Beyond the Book: Background information when reading Skeletons at the Feast

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Skeletons at the Feast

by Chris Bohjalian

Skeletons at the Feast by Chris Bohjalian
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  • First Published:
    May 2008, 384 pages
    Paperback:
    Feb 2009, 384 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Vy Armour

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The Making of a Historical Novel
Skeletons at the Feast had its origin ten years ago when good friends of Bohjalian's family shared a diary from their East Prussian grandmother from the years 1920-1945, including the arduous trek west ahead of the Soviet Army. Eight years later, Bohjalian read Armagedden, Max Hasting's history of the last year of war in Germany, and was struck by how often the anecdotes in Hasting's non-fiction mirrored moments in the grandmother's diary. It was upon a second reading of the diary that he began to imagine a novel.

"I will tell you that I felt an enormous responsibility to the people I interviewed while researching the topic to get it right. These are individuals—Holocaust survivors, Germans, Poles—who are very old now and I wonder how many chances they'll have to recount what they experienced. My sense is there were few periods in human history more brutal than the last six months of the Second World War in that corner of Poland and Germany."


East Prussia
The Central European region known as Prussia extended from the south-eastern coast of the Baltic Sea to the Masurian Lake District which is now divided between Poland, Russia, and Lithuania. East Prussia was a province in the Eastern part of the region which, along with the rest of Prussia, became part of the German Empire during the unification of Germany in 1871. In 1875, almost three-quarters of the region were ethnically German, the remainder were Polish and Lithuanian.

As the Russian troops marched across Europe in the waning months of World War II, many ethnic Germans evacuated or were forcibly expelled from territories claimed by Germany during the early years of World War II, such as Czechoslovakia and Poland, and also from parts of Germany.

The evacuation of East Prussia took place between January and March 1945. Although the German military had had evacuation plans in place for some months, the order to evacuate was delayed for too long making an orderly evacuation impossible. The result was chaos for much of the civilian population who, caught in the middle of the combat, were left to make their own evacuation plans, traveling during a bitterly cold winter that left many thousands dead.

The Soviet Union took control of East Prussia in May 1945. Although many of the German civilians had managed to evacuate it is estimated that about 300,000 were killed during the Soviet offensive and many others were later expelled. Census counts in 1950 showed 2.6 million Germans still living in Eastern Europe, about 12% of pre-war totals.


Maps

Article by Vy Armour

This article was originally published in May 2008, and has been updated for the February 2009 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.

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