A Novel of an Unique Friendship

By Bill Copeland


National Writers Association

Novel Contest

ASHES TO THE VISTULA is a novel of an unique friendship of two orphan boys who forge a relationship in the days preceding World War II. Jakub, the younger, is retarded, but his friend, Filip, vows to protect him, even when the German SS force Jakub to come with them. Filip joins him and they are taken to Auschwitz, where their friendship is subjected to many hardships. Filip, however, is made an overseer (kapo) and manages the collection center, where he meets Anna, a Russian POW, and they begin a love affair. Filip learns Anna is involved in an effort to destroy the crematoriums and urges her to stop. When she is arrested, Filip accidentally implicates her, and he is forced to watch her hang. In his sorrow, Jakub takes care of him, and Filip realizes Jakub no longer needs him, not until the final vengeful days.

Sharon Pratt (OBX, NC)

I finished "Ashes..." last night. It was a very good book, beautiful story. The characters came alive and it was very touching. The poetry in it was beautiful.

Gregory M. Sango (Leominster, Massachusetts)

Human kind seems never to learn from its past but continues to repeat it. The voices that the author has listened to in his heart and spirit are from a time of the world's greatest horror, and they can now feel they have been heard anew.

This work brings to our 21st century mind's eye the times before when the world believed all was well and a monster came to us. This work brings that monster to us through a friendship of caring for another less fortunate and the promise made to that person.

If one never steps through the gates of the "Camp", this work will take your mind there and leave a mark as that which is still carried by a few on their arms. Every person living today that can read and is willing not to turn away from the voices that call from the "camps" must "hear" their message through the words of "Ashes to the Vistula". The past must never be forgotten. Through the lives of the two, the lives of six million can be heard.

charles freedman, a lover of good books, 09/16/2007

great story great ending a well written story with many subplots that all come together for a powerful ending. Even though the story is deeply emotional the reading experience was very satisfying. Well done!

Betty Lippold (SC Writers Workshop)

Read the novel in two nights - couldn't put it down. A compelling read! Waiting for your next novel.

R. Ferris (Georgia)

"Ashes To The Vistula" is a story that must be told to every generation so that it is never forgotten and, more importantly, never repeated. Bill Copeland, a master storyteller, sets the historical background with known characters and places. He then weaves you into the story as a close observer that can smell the fear and feel the joy, danger, and despair of each of the characters. I resented having to put the novel down to take care of some mundane chore. To Bill Copeland I say, "well done!" We look forward to your next novel.

Ken Scott (Spain)

A quite incredible debut novel set in the harrowing shadow of Aushwitz. Copeland delivers his masterpiece with feeling and passion and with every page turned a feeling of being dragged kicking and screaming into the depths of despair. The story that unfolds between the two friends is awesome, I sat at times with my mouth wide open and pinched myself again and again reassuring myself it was only fiction. And as I neared the final pages I admit I shed a tear or two. No book has ever made me cry. A first class debut Mr Copeland.


How quickly my life changed. With a loving family only this morning, now an orphan subject of the scorn of nuns and the target of bullies.

I am left alone the following day. I mostly sit and stare out at the drizzle, hoping the rain is over and expecting to see the sun at any moment. I don’t see it and darkness comes and the fear is renewed. I am left alone during the night, but I stay awake afraid they were coming again.

“Filip Stichko?” It’s another nun, shorter and older with a sour expression and dark eyes. “This valise is filled with clothes. Gifts from the generous people of this parish. Put on something clean and be ready in three minutes.”

“Yes, ma’am. Am I going somewhere?”

She turns back to me and nods. “They’re burying your people today. You should be there.”

The funeral is brief, as a priest speaks solemnly and softly, praying as two coffins are lowered into the dark, dank earth, the ground still wet with the waters from the Wisla. Granite markers for my parents, and two smaller ones for my sister and brother, stand waiting to mark the graves, sentinels marking a point in my life, noting a change in its course taking me to I know not where.

I’m numb as I stand beside the graves and I realize I’m alone, even with the gravediggers waiting to fill the holes and the nuns waiting, and I dread what is to come and wipe the tears from my cheeks.

“Come, boy, we can’t just stand here. We have things to do and you have places to go.”

I walk behind the others wondering where I have to go, still numb with the reality of my life. As we approach the orphanage I see an old man, a priest, standing beside the steps with my brown suitcase next to him. The tall nun stops and speaks with him and points in my direction. As I near them she motions for me to come towards her.

