Aleksei Nikitin

Bat-Ami Bat-Ami. From the Face of Fire. Novel. 2020. 400 pages
Foreign rights: Italy/ Voland
Ukraine/ Phoenix
US/ Harvard University Press

Ukrainian Jewish boxing champion Ilya Goldinov has just come second place in the Soviet All-Union championships when World War II breaks out. After the German invasion of Ukraine, he joins the partisan fighters in the forests behind the front line. Only by lucky coincidence does he survive and he joins the regular army as a soldier before being sent by the Ukrainian secret service on a life-threatening mission to occupied Kyiv. There a former sports comrade recognizes him by chance on the street and denounces him to the Germans as a Jew. Meanwhile Ilya‘s wife Felixa is leaving with the evacuation. On the way she falls ill and is abandoned by her Jewish mother-in-law, together with her daughter Bat-Ami. The hope of seeing Ilya alive again keeps mother and daughter alive. They make it back to Kyiv. There Felixa‘s friend Ira is the last to see Ilya alive. But Ira is in a concentration camp. It’s only in the summer of 1945, after miraculously surviving the concentration camp that Ira can deliver the bitter truth.

This family saga, full of unforeseeable twists and turns, is told in such a thrilling, detailed and touching way that it casts its spell after only a few pages. Unique is the perspective – the attack of the Germans seen through the eyes of a boxer and assimilated Jew. Even the Ukrainian farmers, Nazis, secret service agents, partisans, and sports comrades rarely conform to the usual schemata of good and evil, friend and foe. They are interwoven in fine shades into the main plot of Ilya‘s family during the chaos of war. An emotional and a stylistic highlight of the novel is Ilya‘s march to Kyiv carrying the small Kyiv rabbi in his rucksack: for the elderly rabbi a rescuing march into life, for the young Ilya a walk to certain death.

BAT-AMI is not a documentary novel, but its story – inspired in part by the author‘s family history – is based on files relating to 1941-42 secret service operations from the archives of the Ukrainian Secret Service, not released until 2011, as well as from other Ukrainian archives, the museum of the Dynamo Kyiv sports club and Yad Vashem. Most were not published until very recently. These sources enabled the author to tell the true story of the famous boxer Goldinov. Because the widespread theories about what happened to him – the rumours that were still circulating in Kyiv after the war – have largely proven to be false, as has old Yad Vashem version of events. The descriptions of Ukraine’s complex conflicts involving an overpowering Russian brother state, the Soviet secret service, German occupation, partisans and patriotic nationalist freedom fighters cast their shadows even onto the Ukraine of today.

All the NKVD officers who were involved in this operation and are mentioned in the novel are real people whose background in the pre- and post-war period has been researched and made known thanks to the work of the Russian Memorial Society and Ukrainian historians.