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by Svetlana Alexievich (Author)

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"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, creating a powerful alternative history from the personal and private experiences of individuals. Collectively, these voices provide a kaleidoscopic portrait of the human consequences of the war"--… (more)
Authors:Svetlana Alexievich (Author)
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Last Witnesses: An Oral History of the Children of World War II by Svetlana Alexievich


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„Azért emlékszem a háborúra, hogy megértsem… Különben minek?”

Irodalmi értelemben egészen biztosan nem ez Alekszijevics legkiforrottabb könyve. Talán mert itt jelenik meg legkevésbé a szövegben az író (a „riporter”), aki ezúttal teljesen háttérben marad, még a szöveg egységekre tagolásáról is lemond, így aztán a borzalmak riasztó egyhangúsággal potyognak az olvasó elé. Újra és újra és újra ugyanazok a motívumok: az evakuáció, az árvaság, az ún. „partizánok elleni háború”… Ugyanakkor meglehet, Alekszijevics szándékosan marad kívül a történeteken, ezzel is jelezve, ez nem az ő könyve, hanem az elbeszélőké: a gyerekeké. És jelezve egy füst alatt azt is, ami az életmű egyik vezérfonala: hogy a háború nem kaland, nem hősiesség, hanem a borzalom monotonitása. Olyan idő, amiben kifordultak önmagukból a hétköznapok.

A gyerek-elbeszélőkben amúgy nem az a pláne, hogy aranyosak, vagy akár az ártatlanságuk – hanem hogy nincs viszonyítási alapjuk. Nekik a háború az az élmény (sőt, csupa nagybetűvel: ÉLMÉNY), ami alapvetően meghatározta őket. Nem a szerelem, az iskola, a sportszakkör, hanem a halál mindennapisága. Nem tudják úgy értelmezni a tapasztalatokat, ahogy azt egy felnőtt tenné, nem értik az okokat, a történelmi kontextust, képtelenek viszonyítani mondjuk a sztálini tisztogatásokhoz vagy a ’30-as évek éhínségeihez – de ez így van rendjén. Mert ami velük történik, annak konkrétan nincs köze a világválsághoz, a szélsőségek térnyeréséhez, a kommunista rezsim bűneihez, csak saját személyes áldozatiságukhoz, privát sorsukhoz – vagy inkább sorstalanságukhoz. Úgy hullik rájuk ez az egész, mint valami hektikus Isten rendelése. Persze így hullott szinte mindenkire, de esetükben ez még feltűnőbb. Aztán persze később, felnőttkorukban talán elemezhetnék a látottakat, ám feltűnő módon nem teszik. Talán mert az ilyen iszonyatos élményeket képtelenség értelmezni – ahhoz túl erősek. Csak újraélni lehet őket. De hát azt meg… ( )
  Kuszma | Jul 2, 2022 |
Svetlana Alexievich won a Pulitizer Prize in Literature for this book, which is a first-hand account of the experiences of about one hundred different Russian children during WWII, ranging in age from ages 2-14. The vignettes average three pages. It's horrifying and the stories while different have common themes: bombings, starvation, trying to stay warm and move to safety, fathers heading off to war, mothers protecting as best they can or dying with the children being orphaned or passed along to relatives, etc. There are some happy stories, but the book does not shy away from the psychological scars of war.

Personally, I found it too repetitive and the short format keeps readers from getting to know characters. ( )
  skipstern | Jul 11, 2021 |
Some years ago, American writer Alice Walker wrote a picture book entitled “Why War Is Never a Good Idea”. More than anything else I have read, Svetlana Alexievich’s book shows why. It contains testimonies of those who were traumatically impacted as children by the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941 and the war that continued there until 1944. Yale historian Timothy Snyder calls the stretch of earth where Alexievich’s “last witnesses” were born—an area which extends from central Poland to western Russia, through Ukraine, Belarus, and the Baltic states—“the bloodlands” and for good reason. He writes that “mass violence of a sort never before seen in history was visited on this region.” People tend to think the horror of the twentieth century is located in the concentration camps, Snyder observes, but the camps are not where most of the victims died; the bloodlands are. Alexievich’s interviewees are for the most part Belarusians. Their childhood memories, which the author apparently collected, recorded, and shaped between 1978 and 2004, bear witness to the intense human and animal suffering in this part of eastern Europe as a direct result of Hitler’s aspirations and depravity. For Stalin’s genocidal acts and crimes against humanity, you will need to read another book.

