Real life horrors from a lost soul

A Sheffield writer has drawn on tales she was told at her father's knee for her latest novel which explores how wartime horrors of long ago live on to affect the present. Danuta Reah talked to Michael Hickling

"For breakfast - grass

. For lunch - grass

. For dinner - grass ..."

These words survive on a torn-out page from a school exercise book. They were written by Jan Kot and might just as easily have come out of the pages of Dr Zhivago. Jan was writing about his childhood in the early days of the Soviet Union. As the chaos which the Bolsheviks had unleashed swirled about them, Jan, then aged five, his ten-year-old brother Michael and their mother were trying to make their way back by train to the family's home near Minsk.

The engine for the train had no fuel. Red guards regularly ordered the starving passengers to get off to gather wood. Hunting for sticks, the brothers came across a huge mushroom which they took back to their mother. She made some soup but, despite the big eyes they made at her, she would not let them have any until the following day after she had tasted it and found it to be safe.

One reason why the family survived the journey was the helpfulness of a fellow passenger. He was a former admiral in the imperial navy who had lost a leg in the Russians' disastrous defeat to the Japanese at Tshushima in 1905. For the train journey the admiral had taken the precaution of filling his artificial leg with gold roubles.

These fragments of a life, put down by Jan Kot when he was an elderly man, were written with a single purpose, "only to relieve this scream in my mind," he wrote. After what he had been through, he nursed, he confessed, "a constant feeling of sorrow for my beloved country."

The story of his country is full of blood. The territory of Byelorussia (now Belarus) is perhaps the most tragic, or the most unlucky, in Europe. It has been endlessly disputed and fought over by Slavs, Tatars, Lithuanians, Poles and Russians. In 1921 the country was divided: half went to Poland and the rest to the Russian Bolsheviks. They were bent on smashing its culture and independence and executed thousands of people, often in the forests outside Minsk.

At the start of the Second World War, as Poland was invaded by Germany and the USSR, the Soviets took back the Polish section of Belarus. When the tide turned again in 1941 and the Germans invaded the USSR, some in Belarus greeted the arriving Nazis as liberators from the Red Army. They enthusiastically endorsed Nazi reprisals against local Communists - volunteering to undertake wholesale atrocities against their fellow countrymen - which they conducted with a ferocity which surprised even the Gestapo. A third of the population died. In Minsk a quarter of the people perished.

By then, Jan Kot was long gone. At the start of the war, he had been a cavalry officer in the Polish forces fighting the Soviets. Captured by them, he was sent to a prisoner of war camp in Romania. From there he escaped, was re-captured, got away again and eventually managed to make his way to England, where he joined the Polish Free Forces as a paratrooper.

During preparations for D-day, the paras were practising low-level drops. It turned out to be too low for their parachutes to deploy properly. As Jan told it, some landed on their heads; he just smashed up his leg. It put him out of the war for good.

He studied at the Polish School of Architecture, settled in Sheffield and in the course of time became the Sheffield City Architect. He put his personal stamp on the city by designing the much talked-about "egg box" extension to the town hall (recently demolished) and numerous other public buildings. Jan died in 1995.

The keeper of the pieces he wrote is one of his three daughters, Danuta Reah. "He spent a lot of his time weighed down by what happened in the war," she says. "He suffered quite badly from survivor guilt.

"He described himself as Polish. Ethnically he was Belarussian and he was never part of the Polish community here. There was not a lot of love lost between the two sides."

Most of the stuff about his life which fired her imagination was not written down. It was in her head, in the form of the stories he had told his four children when they were little. They had the repetitive, hypnotic quality of all folk tales, except these were real stories, not legends. In particular the children loved to listen to one about a family in a house in a forest which was based entirely on his own childhood experiences. As children do, Danuta picked up on a subtler message behind the narrative. "There was always an undertone of sadness when he told them."

In adult life, Danuta studied folklore as part of her degree. "The same motifs crop up in folk tales right across Europe, even if the names and events are slightly different. Every European culture has got its Cinderella story, although it's a darker and gorier one than what we hear these days. In the proper folk tale collections, they don't stop at the happy ending. In fact, they're not stories for children at all."

Danuta became a university lecturer in linguistics and when she was made redundant she turned to full-time writing, specialising in detective fiction. After publishing several novels, she still hankered after doing something based on her father's stories but was uncertain how to proceed.

"My father couldn't go back for a long time - he was an enemy of the state. In the early Sixties he planned a visit. Two days before he was to set off, he had a letter from the Home Office saying they couldn't guarantee his safe return." To research her book and see if she could find any echoes to her father's stories, she had to go to Belarus. "I needed a hook and Minsk was the place where the contacts and the archives were. I don't speak Russian, so it was a steep learning curve." She discovered no trace of the family but what she saw reinforced a general sense of what an unlucky country this still is.

