Book review: ‘The Winter Soldier’ by Daniel Mason

By LARRY BALLWAHN | Wilton

In 1914, through a series of complicated events, the Austro-Hungarian Empire found itself in what turned out to be World War I. In Vienna, Lucius Krzelewski simply was not interested in all the patriotic fervor. He was in his third year of preparing to become a doctor, something not necessarily well accepted by his aristocratic mother. Preparing to become a doctor, in his case, involved a whole lot of study and research, and not much hands-on.

His schooling ended abruptly due to the war, however. A shortage of doctors for the war effort led to demands being put on medical people of every description, especially students. So, Lucius was commissioned as a military doctor. His mother wasn’t happy about it: in the service, yes; medical, no.

As Lucius soon found out, battlefronts were so fluid that it was difficult to get a placement. Eventually he was assigned to a commandeered church in the mountains.

This “hospital” was to stabilize the wounded so they could be sent on. Upon arrival, he gave his name as Doctor Krzelewski and asked for the senior doctor in charge. The response was, “Didn’t you just say you were him?” The previous doctor had left two months before, leaving Sister Margarete to operate the facility. As Lucius was soon to learn, Sister Margarete knew far more about emergency medicine, including surgery, than he did. Fortunately, she was a good teacher and he was a good student. As can happen when two people work close together in trying circumstances, they developed feelings for each other.

New patients were brought in with all manner of war wounds; often, amputation was required. Also, there were wounds that couldn’t be seen, the mental cost of war’s horrors. Periodically, an evacuation detail would arrive to take away those able to travel. Occasionally, a conscription detail would arrive to send those judged able back to the front. The lieutenant in charge, Lieutenant Horst, had standards of readiness much harsher than doctors and nurses. Basically, if they could stand, they could serve.

One day a soldier was brought to the hospital scrunched up in a wheelbarrow. “Scrunched” is the word; he was wound together, made no movement, and was barely breathing. There were no visible wounds, but his breath moved a feather. He was washed, clothed and made comfortable, but still no change. Doctor Krzelewski tried nearly every medicine that he had. It was Vernal that worked. That and a lot of personal attention from Sister Margarette. The man was able to offer his name, Horvath. While there was Vernal available, progress was made.

With the outcome still tenuous, Doctor Krzelewski refused to send Horvath with the evacuation detail. This turned out to be a disastrous decision. Lieutenant Horst took Horvath’s lack of responsiveness as disrespect. He had Horvath stripped naked and tied to a tree in the freezing temperatures. No matter what Doctor Krzelewski said, the punishment was meted out until there was little life in Horvath and the cold had done its work. When the detail finally left, only amputations saved Horvath’s life.

After Horvath was taken by an evacuation detail,Doctor Krzelewski lost all track of him and supposed that his decisions had the cost of much pain and finally death. It was a heavy burden for the doctor, and yet the novel is named for Horvath — “The Winter Soldier.”

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