I concurrently read ARCs of the adult and the more recent young adult editions of Last Witnesses (translated from the Russian) but my remarks will focus mostly on the latter. I was interested to see how a book, which provides first-hand accounts of wartime experiences and atrocities, would be altered for younger people. Not as much as you might think, it turns out. True, the young people’s version is shorter by about a third, containing only 65 of the original 100 accounts, a few of them with significant edits. Since the book is a collection of memories from some who were as young as two years of age in 1941 (when the Soviet-German War began), many of the recollections are understandably fragmentary. Editors of the young people’s version seem to have rejected a few of the original pieces because they are fractured and confusing, but it’s evident that more of them were excluded because of graphic content. One story that was cut concerns a young girl whose family survived famine during the 900-day Siege of Leningrad by eating beloved family pets. A couple of stories focus on the Germans’ fattening up of captive, pretty, blond children under the age of five in order to use them to transfuse wounded German soldiers. Nazi doctors apparently believed the blood of the very young promoted healing. The children whose blood was repeatedly taken almost always died. Other excluded stories tell of the Nazis’ sexual assault of girls and women, physical abuse and torture of children, and cruelty towards animals. Eyewitness accounts of the punitive/death-squad murders of Jews, local communists, POWs, and relatives of partisan fighters have also been omitted. Germans regularly compelled victims to dig the pits they would fall into when executed. They forced villagers and family members to watch. Any crying by witnesses meant that they too would be shot. Carried out by the notorious Einsatzgruppen, this was “the Holocaust by bullets” that preceded the construction of the Nazi death camps in Poland.

While the young adult edition of Last Witnesses has fewer survivor accounts than the original, it does have additional special features to make the material accessible. First of all, there’s an introduction, which provides basic information about the founding of the Soviet Union and the terror Stalin inflicted on his own people prior to World War II: the mass killings, including political and military purges that weakened the Red Army; the policies that led to deliberate, genocidal famine; and the creation of the gulag network. An overview of Hitler’s goals is also presented. Early in World War II, the Führer had agreed to leave the Soviet Union alone in exchange for the western half of Poland, but, buoyed by victories in western Europe, he changed his mind and invaded the USSR after all. The land was rich in natural resources—oil and minerals; the soil was suitable for agriculture; and, besides, only communists and racially inferior humans—Slavs and most of Europe’s Jews—lived there. A brief summary of the war itself—a war in which German “criminality against civilians . . . was pushed to an extreme”—follows. The introduction refers the reader to a map of eastern Europe, which includes the major cities mentioned in the witnesses’ recorded oral histories. Unfortunately, this essential component was lacking in both advanced reader copies. It’s not clear if the adult version was to include one at all, but I can’t imagine reading either edition without a map to show the vast distances child evacuees travelled (with other, unrelated children or with family members), usually in squalid cattle cars. Footnotes and a useful fifty-word glossary are also provided. The latter explains many words, terms, and events a younger audience might be unfamiliar with, as well as a few that adults might appreciate, too: “Boletus”, “katiushas”, and “quitrent”, for example, were words unknown to me.

Alexievich’s witnesses, even the youngest, recall the arrival of the Germans in June 1941. As children, they saw and heard the planes strafing the trains that were carrying them away from the fighting: to orphanages or settlements in Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Azerbaijan, or Siberia—and elsewhere. Others describe the bombing of their villages, the arrival of black trucks, black motorcycles, and black-uniformed interrogation squads, carrying lists and going door to door to flush out the families of partisan fighters. Up close, the Germans looked surprisingly “ordinary”: handsome, strong, and healthy. Many witnesses comment they had difficulty reconciling these laughing, joking, harmonica-playing youths with the heinous acts they committed.

