I read Winter Journey back in 2006, but I didn’t remember this when I picked up the audio book at the library. Listening to it rather than reading it made it seem fresh and unfamiliar – partly because the narrator, Deidre Rubinstein, has performed the text rather than narrated it, and partly because the characters’ names, pronounced properly in Polish, seemed entirely new to me.
It’s the story of Polish-born Halina Shore, a forensic dentist, who – discontented with an unsatisfactory affair with a married man, and rootless since her mother’s death – takes off for Poland, to assist with the United Nations exhumation of a mass grave at Novacalvaria (New Calvary). It is no secret that the grave is there, nor that it holds the remains of about 1000 Jews who were burned alive in a barn in July 1941 – what is at stake is the identification of the perpetrators.
In 1939 Germany signed a non-aggression pact with the Soviet Union, which led to splitting Poland into Nazi and Soviet-controlled zones, but when Hitler invaded the Soviet Union in 1941 all of Poland was then occupied by Germany. In Armstrong’s story which is based on true events, the present day villagers claim that the atrocity was committed by the invading Germans and that the victims were all adult male Jews who supported the Bolsheviks. Halina soon discovers that villagers with long-hidden secrets fear her contribution to the exhumation because forensic dentistry can identify the age of the victims. If the claim that all the victims were adults is brought into doubt, so too might other elements of the village version of events…
Halina’s escape from the emptiness of her life in Australia (where she has lived since childhood) results in a journey of self-discovery which would spoil the story to reveal here. As mysteries and secrets are gradually revealed, Halina learns that butchery and heroism can exist side-by-side and that antiSemitism is still a powerful force when beneficiaries of pogroms fear that justice may finally catch up with them. It’s not just that Poland (hoping for admission to the European Union) may have to pay compensation for Jewish homes and land that were appropriated in the wake of the atrocity, it’s also that the villagers do not wish to confront an unpalatable truth about themselves. Their sense of Polish identity is affronted by the investigation too.
There are elements in the story which draw parallels with Aboriginal dispossession. The author’s stance (written in the period when John Howard refused to make a healing Apology to the Stolen Generations) seems to be that the truth should be told, but that while later generations should acknowledge what happened and say sorry for it, they should feel no personal guilt. Halina’s relationships in Poland symbolise the way victim and perpetrator do not need to carry the hatred on into future generations.
Despite the horror of events as they are revealed, Winter Journey is a hopeful story which promotes truth, justice and reconciliation.
Published by Harper Collins in 2004, Winter Journey was Diane Armstrong’s first novel, and was shortlisted for the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize. For more information about the author and her other books, see her website.
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Author: Diane Armstrong
Title: Winter Journey
Publisher: Bolinda Audio Books, 2010
Source: Casey-Cardinia Library