged him. Grown too comfortable—too friendly—with him. With all the POWs.
“So, I was wondering,” he continued, his voice nonchalant. “What do you think your Hitler is doing with the Jews?”
“My Hitler? You make him sound like one of my horses,” she said, aware that she was not answering his question.
“I didn’t mean that. I meant . . .”
“What did you mean?”
“I had a mate in Scotland who was Jewish, a chum I played soccer with. We were friends, our parents were friends. He had family somewhere in Germany. And they just disappeared. There was talk of them trying to come to Edinburgh, but they couldn’t get out. Eventually, the letters just dried up. Stopped coming. Then, at the stalag this summer, I met two chaps from Wales who had been in intelligence. And they said—”
She cut him off: “At school, they told me not to ask when I inquired. They told me I didn’t know what I was talking about.”
“But you asked?”
Aware that she couldn’t help but sound oversensitive, she answered, “Maybe it would surprise you, but I do have a brain behind my eyes. Yes, I asked.”
“It wouldn’t surprise me a bit,” he said, smiling.
“I asked them where the Jews were going,” she continued. “Before the war, my parents had friends in Danzig who were Jewish. That’s where my father went to university: Danzig. He grew up on a farm in another part of Prussia, but for a time he considered becoming a lawyer. But he’s a very scientific man. And he likes working the earth too much. Anyway, he has never understood the Nazis’ obsession with Jews. Never. My mother? It’s different for her: She’s lived her whole life here. She, too, thinks it’s ridiculous, but she has always been a little oblivious of anything that doesn’t involve the farm or this corner of the country.”
“They’re both party members, right?”
She nodded. “My father wouldn’t have the contracts he has if he weren’t a member of the party. Even I know that.”
“Tell me, then: These friends. Your parents’ Jewish friends. Where are they now?”
“One, I know, was my father’s banker. I don’t know his name, but he took very good care of Father and Mutti on their honeymoon. The inflation was so horrible that suddenly they couldn’t pay their bills and Father’s stocks were worth nothing. Somehow, the banker solved everything for them and they had a perfectly lovely holiday after that.”
“What do you think became of him?”
“He and Father lost touch. But I can tell you this: My father wrote letters on his family’s behalf to different people. I don’t know who or what the letters were supposed to accomplish. But he wrote letters for other friends, too. And for a few weeks in the summer of 1940, my parents had some Jewish friends who lived with us: a younger couple and their baby. A little baby girl. She was adorable. They had lost their apartment in Danzig. I was thirteen and I always wanted to babysit, but the mother wouldn’t let the child out of her sight.” She could have gone on, but it was a memory she tried not to think about. There had been some talk about hiding the fa...
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