The plight of the people of Kiev in WWII was a subject that I knew very little about, so this book helped me understand a little more of the history of this city which is now the capital of Ukraine. This story tells of a romance between a Hungarian soldier, Mark, forced to work for the Nazis, and his relationship with Natasha, a Russian girl, and her family during the enforced occupation of Kiev. At this time the German machine crushed the Russian people who were systematically starved, or executed, or sent to work camps. Mark’s intervention saved their lives, whilst also putting himself and the family at more risk. Lana Kortchik explores the feelings of those caught in a war zone – their allegiances, the desperate decisions they make to help each other and their neighbours, and the sheer randomness of survival. A powerful and hard-hitting novel, it tackles the themes of loyalty and compassion, and emphasizes the hard choices that need to be made in wartime.
I wrote to Lana to ask her to give us some more background to this fascinating novel.
What made you want to write about wartime Kiev?
I spent three years living in Kiev as a child and my happiest childhood memories are those of Ukraine. When the time came to choose the setting for my novel, I knew it had to be Kiev because the city holds such a special place in my heart. And it had to be Kiev during war because I’ve always been fascinated with war stories. I think the topic of war has a particular significance for any Russian. My grandparents have lived through that period, and, being very close to them, I grew up listening to their wartime stories. Researching the occupation of Kiev and reading about all the places I love during war was very intense and I hope this intensity is reflected in the novel
I’d never heard of the part played by the Hungarian Army in the Nazi occupation. Please tell us a little more about it.
During World War II, Hungary was allied to Germany, having signed the Tripartite Pact. When Operation Barbarossa – German invasion of the Soviet Union – began on 22 June 1941, Hitler expected Hungary to join the attack but the Hungarian government resisted. On June 26 the Hungarian town of Kassa got bombed and the Soviets were blamed for the bombing. Hungary was compelled to declare war against the Soviet Union. Whether it was indeed the Soviets or whether it was Hitler himself who has orchestrated the attack to push Hungary into war is still disputed.
Culturally and sociologically, there was little in common between Hungarians and Germans. In fact, Hungary had a much stronger kinship with Ukraine in terms of lifestyle and culture. An average Hungarian soldier on the Eastern Front didn’t feel any sympathy or loyalty for Hitler. For them, it was merely a decision made by politicians.
At the end of June 1941 Budapest sent forty four thousand soldiers to the Eastern Front. In Kiev, Hungarian troops guarded bridges and other strategic objects, worked as drivers and mechanics. They didn’t take part in atrocities against the Soviet population, nor were they seen as equals by the Germans. For example, they were not allowed to visit German-only restaurants or shops. There were many cases of assault against the Hungarians by the Nazis and because of that, Hungarian soldiers were not hated by the local population, who often encouraged them to desert and turn against Hitler. Some Hungarians did that and paid for it with their lives. In November and December 1941 Hungarian soldiers were recalled back to Hungary. After the war had ended, the politicians who made the decision to fight on Hitler’s side were perceived as war criminals for dragging the country into war.
One of the sisters, Lisa, is forced to leave and work for the Germans, and the reader has mixed feelings about this because of Lisa’s relationship with Natasha, which causes both of them great heartache. What would have been the future for Lisa and girls like her after the war?
Over the course of the war more than three million people had been transported to Germany from the Eastern Front, most of them Ukrainians. Forty thousand people a month were forced to Germany for work, not just from Kiev, but from Kharkov, Crimea, Chernihiv and other Ukrainian towns and villages. The Eastern workers, mostly women and children, lived in camps under strict discipline and worked twelve hours a day six days a week in factories all over Germany and in private enterprises. After the war had ended, many of them returned to the Soviet Union, only to be treated as traitors for collaboration with and working for the enemy. Some were transported to forced labour camps in Siberia by the Bolsheviks, while others were looked upon as second class citizens for the rest of their lives, with jobs and education denied to them. They had a special stamp in their passports, which separated them from the rest of society and caused them to live a life of abuse and suspicion.
The novel is in essence a Romance. How easy was it to make Mark a convincing hero?
To make a Hungarian soldier fighting on Hitler’s side a convincing hero, he had to be a soldier of Russian descent. Mark doesn’t want to be in occupied Ukraine any more than an average Hungarian soldier but for him it’s twice as difficult. After all, he grew up in a Russian family and is heartbroken by Hitler’s atrocities on Soviet soil. He sees the places where his grandparents had lived, places he had heard about as a child and always wanted to visit, and they are devastated by war. He sees the Russians, people like him, suffer tremendously under Hitler’s regime. Mark and Natasha are trapped in an impossible situation and try to do all in their power to find a way out.
Many thanks to Lana for her interview.