It’s more than that. It’s most of the war, but the story began on that winter’s day in Poland in 1939, when WWII was new and people hoped it might soon be over.
Melinda Szymanik’s book brings home the sheer pointlessness of much that happened in the war. The fighting itself is not good, but it at least has a purpose, however bad. But it’s the putting people into concentration camps or carting them across half a continent, simply because they are ‘unwanted’ and no one can think what to do with them, that really gets to me.
After American Rose’s internment in Ravensbrück in Rose Under Fire, and the interminable travels of all those Lithuanians in Ruta Sepetys’s Between Shades of Gray, as they are shunted from place to place, I have read more of the same. Only now it’s Poles who are taken on a strange journey where no one wants them. They are to be kept out of the way.
The story about Adam and his family is based closely on the real experiences of Melinda’s father Leszek. First the Russians come and take thousands of Polish families through Russia because they are somehow the enemy. After enduring a couple of years of cold winters and unbearable summers doing hard, but pointless work, including seeing members of their family die; when Germany invaded Russia ‘they were transformed from being an inconvenience into something useful.’
After more politics the British take over and the Polish soldiers end up fighting for them instead. They are taken from the cold north to the warm Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, and ultimately to Persia. But it’s not only war that kills the new soldiers. Illness spreads even before they have fought. More people die.
Mercifully the descriptions in A Winter’s Day are sketchy at times, and there actually is no need to go into excrutiating detail. It is grim, and it becomes quite clear what made this a world war. It wasn’t merely that many countries fought, but that people ended up fighting in the most unexpected places, where they didn’t belong, for armies other than their own.
And afterwards they are in many cases displaced forever, needing or wanting to start new lives somewhere else. That’s why Melinda is a New Zealander.