Knyzka Corner Book Review: The Woman at the Gates

In this edition of Knyzka Corner, we will be discussing Chrystyna Lucyk-Berger’s historical novel, The Woman at the Gates.

The Woman at the Gates begins in the summer of 1945 in Bavaria. Antonia, her sister Lena, and her two nephews are recovering after their harrowing experiences in World War II. They have fond memories of their Ukrainian village of Sadovyi Hai, but they also remember the horrific days of struggle under the Soviet and Nazi regimes. Chrystyna Lucyk-Berger’s poignant novel is a brutally realistic portrayal of a Ukrainian patriot, and “freedom’s heavy toll.” (p. 9)

It is 1941 in Lviv, and Antonia has joined the clandestine Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN). She wants to help free Ukraine from its foreign rulers. “Initially, she too had been prepared to fight those who repressed her country’s language, traditions and cultures; a Ukrainian’s very right to exist.” (p. 16) By day, she teaches languages at the university, and at night, she writes articles for the underground newspaper, Our Nation’s Voice. Several of her friends work with her, Ivan Kovalenko and his sister Oksana as well as Dr. Victor Gruber, her colleague at the university. Antonia is in love with Gruber, and they hope to get married. Under their leader Andrij Melnyk, the members of OUN are fighting against Soviet control.  They are concerned about the “radicals” led Stepan Bandera, because they have not accepted Melnyk’s leadership.

Antonia and her friends are caught between the Soviet and German forces.  Both sides want to exploit Ukraine and its resources. As World War II rages on, the dangers increase. Antonia is taken into custody by the Soviets and tortured. As the Nazis close in on Lviv, Ukrainian prisoners are systematically executed.  Antonia fears that Victor, her lover, has died.  Ivan and his fellow patriots rescue Antonia from Soviet captivity. She must now go into hiding. Antonia’s sister is Lena Rem, a famous writer, and her brother-in-law Roman Mazur is a renowned painter.  They and their two children are in danger from the Soviet forces and must escape to a safer country.

Antonia flees with her sister’s family. Their journey is long and arduous.  She grieves for Victor, but is reluctant to get involved with Ivan, who has loved her for years. When the Nazis invade Ukraine, Ukrainians are faced with difficult choices.  Should they collaborate with the Germans in order to gain freedom for Ukraine, or should they resist?  Underlying everything is the conflict between the two factions of Ukrainian nationalists. When Antonia and her family end up in a German concentration camp, their only hope of survival is beyond “the gates” of the camp.

This story is very personal for Chrystyna Lucyk-Berger, “You have to understand that this family story – that project where I recorded my family’s history – has been following me across oceans for over twenty-five years.” (p. 405) The writer combines pieces of her family history with historical events to create a heart-wrenching portrait of a courageous young woman who faces impossible odds.  She is terrorized, hunted, and imprisoned in a concentration camp where she faces starvation, rape, and torture.  Her ordeal is unimaginable, and readers will be shocked by the brutal treatment she faces in order to survive.

Throughout all her struggles, Antonia retains her dignity and belief in the idea of a free Ukrainian nation. The Ukrainian patriots faced an impossible dilemma when confronted with choosing between two enemies – Nazis or Soviets. Readers may be shocked by the venom of the conflict between the followers of Bandera and Melnyk.  Antonia and her friends spare no mercy for the Banderites.  They call them enemies, terrorists, and fascists.  The conflict between the two groups is not only shocking to modern observers; it also has deadly results in this novel.

Chrystyna Lucyk-Berger was born in Minneapolis, Minnesota.  She wrote short stories and travel narratives before working as a journalist and editor.  In 2005, she started writing historical fiction and has not looked back since. Her Reschen Valley series is based on the South Tyrolean-Italian conflict during the interwar period. This series includes: No Man’s Land, Bolzano and Two Fatherlands. Her more recent works include: Souvenirs from Kiev and The Girl from the Mountains.  Chrystyna’s stories have won several awards including the 2020 IPPY Book Award and the HNS International Short Story Award. Chrystyna also has worked as a trainer improving business communication for companies since 2003. She writes her historical fiction novels at her home in Austria. The Woman at the Gates is a heartbreaking novel with a powerful message for readers, “Knowledge is power, but it is the key to understanding, and to empathy.”

The Woman at the Gates is available at Chapters/Indigo and Amazon.

–Reviewed by Myra Junyk

Lucyk-Berger, Chrystyna.


Bookouture, 2021. 416 p. ISBN 978-1-80019-163-1

Available at Chapters/Indigo and Amazon


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