BORN within days of each other in 1923, Mykhail Petrenko and Asher Kogan grow up as the best of mates, brothers by choice if not by blood.
Living in adjacent farmhouses near Dyovsta, Ukraine, their families labour together under the constant scrutiny of the Soviet authorities, producing crops to keep Russia’s masses fed.
Despite occasional famine and a lack of modern equipment it’s an idyllic childhood for two boys who like nothing more than spending afternoons sitting on a riverbank fishing for dinner.
As the 1930s wear on and antagonism towards Jews festers, however, Asher’s parents decide to sell their land and join relatives living in Poland. There, in Warsaw – a sophisticated, cosmopolitan metropolis with motorcars, apartments, factories and cafés – Asher discovers a lifestyle unimaginable to rural Ukrainians like Mikhail. With his father and older sisters earning wages, there’s money for clothing, toys and groceries – sometimes, even cakes.
Suddenly, though, several years’ worth of rumours become fact as Nazi forces swarm across the country’s western border and quickly overrun the ill-equipped Polish defence. Seeing aeroplanes for the first time, Asher finds himself directly in the path of repeated aerial bombing.
Mercifully, it’s short-lived. The initial attack over, the Kogans are allowed to settle back into their regular routine. Perhaps the Germans won’t prove to be nearly the ogres the Poles have feared.
Little do they know that within a matter of months every Jewish resident of Warsaw will be herded into a newly-walled ghetto in the centre of the city and Mykhail will be conscripted into the Red Army.
Fast-forward more than half a century and in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, one half of the inseparable childhood friendship had been shot dead, one elderly man murdered at his own kitchen table by the other. What could possibly have transpired in the intervening decades to have prompted this?