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Book Review:
German invasion of Russia
through the eyes of children

Last Witnesses: An Oral History of World War II

Svetlana Alexievich, 1985 (translated into English 2019)

Svetlana Alexievich's book, Last Witnesses: An Oral History of World War II, was first published in 1985 and was recently translated into English by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. It is a searing account of the German invasion of Russia from the perspectives of children, many of whom were very young when the Germans invaded Russia. It is also a fascinating reflection of how memories of traumatic events are developed and retained. Few of the children whose memories are recorded in Last Witnesses tell continuous narratives; their memories are fragmented (but indelible) with powerful emotions attached. All these children were surprised and shocked by the war's beginning for which Russians were not emotionally prepared. Their families' lives were uprooted and often completely destroyed within a few hours or days. Many of the children saw their parents killed, or saw a parent's body after they died in a bombing, or were shot or hung and then dumped in trenches or mass graves. The love and devotion of these children for a beloved "mama" or "papa" and their subsequent grief is palpable in these accounts. These children longed for the mothers and fathers they lost during the war, often the earliest days of the war, as much as they longed for food.   


Many of the children grew up in an orphanage, or were informally adopted by strangers. Many were treated with great kindness, but these strangers never replaced their parents emotionally.  Some of the children perceived the world in black and white for the duration of the war. Some lost their fear of death, but most didn't.  They experienced severe chronic hunger and survived by eating anything and everything. Some young teenage boys sought out combat units where they risked their lives for revenge and Mother Russia. Many acknowledged life long impairments of their capacity for feeling, or laughter or intimacy. All this is told by survivors of the war in a matter of fact way.


All were profoundly shocked by the cruelty of the Germans who committed every kind of despicable act, many of them hardly imaginable. Some of the children came to hate German soldiers and lived for revenge, but others could not bear to be in the presence of starving German prisoners, and  sometimes even gave their inadequate rations to captured German soldiers. Adults who were humane toward captured German soldiers had a tremendous moral influence on the children who witnessed their compassion.   


Here are a few excerpts from this book (which I could only read a few pages at a time): 


From a child who was 8 when the war began: 

"I saw what shouldn't be seen ... What a man shouldn't see. And I was little ...

I saw  how they drove our prisoners of war through our village. In long columns. In torn and burned greatcoats. Where they stayed overnight, the bark was gnawed off trees. Instead of food, they threw them a dead horse. The men tore it to pieces. 

I saw a German go off the rails and burn up ... and in the morning they laid all those who worked on the railroad on the tracks and drove a locomotive over them. 

I saw how they harnessed people to a carriage. They had yellow stars on their backs. They drove them with whips.  They rode along merrily. 

I saw how they knocked children from their mother's arms with bayonets. And threw them into a fire. Into a well ...

And I was little ... I grew up with this. I grew up gloomy and mistrustful. I have a difficult character. When someone cries, I don't feel sorry; on the contrary I feel better because I myself don't know how to cry. I've been married twice and twice my wife has left me. No one could stand me for long. It's hard to love me. 

Many years have passed ... Now I want to ask: 'Did God watch this? And what did he think?'"


From a 7-year-old when the war started:


"I Wanted To Be my Mama's Only Child .. So She Could Pamper Me  

Forgive me, but when I remember this ... I can't ... I ... I can't look another person in the eyes.  

They drove the kolkhoz cows out of the barn and pushed people inside. Our mama, too. I sat in the bushes with my little brother, he was two years old, he didn't cry. ...

In the morning we came home, the house was there but mama wasn't.  There was nobody. We were alone. I went to fetch water. ... Our neighbors were hanging from the well pole. I turned to the other end of the village, there was an artesian well there, with the best water. The tastiest. There were people hanging there too. I came home with empty buckets.  My little brother cried because he was hungry. ... One time I bit him so he wouldn't cry. 

We lived like that for a few days. Alone in the village. People lay or hung dead. We weren't afraid of the dead, they were all people we knew. ...

At the orphanage, they gave me an orange dress with pockets. I loved it so much that I told everyone, "if I die, bury me in this dress." Mama died, papa died, and I would die soon. For a long time I wanted to die. I always cried when I heard the word "mama".  

.. If I was sick I lay and dreamed of mama. I wanted to be mama's only child ... so she could pamper me.

I was a long time growing up ... 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."


From a 7-year-old child at the war's beginning:


"... my sister and I ran to the Dvina (a river). .. The bank was encircled by Germans.  Before our eyes, they loaded the boats with old people, children, towed them to the middle of the river and overturned them. ... When the boat was overturned, the adults immediately sank to the bottom, but the children kept resurfacing. The fascists hit them with paddles, laughing.  .. they would catch up with them and hit them . But like rubber balls, they didn't sink.

There was such silence .. Suddenly amidst this silence, laughter rang out. Such young belly laughter ... Young Germans were standing nearby, watching it all and laughing."

My mother was a teacher. She said repeatedly, "We must remain human." 

After the war I avoided people for a long time. All my life I've liked solitude. People were a burden to me, I had trouble being with them...

And I didn't realize how much mama loved me. 

She still saves me with her love.  


This is a small sample of a heartbreaking book. 

© Dee Wilson

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