One morning, in the dead of winter, three German soldiers are dispatched into the frozen Polish countryside. They have been charged by their commanders to track down and bring back for execution ‘one of them’ – a Jew.
This is a quick, utterly gripping read and an almost perfect example of how saying very little can sometimes say everything.
Three German soldiers, soul-weary from participating in Nazi shooting gangs, get themselves elected one morning to go into the winter-locked woods instead. This for them is as close to a day off as they will get and they are determined to enjoy it as much as they can. However, in return they must hunt out Jews for imprisonment. It may be a day off from hollow-eyed execution, and so long as they find at least one (they rarely refer to their prey expressly) they can prove themselves worthy of another day away. But the one Jew they do find will have them questioning every action they have ever made and wondering if they would have been better off staying at camp.
As a reader, right from the beginning you are questioning what you would do in this position. Which route would you chose? The anonymity of one unthinkable job you can shoulder with other men? Or the more palpable task of having to look your (fewer) victims in the eyes, but with the knowledge your hands, for now, stay clean of blood.
This is the basic premise of Mingarelli’s small but succinct story – humans desperately struggling to find meaning in their own hideous actions – any sense of appeasement is clung to as the men try to weigh up different evils to see which one may lay lighter on their hearts. That they are having to make this decision at all will have your jaw tight with the same anxiety and helplessness.
Most of the story (I keep wanting to write play as I think it would work brilliantly on stage) takes place in a small abandoned building, where the men take refuge from the weather with the one Jewish captive they have managed to find. Hungry and cold, they set about trying to find things to burn in order to eat the small amount of food they have with them. What follows is one of the most striking examinations of humanity I have ever read. As almost everything in the place gets smashed into splinters, the minds of the men too become fractured, split and tortured.
A stranger – a Polish anti-Semite and his dog – joins them, adding to the almost silent tension of the room. More questions are asked, should he be thrown out? What level of hate do we have for him and how much compassion can we show in relation? Is the enemy of our enemy our friend no matter how distasteful we find him? And should we therefore tolerate his behaviour towards the Jew as our own intentions for him are so horrific? Do we all need to agree on a course of action or are we so far removed from consensus and accountability now that we can act independently without retribution?
The Jewish captive is held in a side room and is rarely physically in a scene, but his presence pervades everything. As a meal cooks painfully slowly over the fire our narrator is tormented by him and especially by the embroidered snowflake on the Jewish man’s hat. This one snowflake is a symbol of the humanity, dignity and love that the Nazis so desperately tried to erase from so many people. But no matter how much the narrator tries to ignore it, faced with the fierce hatred of the Polish man and his own weakening resolve, he knows that this simply stitched snowflake may just save the man’s life – if, that is, someone dares add the question of his future to the growing list for debate.
Taylor’s simple translation holds you in the narrator’s mind throughout – these men aren’t poets and can only view their extraordinary situation in very basic terms. There are few whimsically drawn phrases here, you don’t need to be an academic to wander around this man’s conscience; You can instead very easily, and perhaps rather frighteningly, relate to this regular person trying his best to navigate a blistering array of emotions over a very short period of time. Mingarelli and Taylor do this masterfully and anyone who has read The Reader by Bernhard Schlink will find their own emotions manipulated in a similar way.
A striking story, simply told, that will have you struggling with your picture of history and, had the cards been dealt differently, questioning what role you would have played in this scene.
- ISBN: 9781846275364
- Portobello Books, 2014
- Recommended read, gifted a copy