Set in occupied Poland during World War II, this novel is based on the true story of Stefan K., a Polish boy who, at 16, fell in love with a German soldier. When their liaison was discovered by the Gestapo, the teen was tortured and sentenced to a labour camp, eventually escaping during the chaotic days before liberation.
It’s always hard to review true stories, because you can’t fault the history, or the plot. I do feel though that perhaps some of the heart went out of the story in the dictation to Lutz Van Dijk and then the translation because I was never really gripped by the love that Stephan undoubtedly felt for Willi G. Perhaps it’s because it was re-told from such a span of years, and a 16 year old’s love is difficult to describe when one gets to old age. I know I would find it hard, even to write out my own feelings, let alone transpose someone else’s.
I would have liked a little more description of the affair itself; not so much the sexual contact, but the meetings that they had, what they talked about and more about how they felt about what was happening to the world around them. I particularly liked Stephan’s description of his family and their relationship with him, especially with his brother Mikolai who is his first crush, until he meets Willi G.
Their discovery was caused by an idiotic love letter, sent from Stephan K to Willi G at the Eastern Front- and this surprised me – the fact that he’d make such a silly mistake – in fact his very naivety surprised me throughout, but it was another time and place and it’s impossible to imagine the mind set of a Polish boy in 1942.
Don’t let the subject matter of this put you off reading a copy if you come across it, because Stephan K doesn’t dwell too heavily on the (frankly dreadful) things that happened to him after his arrest and incarceration. One can’t really imagine what those years must have been like for him, and it’s probably better that we don’t.
Above all he comes over as an optimist, and although he doesn’t say that he found love and happiness in what he admits was a life in Communist Poland, I hope he did. He has campaigned for gay rights and was around to see the lessening of the restrictions in his beloved country.
I was touched by this book, and although it’s probably not for those who dislike “real, unpleasant, history” it opens a little window into a quite dreadful time but gives hope to the future – something that Stephan K never lost.