My review of “Last Witnesses Unchildlike Stories” Svetlana Alexievich




last witnesses


PUBLISHED in 1985 in the Soviet Union this first English edition is a very painful reminder of the affects of war on children. In the 1970s  Alexievich  started interviewing the generation of children who had  lived through the Second World War and who had  carried that trauma with them as adults.

Official narratives of the Second World War -or as they dubbed it  in the Soviet Union  the Great Patriotic War –  remind us of the brutality of the Nazis,   the destruction of cities and towns and  the deaths of  at least 20 million soldiers  and civilians.  The preface of the book has two  quotations: one  from the People’s Friendship Magazine of 1985 which states that millions of Soviet children died during the war including Russians, Armenians  etc:  the second quotation is   from Dostoevsky  which says  that war cannot be justified if it makes a child cry.

Pouring out of this book are the tears of the children who survived the war. Each chapter begins with the child’s name, his/her age at the start of the war and their occupation at the time of interview. It is then followed by the individual’s story, told  in their words. This is what makes it a  very difficult book to read.

Each of the stories is heartbreaking; their thoughts and feelings as this terrible episode in their life begins, the constant theme of their father departing, their relationship with their mother and the way in which their lives are destroyed by the war.

Some stories stand out. The Jewish child whose father is taken away and whose  mother hands her over to another woman so that she will survive. Another child’s mother becomes a hospital worker as the casualties mount up, aged just  10  years old the child accompanies her mother to work, becomes a hospital worker herself and has a uniform cut down to fit her. Another 10  year old goes to work with his father in  the bomb factory.

Children lost  their parents, some never  to  find out what happened to them and many ending  up in orphanages. Children watched as their homes and villages were invaded by the Germans. Children watched as their relatives who were partisans were strung up by the Germans in the village square.

These are “unchildlike stories” because children should not have to be part of wars.  But we know this continues to happen across the world. “Last Witnesses” is an indictment of adults who  do not do everything they can to stop war happening.  One of the interviewees tells Alexievich,  “We are the last witnesses. Our time is ending. We must speak..Our words will be the last.”

Cost £12.99 Buy it here

About lipstick socialist

I am an activist and writer. My interests include women, class, culture and history. From an Irish in Britain background I am a republican and socialist. All my life I have been involved in community and trade union politics and I believe it is only through grass roots politics that we will get a better society. This is reflected in my writing, in my book Northern ReSisters Conversations with Radical Women and my involvement in the Mary Quaile Club. .If you want to contact me please use my gmail which is lipsticksocialist636
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1 Response to My review of “Last Witnesses Unchildlike Stories” Svetlana Alexievich

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