I’ve read a lot of World War II fiction and thought I had gotten to the point where I had probably covered every emotion associated with the atrocities experienced during that time. I was wrong. I recently listened to the audio version of Skeletons at the Feast by Chris Bohjalian on a recent road trip to Chicago and after eight hours of traveling, I couldn’t get enough. (I finished it on the way home.)
This WWII story is told from a variety of viewpoints including a Jew who has escaped a train headed to Auschwitz but poses as a German soldier, a young German girl from the rich farmlands of East Prussia, and a French girl Cecile who is imprisoned in a work camp. The novel is set in cold winter months of 1945 just before the surrender of Nazi Germany. The Germans living in the East are making their way west to escape the Russian army and 18 year-old Anna Emmerich’s family is part of that mass exodus. Her family is accompanied by a Scottish POW who has been sent to their farm as forced labor. Along they way they encounter “Manfred” a German soldier suspiciously traveling alone yet as they move west together, they create sort of family as they deal with the dangers and realizations, physically and emotionally, of what has really happened in Germany during the war.
I’ve read Chris Bohjalian’s work before for my book club and while I had enjoyed it, I haven’t run back to the shelves to pick up another. However, if he keeps writing books like this one, I’ll be a lifer. What I loved about it was how he gave each of his main characters, no matter how grim or harsh the conditions, the ability to show compassion for one another. It was a time and place where the survival instinct dictated actions, disconnecting humans from one another as if not worth the investment of emotion any more. A sad reality Bohjalian sheds light on through his characters is the convenient ignorance of so many Germans during the “deportation” of Jews. His main characters were naive, manipulative, smart, brash, brave, vulnerable, strong, complacent, and not without fault. I think what really hit home for me as I read is that events like the ones depicted in the book truly happened. So, so many people lived and died through similar experiences and the power of that left me clutching my chest with horror and shame, yet marveling at the spirit of the human race.
Bohjalian doesn’t sugar coat any of the grim details of how the Jewish work camp prisoners were treated nor the encounters between the hated and the haters so this book isn’t for the weak of heart or stomach. There are many gut-wrenching scenes but it I think it added to the power of realizing and processing what so many people went through. And through these tragedies, those who survived started over trying to live a “normal” life again. They trudged onward and dared not look back, as if by not looking it would help to erase their past from memory. What hits me straight in the heart is that these people could have been any of us. I imagined their lives and how my family would have reacted. What would we have done?
This novel personalized the Nazi Germany experience and gave me such a well-rounded view of what life may have been like at that time and these characters will sit with me for a very long time. I am grateful for novels like these as they always seem to shake me out of my complacency of freedom, sharpening my focus again on how lucky my family and I are to live where we do.
*Sidenote: The inspiration to write this historical novel came from an actual World War II diary.