Overall this is a very interesting book and definitely an original take on the Holocaust. I simply have to mention that reading this book it is hard to forget that it is fiction. The author did a great job in many aspects, he knows his history and the events he portrays are right on with the history of this time period. In this book the author takes on the persona of a regular German police officer serving in a police battalion. I sympathize with the author; I think it would have been easier if the persona he took on was someone who abhorred his job. We, the reader, could possibly understand that, it would fit with what the majority of us know; that killing is wrong and takes a toll on a person that few can even begin to imagine. But, for probably the first time we get a glimpse of what someone who enjoyed what they did saw and how they might have felt as they followed Hitler’s orders and committed genocide on a scale never before even imagined. It is a work of fiction but much of what is contained within its pages rings true if one were to read Jewish accounts, amongst a plethora of others, of what they witnessed in Eastern Europe throughout the Holocaust.
The first ‘aktion’ in Poland sounds like what one would usually hear about when thinking of how ‘aktions’ were done before the invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941. The massacre of Jewish males in one town is described: German collaborators drink themselves into stupors as they execute line after line of naked male Jews. Men are assigned to give the coup de grace to those who still remained alive after the initial volleys. At least one of the Germans when first seeing the bodies piled on top of one another vomits while others go through various phases of shock. While back in the village they had just come from the locals were already busy looting Jewish goods as volleys of fire could be heard just a short distance away.
Alcohol was in abundance as men’s senses were dulled to what they were doing and/or witnessing. Eventually the reader is informed some of the men in the battalion commit suicide while others become numb to the activity of killing and the rest turn to alcohol. From what I recall when studying the Holocaust and the Einsatzgruppen the usual ratio was 1/3 became accustomed to the killings, 1/3 turned to alcohol, and 1/3 was transferred out or in this fictional account turned to suicide, so quite believable.
I did enjoy the description of how the men of this fictitious battalion got around, not as the usual mechanized German Army that we hear about, but rather on bicycles! Today most know that the German Army was far from the mechanized juggernaut it made itself out to be. The pogrom that descended on Bialystok is explored and a scene is recounted of the main synagogue being stuffed with innocent Jews and set on fire as anyone trying to escape was shot by those waiting outside.
At one point the company is moved up to the front as the Soviet counter-offensive outside Moscow made a mess out of the frontline. Few of these soldiers thought they’d ever see the real front line and the cold weather didn’t make it any better. Eventually the company would be squeezed into a slot which a formation at least twice its size should have been assigned. When an artillery barrage is fired against their positions on one sunny morning the narrator and those around him are reduced to screaming infants as they get a real taste of war, not simply killing unarmed civilians.
The reader gets a chance to join the narrator on “bandit” hunts. At first the Germans would talk to and question village elders. Then they moved on to threatening them and at times outright killing them. Later on reprisal actions took place and by that time the local populations had found out that they had traded one evil for another when they welcomed the German army was ‘liberators’, as some had done. One village is totally decimated after a radio is found within a house; the entire population, which consists of a few dozen people, is machine gunned and their houses torched to the ground.
Jewish “bandits” are described as hated by both the Ukrainian and Polish partisans and local populations, quite correct. What Jewish partisans had to go through no other partisan groups and individual partisans had to face. In the book a Jewish partisan group has its location given to the Germans by a Pole. This is not at all out of the ordinary as Ukrainians and Poles have been documented to betray Jews for either monetary gain or simply because of anti-Semitic tendencies. This of course shouldn’t merit anyone from forgetting that many Poles also risked their lives to save Jews and many are praised as “righteous” by Yad Vashem.
Too often we see accounts, both fiction and nonfiction, from the German side which characterizes the majority of what was going on in the East as heroic soldiers fighting against the “Bolshevik hordes” from the east. Here, albeit a fictional piece, we have something that shows us the other side of the war; the bloody way in which the war on the Eastern Front, and the holocaust that followed in its wake, was truly waged by those who participated in it.
Lastly, the minuses of the book; there are quite a few grammar errors here and there which don’t take much away from the reading but are still a bit annoying. There is some modern ‘slang’ thrown in, but if one believes the ‘introduction’ then this is a recollection not a verbatim record from the 1940’s. One other error that I found was when the main character mentions a Soviet Guards division in 1940; Guards divisions didn’t appear until after the Soviet Union was invaded in 1941. Other than that, overlooking these minor examples, I would recommend the book to those interested in the Eastern Front and historical fiction.