Submachine gun fire from low-flying aircraft often killed parents as they fled cottages with their young. These were often the children’s first encounters with death, something most would grow used to. Families often ran into forests, sometimes to live among the partisans; other family groups travelled along roads, pushing or pulling carts with food and a few possessions. They made easy targets for the enemy overhead. Grandparents figure prominently in many accounts—rescuing children and small animals the children were attached to, chicks and kittens—but strangers played significant roles as well. Belarusian peasants commonly took in wandering or orphaned children, housed as many as six refugee families in a single dwelling, and despaired when they lacked food for those who were starving. In eastern European peasant communities, unrelated elders were often addressed as grandfather, grandmother, uncle, or aunt. During these dark times, they stepped in as though they really were blood relatives, putting their own lives at risk in order to shelter Jewish and partisan children.

The Germans regularly burned the Belarusian villages they entered. According to the Smithsonian Magazine online, “By one historian’s count, occupying forces murdered all the inhabitants of 629 razed Belarusian villages, in addition to burning down another 5,454 villages and killing at least a portion of their residents.”


Children who travelled east often ended up in orphanages. One woman Alexievich interviewed spoke of feeling protected and loved by the teachers, nannies, and matrons of her orphanage, but far more survivors testify to the lack of tenderness in these institutions. Some orphans observe that the effects of living in such harsh, uncaring places have been long-lasting. As adults, they admit to being emotionally stunted, disconnected, even alienated from others. Maria Puzan comments: “Everyone in the orphanage had trouble growing up. I think it’s probably from pining. We didn’t grow up because we heard so few tender words. We couldn’t grow up without mamas . . .” Affection was not the only thing orphans were starved of in these institutions. Food was extremely scarce. Animals used for labour were often sacrificed, but even this did not meet needs for long. Children ate grass, bark and the buds on trees. There is one striking account of an incident that occurred near the end of the war when conditions were still very harsh: children saved their own limited rations to give to German prisoners. There are other powerful stories of humanity while in hell. When they were incarcerated in a Lithuanian concentration camp, one mother repeatedly reminded her daughter: “We must remain human.” Another survivor, who was recruited to bring wounded Germans water, observes: “Hatred is a feeling that gets formed in a man, it’s not an innate thing.”

Alexievich’s book is full of rich and varied stories. There is a surprisingly humorous narrative of very young orphaned boys taken in by the Red Army. Compelled by officers to attend a school in one locale where the soldiers were stationed, the boys refused to cooperate with mere civilian teachers. We follow only the commands of our military leaders, they told their instructors. The commanding officer subsequently demoted them after issuing strict reminders that their job was to learn.

Orphans were sometimes taken in by partisan fighters as well. Occasionally they went on scouting or other missions. One ten-year-old child, Vasya Saulchenko, who was sent to get a wounded German’s gun, ended up shooting the soldier because the man pointed the weapon at Vasya’s face. This was the first time the boy killed, and it troubled him little during the war; there wasn’t time—“we lived among the dead,” he said, “we even got used to it,”—but, as an adult, he admits to being tormented by recurrent nightmares in which he is trying to fly away, but the soldier keeps pulling him down into a pit. The young adult edition does not retain the paragraphs in which Vasya admits he cannot speak to his son about his experiences. Telling him “would destroy his world. A world without war . . . People who haven’t seen a man kill another man are completely different people . . .” I don’t understand why this important passage was left out.

For me, some of the most poignant stories concern the fragile friendships that formed between children in the direst circumstances: orphanages, concentration camps, or on the streets of cities. One story tells of the close relationship between two boys—one Belarusian; the other, Jewish—who met on the streets of Minsk, lived together in an abandoned apartment, and started shoeshine and luggage-carrying businesses. They acted as porters for Nazi officers arriving by train. Fearing that his friend’s Jewish identity would be discovered, Eduard Voroshilov clipped back his pal Kim’s curly black hair and made sure the boy always wore a cap. One day when the two were anxiously awaiting payment, a German officer pushed Kim, knocking off his hat. His Jewish identity exposed, Kim was taken to the ghetto. Eduard saw him several times afterwards. He regularly went to the ghetto’s barbed-wire fence to toss potatoes to the boy . . . until, after a night of shouting that could be heard across the city, his Jewish friend disappeared.

