A simple Holocaust story presents a complex moral equation.
The first work by this French author to be translated into English, this short novel from 2012 packs a punch. The narrator is apparently a German soldier stationed in Poland during a very cold winter of World War II. His camp’s main mission seems to be the extermination of Jews by capturing and shooting them. The narrator and his two comrades have no stomach for the killing, but their only recourse is to go searching for Jews in the countryside and bring them back instead. “We would rather do the hunting than the shootings,” he tells his base commander, a reservist like him, in the plainspoken, matter-of-fact diction that characterizes the narrative and adds to its chilling conclusion. “We told him we didn’t like the shootings: that doing it made us feel bad at the time and gave us bad dreams at night.” So the narrator and his two very different compatriots embark on a long, frigid search, and they in fact encounter a “Jew,” the first time this word is used, a third of the way into the novel. Despite a language barrier, they communicate that they are bringing him back to camp. Much of the second half of the novel finds the three soldiers and their captive in a deserted hovel where they find temporary refuge from the cold: “The house appeared from behind a row of trees. We didn’t need to talk about it. The decision was made by our stomachs and the icy sky.” They then face a number of other survival decisions: how to cook, eat, and stay warm. The intrusion of a Polish hunter from the countryside further complicates their situation. Though another language barrier presents itself, it is obvious that the Pole’s hatred of the Jew is more intense than anything the soldiers feel. As they spend time and share food together, the captors experience some subtle shifts. Over the course of “the strangest meal we ever had in Poland,” the narrator and his cohort wrestle with the morality of delivering their captive to camp.
The command of tone and voice sustains tension until the very last page of a novel that will long resonate in the reader’s conscience.