“I’m telling you, this might be a blessing in disguise. Germans are a civilised nation. They’ll bring order and prosperity that the Bolsheviks never have…. Hitler could never be as bad as Stalin.”
There are many such sadly ironic winks to the reader throughout Lana Kortchik’s Savaged Lands, a drama of life, love and loss set in Nazi-occupied Kiev, between its Soviet occupations.
For the characters, it turned out to be apples and oranges, or perhaps more of a tomayto-tomahto situation.
Handily, the Ukrainian winter decided it was going to be particularly literary that year, as temperatures cooled in line with the people’s enthusiasm towards their Third Reich ‘liberators’. Dwindling families kept calm and stoically carried on with life, even as those around them were boarded onto trucks and trains one by one.
“Natasha prayed for a miracle that would change their lives for the better because God knew they couldn’t possibly get any worse.”
Amidst the chaos, an innocent maiden and a reluctant enemy soldier embark on a secret tryst, comforting each other that the storm will blow over by Christmas. Even with just a rudimentary grasp of dates, the reader bawls impotently and prepares for the worst.
“The wait was finally over. The enemy was no longer at the gates. Surrounded by crowds of confused men, women and children and accompanied by barking dogs, the enemy were right there, inside their city, their grey uniforms a perfect fit, their green helmets sparkling, their motorbikes roaring, their footsteps echoing in the tranquil autumn air.”
The tragic backdrop is as familiar to readers as the timeless family and relationship dramas playing out in front, but by telling the story from the lesser-heard perspective of Russian-born Ukrainian emigres (and a second-class Hungarian Nazi to boot), Savaged Lands justifies its addition to the atlas of World War II fiction.
Being several generations removed, it’s not as gut-wrenching as first-hand memoirs written by people who lived through those times, but nor is it as difficult to recover from.