Book Review - A Meal in Winter

Before "The Final Solution" around two million Jews were shot and buried in mass graves in Nazi-occupied Poland. The extent of popular anti-Semitism in Poland during World War II continues to be debated today. Both form the backdrop to Hubert Mingarelli's masterful novella.

Sick of having to participate in mass shootings of Jewish people, three German soldiers, Emmerich, Bauer and our unnamed narrator, persuade their commanding officer to allow them the respite of "hunting" rather than killing "one of them". They set off at daybreak, missing breakfast in order to avoid witnessing the massacres. As they tramp across a silent, snowbound landscape, the three friends listen to each other's gripes, offer advice, smoke and bicker. By focusing on the soldiers' banal observations and juxtaposing their intimate human concerns with the brutal reality of war, Mingarelli offers a new twist on the Holocaust novel.

It is Emmerich who finds a young Jewish fugitive hiding in a hole. Delighted at having accomplished their mission so quickly, the three soldiers decide to stop and eat lunch. They find an abandoned house, fire up the old stove and make soup from salami and onion, stolen by the wily Bauer, mixed with their ration of Italian gruel. They are joined by an elderly toothless Pole, whose open disgust at the sight of the Jewish boy shocks even the soldiers. It is his contempt, rather than the soldiers' actions, that provides the more striking illustration of how war fuels hatred.

When Emmerich suggests they should let the prisoner go, Bauer, the most intransient of the three, refuses and it is left to the narrator to decide the boy's fate. He has a snowflake embroidered on his hat and it's this detail that torments the narrator: "I no longer had the strength to drive it away...a piece of embroidery, coloured buttons, a ribbon in the hair. I was always pierced by these thoughtful maternal displays of tenderness... I suffered for the mothers who had, once, gone to so much effort."

Mingarelli presents his characters as ordinary men and employs a simple premise - will they or won't they free their prisoner. His spare prose, crisply translated by Sam Taylor, adds to the narrative's intensity and keeps you turning the pages until its poignant conclusion. At the heart of this slim, powerful novel lies the question: had more people questioned the atrocities, rather than blindly serving the cause, could one of the most horrific periods in European history have been averted?

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