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