March 1, 2021

Book Review - Last Witnesses: An Oral History of the Children of World War II by Svetlana Alexievich

Last Witnesses:
An Oral History of the Children of World War II

by Svetlana Alexievich
translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky

Genres: Nonfiction, History, World War II, Russia, Autobiography, Memoir, War
Publisher: Random House
Length: 320 pages
Published: July 2, 2019 (first published in 1985)
Purchase Links: Amazon, Barnes & Noble

My Goodreads Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Official Book Summary:

"From the Nobel Prize-winning author comes an oral history of children's experiences in WWII across Europe and Russia, in the celebrated tradition of her masterpiece, The Unwomanly Face of War.

Bringing together dozens of voices in her distinctive style, Last Witnesses is Svetlana Alexievich's collection of the memories of those who were children during World War II. These men and women were both witnesses and sometimes soldiers as well, and their generation grew up with the trauma of the war deeply embedded in them--a trauma that would forever change the course of the Russian nation. This is a new version of the war we're so familiar with. Alexievich gives voice to those whose stories are lost in the official narratives, uncovering a powerful, hidden history from the personal and private experiences of individuals. Collectively, these voices provide a kaleidoscopic portrait of the human consequences of the war." 


“For a child, the loss of a parent is the loss of memory itself.”


"'He was afraid to look back . . .'

Zhenya Belkevich

Six years old. Now a worker.

June 1941 . . .

I remember it. I was very little, but I remember everything . . .

The last thing I remember from the peaceful life was a fairy tale that mama read us at bedtime. My favorite one—about the Golden Fish. I also always asked something from the Golden Fish: 'Golden Fish . . . Dear Golden Fish . . .' My sister asked, too. She asked differently: 'By order of the pike, by my like . . .' We wanted to go to our grandmother for the summer and have papa come with us. He was so much fun.

In the morning I woke up from fear. From some unfamiliar sounds . . .

Mama and papa thought we were asleep, but I lay next to my sister pretending to sleep. I saw papa kiss mama for a long time, kiss her face and hands, and I kept wondering: he’s never kissed her like that before. They went outside, they were holding hands, I ran to the window—­mama hung on my father’s neck and wouldn’t let him go. He tore free of her and ran, she caught up with him and again held him and shouted something. Then I also shouted: 'Papa! Papa!'

My little sister and brother Vasya woke up, my sister saw me crying, and she, too, shouted: 'Papa!' We all ran out to the porch: 'Papa!' Father saw us and, I remember it like today, covered his head with his hands and walked off, even ran. He was afraid to look back.

The sun was shining in my face. So warm . . . And even now I can’t believe that my father left that morning for the war. I was very little, but I think I realized that I was seeing him for the last time. That I would never meet him again. I was very . . . very little . . .

It became connected like that in my memory, that war is when there’s no papa . . .

Then I remember: the black sky and the black plane. Our mama lies by the road with her arms spread. We ask her to get up, but she doesn’t. She doesn’t rise. The soldiers wrapped mama in a tarpaulin and buried her in the sand, right there. We shouted and begged: “Don’t put our mama in the ground. She’ll wake up and we’ll go on.” Some big beetles crawled over the sand . . . I couldn’t imagine how mama was going to live with them under the ground. How would we find her afterward, how would we meet her? Who would write to our papa?"

My Book Review:

If you've never read one of Svetlana Alexievich's books before, you're definitely missing out.
A Ukrainian historian who focuses her work on recording the lives and testimonials from individuals who participated and survived some of the most difficult wartime hardships ever experienced, Alexievich's work as a journalist and editor earned her the 2015 Nobel Prize for Literature. Her research is an invaluable contribution to our understanding of humanity.
Last Witnesses: An Oral History of the Children of World War II is an absolutely heartbreaking and gut-wrenching account of testimonials from childhood survivors of the war from both Europe and Russia. Alexievich presents their stories without interruption or framed narrative. The collection is organized from memories of the beginning of the war, through the painful years that followed, and culminates with the war's end. I’ve read many books about the Holocaust, but I never knew about some of the pains and horrors these men and women shared. To hear these individuals reflect back on their lost childhood is extremely emotional, but so very important.
If you're a fan of nonfiction and history, I recommend it wholeheartedly. I've also read Alexievich's collection War's Unwomanly Face and it is an equally powerful and significant text. Some of her other titles--Secondhand Time, Zinky Boys, On the Battle Lost, and Voices from Chernobyl--are also on my to read list.

If you've read any of her books before, please share your thoughts with me!

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