Skeletons at the Feast
Crown, May 2008, $25.00
In ice cold January of 1945, Germans living near the Polish border know the Russians are coming and expect a brutal retaliatory occupation; they also assume the western allies led by America will be less harsh on them. Most know the war is lost even if Hitler and his Third Reich insist they are winning. Thus there is a mass exodus heading west just in front of the Russian army marching through Poland.
Not all can escape. For instance, aristocrat Prussian Rolf Emmerich, who neither the war nor the Nazis had touched his family’s upper class lifestyle until now, and his two oldest sons are conscripted and sent to fight; his wife takes their other children and accompanied by a Scottish POW flee for France. They meet Jew Uri Singer, who escaped from a train bound for Auschwitz. Jewish women also head west having escaped a death camp only most die on the death march to France. All know the Russians match the Nazis in brutality and none want to be caught in between either force.
Apparently based on a Prussian woman’s 1945 diary, SKELETONS AT THE FEAST is an excellent character driven historical thriller. The story line is loaded with people trying to survive on a desperate trek in which the death of faith in Europe is a by-product of the horrors of war. Readers will feel the hopelessness of all and yet like a tiny glimmer of light in a totally darkened universe, the spirit remains strong not to give in to this despondency. Chris Bohjalian provides an incredible vivid look at a horrific journey to avoid the ruthless Russians in which hope is almost as dead as faith, but little things like love and caring sustain those fleeing, who are fortunate that at that time they remained ignorant of the atrocities the Nazis did to the Russians and the death camps; that knowledge might have snuffed out their last iota of compassion for one another in a world otherwise gone mad.