Piggybacking off my last book, I grabbed a copy of Last Witnesses: An Oral History of the Children of World War II by Svetlana Alexievich (Random House, 2019) from the library. I had read Ms. Alexievich’s Voices from Chernobyl in 2019, and while writing my review for that, I checked out her other books, and that’s how this one ended up on my list. Most books about World War II center around European nations: Germany, Poland, England, France. I hadn’t read anything before that focused on the Soviet Union, and definitely not anything from the perspective of the children who survived the horrors. I don’t know that the perspective of Soviet Children was a perspective I ever considered, and there was certainly a lot in this book I hadn’t known about.
Children are uniquely traumatized by war, and World War II was devastating for millions of children, for a million different reasons. The children of the Soviet Union suffered in a multitude of ways, most of them horrific and brutal. Each small chapter in this book is a transcript of an interview with a person who was a child during the war, who witnessed terrible things no human being should ever witness, but who have shared their stories, at great personal cost, so that the world will remember what it took from them.
There is deep, scarring pain on every page of this book. Most children lose their fathers; many of them watch their fathers being murdered, and many of them watch their mothers murdered as well. Some are forced to bury their parents. Others watch as their siblings die or are murdered in front of them. They starve. They’re beaten by soldiers. They witness their neighbors slaughtered by German soldiers. They eat grass and dogs and cats in order to survive. They dig graves and hide in the forests in winter. They flee their houses that the soldiers set on fire. They’re damaged for life from all that they’ve seen and suffered.
How did I make it to 41 years old without knowing all of this? My schooling barely touched on war on the Soviet front. All I remember learning is about how the German army went to the USSR and froze; I was never taught about the nightmare the Germans foisted upon the Soviet people, and definitely not the way they murdered their way through so many of the towns. I learned about how the Nazi soldiers occupied towns in France and Denmark; how they bombed England and how tough rationing was; never once was I taught about how they raped grandmothers and left parents hanging from ropes in trees in the USSR. Did other schools teach this? I had a really good education and I’m usually pretty pleased with all that I learned in the schools I attended, but this was absolutely never covered even once.
Needless to say, this is a dark, dark read from a horrible period of history that I’m actively embarrassed I knew so little about. If you have the mental and emotional space for it, I highly recommend it, because these are stories that need to be heard and understood, and Svetlana Alexievich has compiled an incredible collection of stories that illustrate the deep abyss of pain Nazi soldiers wrought upon Soviet children and their families.