Polish prisoners of war

Quarantine and self-isolation around the world mean that people have time to do a lot more reading over the coming months. To give our readers some ideas MercatorNet is featuring short book reviews from contributors and readers.

You might also be interested in two great reading lists from MercatorNet:

101 books Gen Ys must read before they die

101 books Millennials must read before they die


A Yorkshire farm, just after World War II.

“Where is it you come from? Which country?” Ted, a farm-hand, asks Joe, a 16-year old Jewish refugee, newly arrived. “I don’t know,” Joe replies. For Ted everyone is born in a country, as simple as that. But Joe only knows he was born in Vilna, and explains: “Vilna was in Poland. Before, Vilna was in Russia. Now not in Poland. Now it is in Litva (Lithuania). Also, again it is in Russia.”

The Leaves Are Falling is a historical novel about the Jews and their precarious status in the countries between the two giants, Germany and Russia. In fact, it is two stories: one of Josef Halpern, and the other of his father, Jacob, a doctor, murdered by the Russians in 1940 alongside thousands of other Polish officers and intellectuals in the famous Katyn massacre.

Lucy Beckett skillfully weaves the two stories together while keeping them as separate accounts. Yet there are parallels: Joe miraculously escapes death in a Lithuanian forest; Jacob is led to his death, ironically, into a forest thinking he has been released from prison camp to return to his family in Poland.

Because of Joe’s knowledge of East European languages and of the lie of the land, the farm owner, Colonel Robertson, and a friend from London, a certain Mr Peters, try to entice him to join the British secret service. This is a temptation indeed since it would ensure his continuing stay in Britain which, at that moment, was very uncertain. In a real act of courage, and gut feeling, Joe refuses and decides to trust to luck.

As he is dying in an expensive nursing-home in London many years later, he enjoys the sobering thought that, had he said yes, he might have been among those who, thanks to the treachery of Kim Philby, were parachuted straight into the hands of NKVD agents waiting on the ground.

Joe’s father, Jacob, a surgeon much in demand, was imprisoned in a ruined church “far inside Russia; it wasn’t known how far” and was similarly tempted by Major Zarubin, “NKVD top brass”, but as someone whose medical knowledge and expertise could be of great use to “advancing the tide of history.”

The book has a motley selection of characters and Ms Beckett’s meticulous research into historical events, settings and dialogues gives the book an authentic feel. At the same time she doesn’t mince words, and like a breath of fresh air says things we were never taught in history lessons at school or in university lecture-rooms: the Allied leaders’ betrayal of Eastern Europe, and their cowering before Stalin.

Nor are today’s students likely to hear her view that the present cultural and moral rot and disorientation of the Western world can be traced back to Voltaire and Hegel, Nietzsche (“God is dead, and we have killed him”), Marx –‘whose messianic state lacked a messiah’-, and Freud.

Lucy Beckett’s wide knowledge of literature and history, together with her sharp eye for detail and lively style, make this a compelling read.

The Leaves Are Falling: A Novel, by Lucy Beckett. Ignatius Press, 2014. 314 pages (hard cover).

Martyn Drakard is a retired teacher of languages who lives in Kenya.