“Last Witnesses: An Oral History of the Children of World War II” has no preface, no introduction, no afterword. The book opens with two short quotes, and after that it is nothing but memories, beginning with a Russian man’s remembrance of being 6 years old and his father heading off to war. “I was very little, but I remember everything,” Zhenya Belkevich says. “War is when there’s no papa.”
These true stories sneak up on you. They start relatively mildly — absent parents, burned-out towns, displacement — but as the book goes on they grow increasingly horrific until they are almost unbearable.
Svetlana Alexievich, the only journalist to win the Nobel Prize for literature, has built an impressive career collecting and deftly editing oral histories of ordinary Russians. In previous books, she’s told the stories of women in World War II, survivors of Chernobyl and boys pressed into fighting in Afghanistan.
“Last Witnesses,” her newest book to be translated into English (by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky), is devastating. The language is simple, the chapters are short, and the book is agony to read.
“My childhood ended … with the first gunshots,” recalls Efim Friedland, 9 years old in 1941.
These are not stories of the worst battles of the war, or of the terrible siege of Leningrad. These are everyday stories gathered from villages across Russia.
Valya Yurkevich, who was 7, remembers the Germans tipping over a boat that contained a fleeing family. “The adults immediately sank to the bottom, but the children kept resurfacing,” he said. “The fascists hit them with their paddles, laughing. They hit them there, they would resurface somewhere else; they would catch up with them and hit them again.”
Vera Zhdan, then 14, recounts being led into the woods at gunpoint with her family. Her father and brother were forced to dig a pit and then were shot. A few days later, after a heavy rain, the pit filled with water, and Vera and her mother were brought back to where the bodies of their loved ones floated and told to dig their graves. “Whoever cries will be shot,” the soldiers said. “Smile.”
And some recalled utterly casual, almost offhand cruelties: German soldiers marching through a village, shooting any dog that barked.
Alexievich edited the interviews tightly — some are less than a page, none longer than a couple of pages. That distillation gives them enormous power. “We found our grandmother killed in her apartment. … We buried her ourselves … our cheerful and wise grandmother, who loved German music. German literature.”
One child, just 6, had a cheerful back-and-forth with a German soldier — she remembers him laughing — and then he shot her nine times and threw her into a pit. “I woke up to my mother’s crying. I didn’t have the strength to call to her, I only had the strength to look at her.”
Decades later, it is deeply painful for them to remember. Says one woman, 12 when the war began, “I can’t tell everything in one evening. … My heart won’t stand it.”
These are stories of war. Not of Germans and Russians, but of humans at war. You cannot read this book and not think of the atrocities that happened at that same time in Germany, in Poland, that are happening now.
Alexievich’s decision not to include a preface was not an oversight, but a stroke of brilliance. These children had no warning; the context of the war meant nothing to them. All that mattered was what happened.
“Last Witnesses” was first published in Russia in 1985. Almost certainly many of these narrators are gone now. Their voices, though, live on. They haunt us.
Laurie Hertzel is the senior editor for books at the Star Tribune and the president of the National Book Critics Circle. 612-673-7302 @StribBooks
By: Svetlana Alexievich, translated from the Russian by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky.
Publisher: Random House, 294 pages, $30.