World War II scattered as many lives as it destroyed, leaving another generation to piece together their lost and buried pasts. Diane Armstrong’s Winter Journey is one such story and a gripping one, but it is far more than the tale of one woman’s search for her past. It’s a story that should send shivers down our spines as we look around our own nation, increasingly split by schism, rumor, bitterness and hatred.
Halina Shore, an Australian forensic dentist, is connected to her Polish past only by her mother, who will not speak of it, and nightmares of being trapped in a burning building. Though deeply involved in a love affair and as an expert in a kidnap-murder trial, she is still disturbed by her missing ancestry. When both love affair and trial end in disappointment she willingly accepts an invitation from the Polish Institute of Remembrance to examine a suspected mass grave in the Polish village of Nowa Kalwaria.
Her journey carries her to a village haunted by its past, and her task is to discover whether the bones, buried since 1941, were of whole families of Jews, and if so, who had rounded them into a barn and burned them alive. The Germans or the villagers themselves? She is not welcome. The more she discovers, the more she awakens the pain and grief of a town conquered first by the Communists, then by the Germans—and their conviction that the village Jews were conspiring against them.
Only the mayor, the priest, and the son of a leading family insist on discovering the truth and support the team’s investigations. Their findings and the confessions of a single troubled soul begin to open the long closed doors, carrying everyone back to the winter of 1941. In the emerging tales and rumors, Halina and the priest find heart-wrenching pieces of their own stories.
Some readers will read this for the power of forensic dentistry in uncovering the truth. Others will find hope in the three leaders’ determination to face the past. For me it brought to life the terrible power of fear and mob anger looking for a target for its suffering. It is a story for today.