At the heart of this moving novel is the tragedy of the Katyn Massacre of 1940, in which over 22,000 Polish military officers were murdered under orders of the Soviet Union. April 2020 marked the 80th anniversary of this horrific WWII crime and is also the 10th anniversary of the Smolensk Air Disaster, where Polish dignitaries were killed on their way to commemorate the massacre. The only female victim of the massacre – Polish pilot Janina Lewandowska is the basis of one of the characters in Carolyn Kirby’s novel When We Fall. Stefan is a Polish pilot of German ancestry. Born in Poznan, a Polish city with a history of German settlers, Stefan speaks both languages. At the time of the novel, the city had been incorporated into the Third Reich as the capital of Reichsgau Warteland. Many of the Polish inhabitants were executed, arrested, expelled, or used as forced labour; at the same time many Germans were settled in the city. The German population increased from around 5,000 in 1939, to around 95,000 by 1944. The Jewish population of about 2,000 had been moved into concentration camps. Stefan’s girlfriend Ewa has not heard from him for some time, and is worried he has been killed or taken as a prisoner of war.
Ewa is also from Stefan’s home town of Poznan and when we first meet her she is helping her father run their guesthouse. She is an incredible cook, often going foraging for ingredients and somehow able to conjure feasts out of very little. When Stefan left for war she gave him a distinctive pen in a case, hoping they will stay in touch by letter. Her life changes when a young German officer Heinrich Beck comes to stay at the guesthouse and there seems to be a connection between them. Ewa treads a very dangerous path, appearing quiet and unassuming on the surface, but secretly carrying documents for the Polish resistance. Beck suggests she take on a role preparing homes left abandoned or appropriated for new German settlers in the region. It is likely that many had housed Jewish families and Ewa makes reference to other buildings either daubed with graffiti or completely repurposed. Their municipal swimming pool is inside an old synagogue, and when swimming Ewa does imagine what an incredible place of worship it must have been. Beck offers to take Ewa to the cinema one afternoon and before the main feature they see a black and white film showing a Russian dacha in a wood and the digging up of hundreds of bodies. Ewa feels sick, and doesn’t want to watch, but then her eyes focus on something she recognised. There, in a pile of belongings, is the very pen case she gave to Stefan.
Across Europe, Vee is in the ATA- a woman pilot, ferrying RAF planes to and from different bases. Vee fights a lack of confidence to get her wings, but loves being up there in the sky, never knowing from day to day which plane she’ll be flying or where in England she might be going. The girls collect a chit in the morning and this gives them their mission. The women aren’t allowed to fly over cloud cover, because they’re not trained to use instruments, so instead they fly using maps and landmarks. Vee meets a Polish pilot on the airbase and is immediately attracted to his dark good looks. He introduces himself as Stefan and the next day he sends her roses and an invitation to join him on a night out to a club frequented by the RAF. However, the night doesn’t go well and Vee is left wondering whether she’ll ever see him again. When their paths do cross again Vee’s defences are up, but she has to admit to herself that no other man has fascinated her in the same way. He appears back in her life just as her work with the ATA is coming to an end. Vee can feel time running out for her flying career and can’t imagine that anything in life will replace the thrill of being up in the air. Her passion for flying and for Stefan will lead her into a dangerous mission. Will it bring her closer to Stefan and to the truth of his double life?
I enjoyed the two different narrative viewpoints and the way the story builds like a jigsaw puzzle, one piece at a time. It’s not until close to the end that we see the full picture and I felt that this structure was an important part of the novel. It echoes the fragmentary nature of life lived through a war and the fragments salvaged from Katyn in an attempt to show the world the truth. People became separated and lost to each other in Poland at this time and I felt the novel reflected this well, particularly in Ewa’s story. The author makes us feel the importance of knowing the truth about those we have lost. I found myself thinking about those people dedicated to unearthing these stories and what an incredible job they do. Even if I found it hard to understand Stefan at times, I could see he was driven to expose the truth; it’s only late in the novel that we comprehend why. My late husband told me about his grandfather who was an officer in the Polish army. He was split from his family and killed by Russian forces who interred his wife and two sons in Siberia. The youngest brother died, before they could escape and migrate across to England. My mother-in-law was separated from both her parents, smuggled out of Warsaw and over to England. She never saw her father again. She was reunited with her mother in England and they stayed. Only years later did they find her father had ended up in the USA and thinking his family had died, he remarried and had a new family.
It’s hard for us to comprehend the enormity of this horrific loss and displacement. The stories have such an impact when you hear them first hand, but somehow they still feel like the dim and distant past. Reading such a well- researched novel with a great sense of place is such a gift because it takes me there. It lets me imagine my in-laws as young children, having to deal with this constant danger and change. It gives me so much respect for them, they lived through terrible atrocities but built such a meaningful and happy life together. When we lost them they’d spent a lifetime together and left behind two new generations. I read this novel in two sittings, because I was so emotionally involved with the story. The author created such detailed characters, I believed in them immediately. I needed to know who lived to be an old lady, or whether any of the characters made it through the war. The ending is bittersweet, because although I was happy for the characters who survived, I was aware they would live with the events of Katyn and Poznan for the rest of their lives. This beautifully written and respectful novel, honours those like my late father-in-law and Janina Lewandowska, who experienced these events and I would like to thank Carolyn Kirby for bringing their experience to life for readers.