The Winter Palace by Paul Morgan

The Blurb:

If he had died, I would know it in my heart.

In 1939, Anton, a captain in the Polish army, says goodbye to his wife, Elisabeth. He is leaving to defend their homeland against the invasion by Nazi Germany and Russia. They make a vow that – whatever happens, however much time passes – they’ll meet again at the Winter Palace, their stately home in the Polish countryside.

The winds of war draw them far apart. Anton is captured and sent to Siberia as a POW. He eventually joins a lost army that battles through snowstorms and scorching deserts in Central Asia to find freedom. Anton survives, driven by his determination to join Elisabeth again. She, meanwhile, is forced to be the ‘mistress’ of a Nazi officer before escaping to join the Polish resistance.

As the war ends, Anton and Elisabeth are at the opposite ends of the world. Anton is in Australia. Elisabeth is in Poland, awaiting his return for months and then years. Will they ever meet again at the Winter Palace?

From 1930s Europe to present-day Australia, this is a sweeping story of love that cannot be broken by time, distance, war or even death.

My thoughts:

I have always been drawn to novels set during the Second World War, perhaps because I grew up hearing the stories of my grandfathers and great-uncles who all fought in different ways and who all suffered as a result. I’m also interested in stories of courage and defiance. I often wonder what I would have done if I had lived in those times. Would I have been brave? Would I have resisted?

Poland is one theatre of war that I think has been unjustly overlooked. I have written a story called ‘The Blessing’ about the Battle of Warsaw and its terrible cost (published in The Silver Well). I love Kelly Rimmer’s two books set there, The Things We Cannot Say and The Warsaw Orphan and wept buckets over Sophie’s Choice as a teenager, and so I am always on the lookout for books that bring that tragic period of history to life. 

As soon as I heard about Paul Morgan’s new novel, I was keen to read it. A haunting tale of love, loss, and new beginnings, The Winter Palace tells the story of a young husband and wife torn apart by fate whose love for each other sustains them through all the horror and heartbreak of the Second World War. Deftly and sensitively written, this is a book about the valour of ordinary people in extraordinary times and about the importance of hope and resilience when it seems all is lost. 

Told in alternate chapters between Anton, a young Polish officer, and his wife Elisabeth, The Winter Palace draws on the fascinating true story of Anders’ Army, named for Władysław Anders, the commanding officer of the Polish army who had to fight the forces of both Hitler and Stalin on two fronts. Anton is part of that force and, like many Polish soldiers, ended up as Russian prisoners-of-war, used as slave labour in Siberia.  After the German invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941, Russia swapped sides and so the Polish prisoners-of-war were eventually released. A new Polish army was created on Soviet soil, and then marched hundreds of miles to the Middle East and Italy, where they fought bravely and with great honour. It's a fascinating story, and Paul Morgan brings it vividly to life. I was just as interested in Elisabeth’s story, which is equally compelling. Left behind in Warsaw, she is forced into sexual slavery and tattooed with a number preceded by the letters FH (meaning feld-hure or ‘field whore’). It’s an aspect of life in occupied Poland I did not know about. These two narrative threads are woven together to create a story that feels so real and urgent, I wondered if it was based on a true story, perhaps even on family history. But as Paul explains in his interview with me (link to interview), he was inspired by stories of people who lost their loved ones in the war, not knowing if they were dead or alive or what had happened to them, and how they must have waited, hoping always for news. It’s a heart-wrenching situation, and one that I have not seen explored in fiction before.

Kate Forsyth
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