An Oral History of the Children of World War II
By Svetlana Alexievich
My grandmother, a former artillery commander in the Red Army and one of the liberators of Auschwitz, talked little about her military service in World War II. When my grandfather’s sister warned him that his bride-to-be was “a common war rag” he slapped her, earning my grandmother’s loyalty for a lifetime. Year after year, when my grandfather donned his medals and marched in the Victory Day parade, my grandmother, like many female veterans, chose to stay at home. Not until I came across “The Unwomanly Face of War: An Oral History of Women in World War II,” by the Belorussian writer Svetlana Alexievich, did I begin to make sense of my grandmother’s complicated pride. “The men were the victors, the heroes; the grooms had made the war,” one of the book’s narrators recounts. “But they looked at us with other eyes. We know what you did there!” Before she was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2015, Alexievich produced four more books of collective oral history, including “Zinky Boys,” “Voices From Chernobyl” and “Secondhand Time,” each in its own way breaking long silences around Soviet-era taboos.
Now, 34 years after its initial publication, comes the English arrival of “Last Witnesses: An Oral History of the Children of World War II.” A chilling, enchanted naturalism fills the book’s pages: Beloved horses are fed to unsuspecting orphans, cats become mute along with their child companions. Linden trees refuse to blossom on streets where houses have been burned to the ground. In a 2007 interview Alexievich stated that she wanted to capture the child’s perspective because “a child is a completely free and innocent person. He is not yet involved in the system … and can return us to more normal sight.” In “Last Witnesses” Alexievich offers a war narrative that hues closer to the Brothers Grimm than to Homer. The book’s gift is to allow the child’s malleable perception to flash alongside the adult’s somber recollections. In the opening story a girl of 6 is recounting her mother’s burial to a strange woman stroking her head. No sooner is she done talking than she begins to notice the woman “looks like my mama.”
Separation between parent and child is a common thread in the book for a simple reason: The German bombing that jump-started the war in June 1941 caught people during the summer holiday, when a great many children had just started Pioneer camp. The chaos of evacuations that followed, along with the national draft, caused millions of parents to end up in different places from their children, with few ways to find one another. Throughout these pages, children are lost, found, reclaimed by relatives, but just as often taken in by strangers.
New faces are slotted into old roles and children become a kind of communal property of the whole nation: “She didn’t let us go, she said: ‘You’ll be my children now…’ As soon as she said it, my brother and I fell asleep right there at the table. We felt so good. We had a home now. … What do I have left from the war? I don’t understand what strangers are, because my brother and I grew up among strangers. Strangers saved us. But what kind of strangers are they? All people are one’s own. I live with that feeling, though I’m often disappointed. Peacetime life is different.”
How adroitly Alexievich sticks her landings should warn readers against treating these interviews as journalistic records of raw testimony. In form and spirit they are closer to prose poems, sometimes even songs, built around repeating refrains. Alexievich is a master at employing the withheld detail to undercut the unfiltered sentimentalism of a narrator, or adding a poetic sting to an otherwise prosaic entry. Often her technique serves to show how children’s boundless affection and their naïve egoism are both born of an instinct for self-preservation. A girl in a village that has lost all its children to diphtheria suddenly finds there is “no one to play outside with.” These mini-turns function like the tuning of an aperture, opening the lens wide to allow for a deluge of suffering, then narrowing again to show us the human capacity to absorb such loss.
Despite the number of respondents, the scope of “Last Witnesses” is less kaleidoscopic than that of Alexievich’s other books. If in “Voices From Chernobyl” she worked with the testimony of bureaucrats, teachers and emergency workers, here the interviewees were all children during a time of crisis, overwhelmed by a common preoccupation: Who will take care of me? Yet this single critical question also gives the book much of its power. Of the myriad horrors that befell these children — starvation, witnessing ghastly violence — none are as damaging, in this book’s portrayal, as being wrenched away from a parent. The parent is a pillow between the child and the horrors of the world. And it is here that Alexievich makes a case for why children bear war’s greatest burden. The loss of a parent is not merely the loss of a caretaker. Those, the stories suggest, can be replaced. For a child the loss of a parent is the loss of memory itself. Tell me about the day I was born, a child asks. Tell me about when I was little. Parents are our witnesses, our record, to those years that are otherwise lost to the amnesia of early childhood.
One of the most poignant episodes in the book is recounted by a girl named Anya, who has the rare luck to be reunited with her mother after spending her toddler years at a children’s home. Years later, a teenage Anya sees the director of her orphanage on the city bus. Her own recollections are so fragmented and buried that at first she does not understand whom she is looking at: “I looked at her as at a painting I had seen once, but had forgotten.” When Anya begins to cry, the woman approaches and offers her phone number. “Call me if you want to learn about yourself. I remember you well. You were our littlest girl,” she says. But the courage for such self-knowledge fails Anya. By the time she calls it is too late.
In a 2008 interview Alexievich was asked if it would be possible to write her books with interviews collected in the West. “I don’t think so,” she said. “In the West, one’s inner world is also a form of personal property.” Because the Great Patriotic War left no citizen untouched, it gave rise to a tissue of living collective memory whose scale can be hard for an outsider to grasp. And perhaps soon for the post-Soviet generation, too. What sort of place will the nation be, Alexievich asks, when the last of the witnesses are gone?