The Winter Palace by Paul Morgan

Reviewed by Rod McLary

The Winter Palace is a fine example of historical fiction.  Based on meticulous research, the book explores the reality of what is commonly called the ‘Polish abduction’ from the beginning of World War Two and personalises the experiences of many thousands of Polish people by telling the story of two in particular – Anton and Elisabeth.

In September 1939, Nazi Germany along with the Soviet Union invaded Poland and captured over 100,000 of its soldiers and abducted millions of civilians – men, women and children – and forced them into slavery.

Anton Lewicki-Radziwilł is a captain in the Polish army and, when Nazi Germany invades his country, he is obliged to leave his and Elisabeth’s home – the Winter Palace – and join his battalion at Poznań.  Elisabeth is left to pack and move to Warsaw to stay with an aunt where they were both convinced she would be safe from the Germans.  The house would be closed up until they returned the following year ‘when the war would surely be over’ [12].

Thus begins the story of Anton and Elisabeth as they separately endure the vicissitudes and horrors of war.  Their stories are told side by side through the novel – Anton’s in the third person and Elisabeth’s in the first.  This technique allows Anton’s story to set out the progress of the war through the eyes of a Polish soldier who is subsequently one of the many who are captured by the Germans and who ultimately end up in Jerusalem.  Elisabeth’s story of the war is told through her intensely personal perspective.  These two narratives – arguably the objective and the subjective – together provide a fuller sense of the impact and devastation of war on combatants and non-combatants alike and by extension the Polish towns and countryside.

Less than twenty-four hours after Anton leaves their home, and before Elisabeth is able to leave for Warsaw, German soldiers arrive to commandeer the house and lands.  Elisabeth is forced to become the German colonel’s mistress or, as the soldiers more crudely call her, the ‘Offizierdecke’ [the officer’s mattress].  But she is far from a passive victim – she vividly dreams of ways to kill the colonel from pouring bleach down his throat to plunging a carving knife deep into his chest to Anton’s sudden return to beat the colonel to death with his fists.  She knows of course what the likely consequences would be should she act on her dreams.  In one frightening and horrifying vignette, Elisabeth describes the death of a village woman shot dead by a German soldier in front of her children for doing no more than feeding her son ahead of the soldier.  As Elisabeth says:  What a terrifying, exhilarating discovery the Germans had made – that there was no God, that there were no rules except those they made for themselves, that nothing was forbidden [67].

And Anton’s experiences are no less horrific.  He is told by a Russian soldier that it is common practice for the Germans when capturing another village to round the civilians up and herd them into a church.  They bolt the doors, then they set the place alight to burn everyone alive [151].  But there are moments of kindness which mitigate the bleakness as when Anton befriends Sarah Bruckner of Lódź, a young nine-year-old child who has lost both her parents.  He learns that a single act of kindness lets a stranger into your life … nothing can ever be the same between you [95].  And he cares for her until her death from pneumonia a few weeks later.

What sustains both Anton and Elisabeth through their experiences is their enduring love for each other and the belief that they will once again live in the Winter Palace.  But war disrupts everything and the trajectory of their lives does not allow for a reunion.  When the war ends, Anton is in Australia and Elisabeth in Poland.  The research undertaken by the author uncovered many stories of Polish people who travelled to Australia to begin new lives.  These real-life stories inspired the author to write of Anton’s relocation to Melbourne.

The novel is bookended by two beautifully realised sections – the first is spoken by Elisabeth many years after the war as she celebrates her birthday and realises that it is time to tell her story; and the second is an exchange of letters between Elisabeth’s carer Marta and Anton’s daughter Elisabeth.  These sections bring Anton’s and Elisabeth’s story to an immensely satisfying conclusion.

Paul Morgan has crafted a work of historical fiction which is at times heart-warming and heart-breaking but always fully engaging.  The Winter Palace is beautifully written and thoroughly satisfying.  It is highly recommended.

The Winter Palace


by Paul Morgan

Penguin Books

ISBN 978 1 76104 909 5

$34.99; 328pp


🤞 Want to get the latest book reviews in your inbox?

🤞 Want to get the latest book reviews in your inbox?

Scroll to Top