“Filip Stitchko, this is Father Jan. You will go with him. He has generously found a foster home for you with good Christians.” She smiles at the priest and walks into the orphanage.

“Come, boy, we have to catch a bus. It is a long ride to Katy.”

We walk at a brisk pace and he turns occasionally to see if I’m following, nods and continues to plod on. He is quiet and intent on walking to where we can catch a bus.

I don’t talk either, surprised to be leaving the orphanage and wondering about my new parents, wondering about a town I’ve never heard of. I follow the old priest and move the valise from one hand to the other whenever the pain in my arm or shoulder demands it.

We walk into the city, over the river, and into the depths ofKrakow, not stopping and keeping a steady pace. We reach a building with a large dirt lot, churned into mud by the rains, with buses lining the streets where passengers board. I wait outside while the priest goes inside. He returns holding two tickets and points to a bus at the end of a long line of vehicles.

We board it and take seats half way back, he on one side of the aisle and me on the other with my valise. There are two other passengers, both of whom are in front of us and they don’t bother looking in our direction.

The driver, whose face is long and sunken with deep lines beneath his eyes, follows us. He calls out the stops along the way ending with “Brest”.

The vehicle is old and starts with a jerk and a grinding of gears, tossing me about and forcing me to hold onto the seat in front of me. If I knew what was to come, then I would be more excited, but now I’m just scared.

Father Jan sits and nods and speaks to me occasionally, but he seems to be at a loss for something to say.

“Katy is a small town, my boy, not like Krakow or even Brest. My church is small, but it is large enough. I no longer desire a large church with an unruly congregation.” He clears his throat and glances in my direction. “I once wanted to be in Warsaw, or even Rome, but I shepherd a small farming community in Central Poland. Perhaps it’s God’s will.”

He falls silent and looks out the window. He seems ancient and steadfast. “There are good people in Katy, good Christians willing to take in a twelve year old boy.” He turns towards me and gives me a crooked smile.

Neither of us speak as I sit across the aisle from him on the rickety, squeaky bus which jostles us along the dirt road leaving a long trail of dust to float slowly to earth, as the fumes from burnt oil waft from the engine through the open windows.

“Eastern Poland,” my son, “is a vast plain that sweeps eastward across the Bug River into a land that is as ancient as Poland, once the lands of Byelorussians and Ukrainians. It stretches many kilometers across the forests and plains to Russia. It’s a fertile land that feeds Eastern Europe, producing wheat season after season.” He gestures with his hands, clasping them and then waving them about, clasping them again, looking about and searching for something to say.

He tires of talking as the hum of the bus lulls him into a nodding sleep, one of many I will witness in my growing years. All I know is that Katy is in the middle of the country and as far from my home near Krakow as from my parents in heaven.

Those thoughts swim through my mind as I suppress tears and the choking aloneness I feel in the depths of my chest, trying to envision what my life will be like, what it is to become an orphan. I am thankful the old priest dozes and can’t witness my pain, as I close my eyes to stop the tears and squeeze them tightly. I ask God to stop my heart’s racing, stop the fear running through me, and I remember the beating I got at the orphanage because I cried. I vow to never let anyone see my pain again, as I wipe the tears from my cheeks and sleep, a deep, dreamless sleep that blocks the reality of what has become of me.

I awake with the driver’s announcement of “Katy”. The gloomy village is hidden in darkness as the bus creeps into the town square, stopping before a lone store, the entrance lit by a small lamp, more of a beacon in the night than an effort to give light. I awake, grateful for the darkness to hide the redness of my eyes and my tear-streaked cheeks, which I quickly rub to remove the evidence of my fear and pain.

Father Jan motions without speaking, his face deeply lined, his shoulders bent forward, as he steps from the bus with only a nod at the driver where the circles under his eyes are darker. I sit on the steps beneath the lamp as the vehicle grinds its gears and lurches away trailing the fumes and smoke of its old engine. The gloom of my feelings is matched by the town, empty and abandoned for want of people, of activity, of sunlight.

“They were to meet us.” He shakes his head and speaks more to the night and himself than to me.

Silence again falls between us, as I don’t know what to say or even if there is a need to respond.

“Never you mind, boy, we’ll sleep in my house for the night and see to them in the morning.” He strides towards the modest church set off the square, not even glancing at me or waiting for me to follow.

I pick up my valise, my only possessions within, and shuffle after the priest, not even trying to match my pace with his. I feel the tears just beneath the surface, the choking in the back of my throat as I clear the phlegm with a nervous cough. But I fight the urge to cry and remember my vow to never let anyone know my pain or witness my fear.

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