A Meal in Winter by Hubert Mingarelli (translated from French by Sam Taylor)

‘We explained to him that we would rather do the hunting than the shootings.’

Poland, World War II.  Three German soldiers, Bauer, Emmerich and the unnamed narrator are members of an Einsatzgruppe.  One day, instead of killing the Jewish people already rounded up, they have permission to track down and bring back more Jews in hiding.

‘We were no longer allowed to kill them where we found them, unless an officer was present to vouch for the fact.  These days, we had to bring them back.’

They find a young man hiding in the woods.  A young man, with a snowflake embroidered on his cap.  They then decide to rest in an abandoned hut, out of the bitterly cold winter, for a while before returning to the camp.  They break into the hut, and then set out to prepare a meal.  As they break wood for fuel, melt snow to cook the food they have, they are joined by a Pole who offers them potato alcohol in exchange for some of their meal.  The Polish man’s obvious and outspoken antisemitism heightens the tension.

‘Thus began the strangest meal we ever had in Poland.’

The focus of the novella is the preparation of this meal, the difficulty in preparing it, the logistics of sharing it given that they only have three mugs and a saucepan.  Will they share their food with the young Jewish man?  Will they let him free, or take him back to the camp?  The narrator is moved by the snowflake on the young man’s cap: he sees it as a thoughtful maternal display.  He may be able to forget about these personal touches later, but as he sees them, he is reminded of human similarities, not differences.

I finished this novella profoundly moved.  The contrast between the ordinary, mundane (albeit difficult in the circumstances) task of preparing a meal contrasted with the horrific hunting of a Jewish person for execution. Somehow, the mundane details (starting a cooking fire, the snowflake on the cap, sharing food) made the purpose of the mission even more horrific.

Powerful.  A disturbing reminder of how we ‘other’.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith