Thirteen year old Luka Barukovich has escaped from a work camp by hiding in the back of a truck loaded with corpses. Luka has reluctantly left his friend, Lida Ferezuk behind, to whatever her fate will be. He can only hope that one day they will see each other again. Luka had been a slave working in a metal factory making bombs but was wounded in the thigh during an attack on the factory.
Luka intends to walk over the mountains and back to Kyiv where he hopes to reunite with his father who is in Siberia and his mother. He sets out for the mountains in the distance but while walking through a farmers mucky field, Luka badly cuts his foot. Cold, hungry and not properly dressed for travel, Luka manages to find shelter in the farmer's barn. His luck changes the next day when he is caught by the farmer's wife attempting to steal food from their well stocked pantry.
The farmers,Helmut and Margarete, are Germans who were given the farm by the Nazis when they overran this area. They have two sons, Claus, who is serving at the Eastern Front and Martin, whom they mention nothing about. Luka learns Helmut's farm is near Breslau, in what used to be Poland, but is now part of the Third Reich. All of the Polish people who lived on these farms have been forcibly removed and the Germans moved onto them.
Helmut and Margarete clean Luka up, treat his wounds, feed him and lock him in one of the bedrooms for the night. Luka wants to escape and continue his journey to Kyiv, but Helmut and Margarete insist that he stay. Weighing the risk of having him stay at the farm against the chances of him dying on the way to Kyiv, they decide he should stay until he has recovered his health. They advise him that with winter coming on he will not likely survive the journey.
Luka stays with them for a time but when their son Martin pays an unexpected visit to the farm, they decide it is too dangerous for Luka to remain. Luka hides while Martin visits but he quickly places Martin's voice as that of Officer Schmidt from the labour camp. If Schmidt finds him, Luka knows he will be shot on sight.
Helmut and Margarete pack a rucksack of food and warm clothing for Luka and take him to the forested area along the Oder River where they drop him off. They tell him to follow the river south to reach the foothills. For Luka this journey will ultimately bring him to safety but it will not be without tragedy.Luka manages to make it to the Polish-Czech border, avoiding the German bandit hunters who kill those hiding in the forest. By mid-December he has reached the mountains and there he encounters the people working in an underground Red Cross hospital. It is here that he learns about the Ukrainian Insurgent Army which is fighting both the Germans and the Russians. Luka decides he wants to be a part of this underground army. But he soon realizes that he is better suited to healing than killing.
When the war ends, Luka is persuaded to go to the refugee camps in the hopes that he will be able to find his mother and also Lida.
Underground Soldier is the third short novel in Skrypuch's trilogy of novels which includes Stolen Child and Making Bombs For Hitler. These are companion novels which explore events that occurred in Poland, Russia, Germany and the Ukraine. Stolen Child introduces young readers to the horrific Lebensborn program which involved the Nazi's removing children (with "Aryan characteristics") from their parents with the intent of Germanizing these children. Five year old Larissa Ferezuk is stolen from her family and "adopted" into General Himmel's family and renamed as Gretchen Himmel. However, her sister, eight year old Lida is sent to a labour camp. We read about her situation in the novel, Making Bombs For Hitler. On the way to the labour camp, Lida meets a young man, Luka, who befriends her. Now in Underground Soldier, we learn of Luka's fate.
Luka is a strong character, determined to find his father and mother and also to be reunited with his friend, Lida. He is loyal to his country and devastated to learn that Kyiv has been destroyed. Eventually he comes to realize that his plan to find his father is probably impossible. Luka represents all those people, young and old, who survived the war only to learn they were the sole survivors- that their families perished or were incarcerated in Soviet Russia and likely never to be freed.
In addition to being a well written story, Underground Soldier provides readers with information about certain aspects of the Second World War in Eastern Europe that they might not necessarily know about. For example, for people living in Eastern Europe,(Poland, Hungary, Lithuania, and Ukraine) the Nazi's were but one of two enemies - the other being the Soviets. For people in the western world, the Soviet Union was considered an ally working towards the destruction of the Nazi regime. But both Joseph Stalin, who was the leader of the Soviet Union, and Adolf Hitler of Germany oppressed the people living in Eastern Europe when they came to occupy land in these countries. Liberation from one meant oppression by the other; the Gestapo was simply replaced by the NKVD (Soviet Secret Police) when the Russians "liberated" areas held by Nazi Germany and vice versa.
Another interesting fact is how the Soviets treated the survivors of the Nazi-occupied areas of Russia and Eastern Europe. These people were hunted down by the NKVD and sent to camps in Siberia by Stalin who considered them traitors for being captured! Luka was one such person and his youth was no excuse for being in a labour camp.
We also learn through the characters of Helmut and Margarete how families in occupied countries like Poland lost their farms to Germans who were settled on the land taken away from these people. Often these families were sent to work camps or simply murdered.
A map of the area Luka traveled through would have been interesting and helped the reader to more easily place the events in the novel. There is an Author's Note at the back which provides short notes on several important historical events such as the Bykivnia massacre.
Skrypuch has crafted yet another excellent novel that deals with a very dark part of history without being too graphic. Historical novels allow us to examine and to think about the past, and hopefully to learn a thing or two about tolerance and living peacefully with those from different cultures.
Underground Soldier by Marsha Skrypuch
Toronto: Scholastic Canada 2014