President Aleksandr Lukashenko has ruled the country with an increasingly iron fist for a decade. Just a couple of months ago, Belarus was listed by Washington as Europe's last remaining outpost of tyranny and even Moscow has shown signs of exasperation with Lukashenko's methods.

"It looked at one time as if Belarus was going to loosen up," says Danuta. "Now it's Stalinist. Minsk is immaculate, it doesn't have the gangsterism of Russian cities, but you still find kids without shoes in the streets. It's not an easy country to travel in and relatively lawless outside Minsk."

The visit opened her eyes to what went on in the war years. "People know about the Jewish Holocaust and they kind of know that Eastern Europe was bad but they don't know the details. Just outside Minsk was the third largest death camp of the war but because it's behind what became the Iron Curtain, no-one's really heard about it in the West. It was so efficient that only about twelve people survived it." Called Maly Trostenets, the camp was originally built in the summer of 1941 as a concentration camp to house Soviet prisoners of war captured following the German invasion. It became an extermination camp, on May 10, 1942 when the first transport of Jews arrived. Estimates of the number of people killed there range from 200,000 to more than half a million.

Danuta works the camp into what became her new novel The Forest of Souls. She also picked up on a story about a local girl called Masha Bruskina, publicly hanged in Minsk by the Nazis. The execution of Masha becomes part of the novel's narrative and she dedicates the book to Masha and the two others who died with her.

The Forest of Souls opens with a present-day murder in Derbyshire of a young woman - an unsuspecting academic whose research has taken her alone to a secluded archive in an old house. She does not suspect it holds secrets which reveal the truth about people who made new lives for themselves in the north of England after hideous betrayals in wartime Belarus.

The book skips backwards and forwards between the war years and the present day and, in doing so, explores the fissure in the human psyche between self-interest and self sacrifice. In particular, it asks why it was that in Minsk 60 years ago, some people collaborated while others were moved to heroic acts.

Echoing through the story like a chorus are the dark folk tales Danuta heard as a child from her father. Their tone of foreboding is actualised in the shape of Nazi horrors as, deep in the forest, soldiers systematically carry out nocturnal butchery. The evil witch of the woods of legend comes to stand for the heart of darkness within humanity, a place without hope, where any depravity is possible.

"You get categorised as a writer and I wasn't sure I could combine the two elements - this material and crime fiction," says Danuta. "I thought my publishers would want me to stay in the box, but they were enthusiastic. A crime novel can be anything - so long as there's a crime there - and this one starts with a body in a library. The end result is not radically different from what I've done before, it's just on a broader canvas." It's also published under a pen name - Carla Banks - rather than her real name. Her agent chose it from a gravestone in Highgate cemetery.

Next month, Danuta takes over as chair of the Crime Writers' Association. "The crime-writing community is a very nice group of people," she says. "Maybe it's because they get all their nastiness out of their system in their books."

The Forest of Souls by Carla Banks. Harper Collins ?18.99

. To order a copy from the Yorkshire Post Bookshop, call free on 0800 0153232. Postage and packing costs ?1.95.

The tragedy of the girl who must not be named

In Minsk, Masha Bruskina was the victim of the first public execution of partisans in the occupied USSR. As a Jew she had been forced by the Nazis to live in the Minsk ghetto with her mother. At 17, and a member of the Communist Party, she joined the Minsk resistance as well as volunteering as a nurse at the hospital in the Polytechnic Institute. She cared for wounded members of the Red Army and helped them escape by smuggling civilian clothing and false identity papers into the hospital. One of the patients gave her away and on October 14 1941 she was arrested and tortured. To frighten the local people, the commander of the German 707th Infantry Division arranged, on October 26 1941, to have Masha Bruskina hanged in front of the gates of a local yeast factory - along with two other members of the resistance, 16-year-old Volodia Shcherbatsevich and First World War veteran, Kiril Trus.

Masha is pictured carrying a sign on her chest that says in Russian and German: "We are partisans and have shot at German soldiers."

Signs, with this wording, were hung round the necks of all captured partisans regardless of their activities. The whole grisly event was photographed in sequence by the Germans.

These photos are exhibited today in Minsk, but the Belarus authorities decline to use Masha's name in the captions - having decided they do not want to celebrate a heroine who is Jewish.

These fragments of a life, put down by Jan Kot when he was an elderly man, were written with a single purpose, "only to relieve this scream in my mind," he wrote. After what he had been through he nursed, he confessed, "a constant feeling of sorrow for my beloved country"

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