How did Death Zones come about?

Since I was a boy, I’ve been obsessed with WWII. The war affected most families in Europe, and it certainly did mine, in an extreme way, too. My Danish maternal grandmother married a Russian Jew, but her brother became a Nazi and joined the Waffen-SS. He disappeared in the Ukraine in 1943. A suitcase containing his letters and official German documents stood in my parents’ basement, and even back when I was a boy I tried to make sense of the suitcase with its Iron Cross and Nazi propaganda and strange story, namely that members of the same family could be both executioners and victims. That my grandmother’s brother could have killed my grandfather’s family in Riga, and that he could have informed on my grandfather had he not disappeared before the action taken against Danish Jews. The closeness between executioner and victim fascinated and frightened me, because it confronted me with the fact that coincidences, mistakes, small steps can determine whether we become the one or the other, either the one shot in the back of the neck or the one firing the gun. Where would one end up in such a situation? I wanted to delve into that drama, the great dilemma, and in the following years I immersed myself in the subject, I read and travelled extensively in the Baltics, Ukraine, and Russia, spoke with surviving family members, followed in the tracks of SS units, the front lines, the massacres, wandered around countrysides that oozed with history, a mass grave here, a monument there, the trashy towns that looked like rusty cars torn apart, the swaying cornfields. I began writing novels and film manuscripts, but I still couldn’t tell the story, it kept rattling around in my head. Then one day my protagonist popped up, in three images: one, a German police officer behind the front in White Russia sits at a desk writing a letter to his fiancée in Hamburg, a letter he doesn’t finish because a case, the murder of an SS general, interrupts him; two, he’s standing in a basement, watching a man being tortured, and after the man gives some important information, the man’s windpipe is cut by a poultry shear; and three, he squats down beside the burned corpse of his fiancée after the bombing of Hamburg in July 1943. Three images, one each from a beginning, a middle, and an ending. All I had to do was connect the three scenes! And it became a thriller, a war novel, and a love story about an ordinary man who tries to pretend that the world makes sense as it becomes more and more chaotic and evil, who seeks to solve a mystery in the midst of actions against partisans in White Russia, mass graves, and double agendas within the SS, until he himself becomes the hunted and ends up in the firestorm from English bombers that destroys Hamburg.

By Simon Pasternak

Death Zones by Simon Pasternak. Published by Harvill Secker on 28th April 2016, priced £16.99.

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