Again and again while reading this book I thought of the opening line of Frank McCourt’s memoir “When I look back on my childhood I wonder how I managed to survive at all,” so well does it apply to the experiences of the eastern Europeans who tell their stories here. The majority of the last witnesses to whom Alexievich listened have themselves likely died by now. When they spoke to her, though middle-aged and older, they were still grieving their lost childhoods and they continued to long for their dead parents. The psychological effects of their wartime experiences were profound. Immediately after their traumas, many were unable to speak; a few were unconscious for days. Later, some were terrified by the noise or appearance of airplanes or trucks. Sleep disorders—nightmares, shouting, and sleepwalking—were common. Later, memory impairment made it challenging for them to learn in school, and emotional disturbances, including an inability to feel, to cry, to show affection, or forgive made close relationships difficult. “People were a burden to me, I had trouble being with them,” confesses one woman. “I kept something inside that I couldn’t share with anyone.” Another woman had learned from her mother’s experience that physical beauty was dangerous. She became alarmed when her own appearance was praised. Yet another told Alexievich she feared men, not dead ones but the living, and she had never married as a result. The loss of beloved pets and farm animals had caused extreme grief in childhood for some. One woman recalled crying for days as a child over the death by shrapnel of her beloved cat. So marked was she by that experience that when her own daughter begged her for a kitten she could not fulfill that wish. Some of these discussions of the traumatic aftereffects of war have been excluded from the young people’s edition of the book.

This is the third of Svetlana Alexievich’s oral histories I’ve read. I’ve been engaged and moved by all of them, but this one made me weep.

As an adult, of course I understand that Hitler had to be stopped, but that doesn’t mean I will ever believe war is a good idea.

Thank you to Net Galley and the publisher for providing me with a digital advanced reader copy. ( )
  fountainoverflows | Mar 27, 2021 |
This astounding book opened up a historical episode completely unknown to me, in what is now Belarus, when the Nazis, without any warning, invaded. Decades later, those who were children at that time recall how their last day of peace was interrupted. Within hours, they and their families found themselves refugees, fleeing inland. Many never saw their families again. Children evaded through the countryside alone; were dumped in orphanages, never even knowing their real names; joined the Partisans; saw their parents killed in front of them; were thrown into boxcars and set to Germany to work in labor camps. A tragedy for the entire population of that generation. Story after story of starvation, of being taken in by strangers. The author presents the interviews with no historical context whatsoever -- Why did the Germans kill all civilians in one village, occupy another? What did the rest of the world know about what was happening? How is this episode described in general histories? And the effect of this absence of context is that there is no analytical separation between you and the stories and they hit you much harder.

Side note: As I was reading this, the author was in the news as part of the resistance against the current totalitarian regime of Belarus.

Personal Note: This is the second book I read in 2020 as part of the World War II book challenge, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ov3LrLCpBFQ ( )
  read.to.live | Jan 10, 2021 |
Last Witnesses by Svetlana Alexievich.

I read the English language version.

Having read all of her other books I was naturally drawn to this. Her forté is to collate first hand verbatim accounts. In this case it was recollections of Russian people who were children when war began.

There are no sanitised images here. Within 30 pages I had tears running down my face. What kind of creatures are we that subject children to experiences such as those recorded here? As a parent how could I imagine watching my child being driven away or worse, left alone while I was dragged away. How could I imagine spending months looking for my children without knowing if they were even alive.

You must read this book. it will cure you of any rational thoughts about war and its consequences. ( )
  Ken-Me-Old-Mate | Sep 24, 2020 |
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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Svetlana Alexievichprimary authorall editionscalculated
Braat, Jan RobertTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Coldefy-Faucard, AnneTraductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Kokareviča, ElīnaEditorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Martinsons, IndulisDesignersecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Vilka, LāseTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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This work (Последние свидетели/Last Witnesses/Die letzten Zeugen/Últimos testigos/etc) is about World War II through children's eyes. Please do not combine it with Secondhand Time: The Last of the Soviets, which is a totally different work.
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"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, creating a powerful alternative history from the personal and private experiences of individuals. Collectively, these voices provide a kaleidoscopic portrait of the human consequences of the war"--

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