When we last saw Halya Bilyk in Erin Litteken’s debut novel, The Memory Keeper of Kiev, she was only two years old. It was 1934 and she and her family were still recovering from the effects of the Holodomor, Stalin’s attempt to eradicate the Ukranians via starvation.
The sequel, The Lost Daughters of Ukraine, finds now ten-year-old Halya living in fear of two enemies: the Soviets who still intend to keep Ukraine under their thumb, and Hitler’s Nazi Germany, determined to claim it.
The Ukrainans are scorned by their neighbors, not only Russia and Germany, but Poland as well. They are considered somehow sub-human and treated as such. When the Germans start stealing children off the street to use as factory laborers, Halya is among them.
At the same time, in Volhynia, fifteen-year-old Liliya Shums’ka has lost everything. Her brother was executed by the Russians as an “enemy of the people.” Her mother died in a German strafing attack. Eighteen months later her father is beaten and burned to death when the Poles set fire to their home in Maky. Her father’s last words to her: “Go home!”
Liliya manages to find her way to her uncle’s home where she recovers from her physical wounds and vows there will be no more emotional wounds: she will not love ever again. She meets Filip, a Pole who works at the same horse barn as her uncle, Maksym and sleeps in the loft in their barn.
In the spring of 1943, Filip and Liliya are arrested by the Nazis and put on a train to Germany. When the train is bombed, Liliya and Filip escape, but Liliya’s freedom is short-lived. The Nazis come looking for her and, when her Aunt Vika tells them she doesn’t know where Liliya is, they decide to take Vika’s son, Slavko, instead. Lilya, who has been hiding with Filip in the barn loft, sees what is happening and surrenders to the Germans, telling them to take her instead.
They take both of them.
On the train to the German factory where they will be put to work, Slavko and Liliya meet Halya. They become a family of three, watching out for one another through the grueling days of work and hunger.
With the Soviets bent on destroying their town, Maksym, Vika, and their three other children decide they must escape to Germany where they believe things must be better. Their goal is Leipzig, Germany where they hope to find refuge as well as Slavko and Liliya whom they believe work in a factory there.
Meanwhile, the war rages on. Halyna’s parents Katya and Kolya send letters and food when they can. Slavko’s family, like thousands of Ukranian refugees, run from the advancing Soviets into the claws of the Nazi army. They are subject to bombing and burnings, fleeing Dresden in the middle of winter and sub-zero temperatures. Without the kindess of strangers they would have starved or frozen to death like so man others. At the factory, Slavko, Halya, and Liliya try desperately to escape but are thwarted again and again.
They are all running a race to stay alive, desperately hoping to find one another. There is only one string left untied at the end, and I am dying to know what happens with Halya’s family.
As with many novels, there is a happy ending. I’ll let you discover that ending as you read The Lost Daughters of Ukraine. In the meantime, I’ll tell you: this is a must-read book. A five-star read. And you will be missing something profound if you don’t read it.