In Kovala's moving biographical debut novel, a daughter tells the story of her Finnish father's survival in a Nazi concentration camp.
Like many who were impacted by World War II, Aarne Kovala rarely spoke of his experiences. After almost 70 years, he shared his story with his daughter Liisa. The resulting biography based on his life is a visceral expose of life in Stutthof, a concentration camp near what is now Gdansk, Poland. The book opens with Aarne's boyhood innocence prematurely shattered by the Russian bombing of his hometown. He witnessed the horror of a Russian airman bailing out only for his parachute to fail. The Russo-Finnish War ended, but World War II was gathering momentum and Nazi soldiers occupied his town. After losing his brother Veikko, Aarne felt the draw of manhood and headed for Helsinki, where he lied and said he was 16 to get a job on a merchant ship, the Wappu. While it was docked in Danzig, Nazi soldiers stormed the vessel, seizing the sailors' passports and taking them prisoner. They were first detained in an empty warehouse, then transported by train in cattle cars to Stutthof. There, he began an unfathomable existence among the dead and the dying, witnessing the extremes of human brutality at the hands of the Nazis. Nevertheless, this is a story of hope, resilience, and camaraderie. One touching scene describes a starving fellow prisoner giving Aarne a stolen baked potato: "The flavour filled his mouth like an explosion. The heat travelled through his body and into his stomach, where it quickly filled the tiny space for the first time in weeks. It was the best thing he had ever tasted." Kovala's writing is laconic yet evocative. She offers readers a sensorial exploration of the camp, regardless of how uncomfortable it may be. The suffering is palpable, yet readers will rejoice in each of the minor victories. In this personal labor of love, the care Kovala takes in recounting her father's experience is evident on every page.
A valuable, unique addition to the canon of survivor stories.