Chris Bohjalian‘s Skeletons at the Feast, a heartrending story about the suffering of civilians in WWII, made an everlasting impression on me. Just like in A Woman in Berlin (reviewed on 10/25/13), it is set in the last months of WWII in eastern Germany and describes people’s fear of the advancing Red Army. The rumors, as well as the warnings of the authorities , about Soviet troops committing unspeakable atrocities in the already occupied territories create panic among the general population, forcing families to flee their homes before they become victims too.
The novel runs two parallel story lines: One, depicting an odyssey of the Emmerichs, a Prussian aristocratic family, who are trying to reach their relatives in the western part of the country; and the other, depicting a death march of Jewish women, the prisoners of a Nazi concentration camp, that are being relocated to the west by their tormentors.
The novel is rich in themes, but if I were to choose one word that connects them all it would be: Struggle. The struggle to merely survive. The struggle to live so they “could someday tell people what the Germans were doing.” The struggle to choose between obediently following the laws of the Nazi regime or fighting them. The struggle of middle-aged men to choose between joining the army, despite their awareness of its inevitable defeat, or escaping conscription and heading for the west with their families. Also, the struggle of a young woman to keep her lover, a Scottish POW, well-hidden from the authorities.
It’s not the first novel I’ve read about WWII that points to the “supposed” unawareness of the majority of Germans of the crimes committed by the Nazi government against Jews, political opponents, and other groups that are not to their liking. Yes, they are brainwashed by the Nazi propaganda, but they also choose to turn a blind eye and a deaf ear to what is going on in their neighborhoods. And then they’re shocked to hear about the Soviets’ horrible treatment of them. Some Germans wonder if the Bolsheviks’ barbaric behavior is a retaliation to the German soldiers’ crimes against Russian civilians. “What the Russians were doing wasn’t forgivable. But it was, he feared, understandable. In their minds, they were just taking an eye for an eye.” Well, isn’t that obvious, based on what’s going on around them in their own country?!
Another significant aspect that caught my attention is this: The anonymous author of the diary A Woman in Berlin makes an important distinction between German and Russian occupants in enemy lands: Germans violated and murdered children, whereas Russians spared them. In Skeletons at the Feast, however, Russian soldiers make no distinction between adults and children: They treat everyone brutally.
Which is true? Probably both, because a diary is an account of one person, who derives her conclusions from a few persons’ narratives. A work of fiction is an imagination that may include facts, based on research. As far as I know, the vanguard of the Red Army was mostly penal battalions, many of whom were criminals and thugs. And what could anyone expect from that kind?