A Different Sort of War Story

Last Witnesses: An Oral History of the Children of World War IILast Witnesses: An Oral History of the Children of World War II by Svetlana Alexievich

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Never having lived in a war zone, I was hardly prepared for these vignettes. I had to pause often as I read this collection of memories of those who were children during WWII. Amazingly, the style of each is poetic, so I wondered to what extent Alexievich had edited them. (Of course what I read was a translation, but I am assuming the translator retained the style of the original.) That I even asked that question may have been a way to gain distance.

Alexievich, the bio says, has spent most of her life in Belarus, and most of the vignettes referenced Minsk, though one was of the siege of Leningrad. The age range of the children at the start of the war ranges from 0-13–a few had not been born at the beginning of the war.

I did not see a pattern to the arrangement other than alternating between the very young and 10-13 year olds. Although all were deeply moving, some were more horrible than others–those were spread out, and the last several seemed to have more detail about the victory.

What amazed me most was children having to see their parents shot, then having to make decisions about what to do. Others had been left at home and had to decide between waiting for mother to return or evacuate when other neighbors were leaving. Some had an older sibling, but others (6-8 year olds) were the older sibling. Some hunted Mama. Some started out with a parent, but got separated.

Hunger was ever present: the siege of Leningrad, 900 days; hiding in the forests; orphanages making do with what they had.

Many of the 12-13 year olds wanted to help fight; some did though the official age for joining was 16. One told of shooting a man.

All telling events no child should have to experience.

And all the while, as I read, I couldn’t help think that there are children having these experiences now, caused not by Germans but by us, directly in Iraq and Afghanistan, indirectly in Yemen and Syria. This is a book all leaders should read before the choice is made to go to war. This is a book people like me who have not experienced war first hand need to read.

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4 Comments

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4 responses to “A Different Sort of War Story

  1. Susan Nixon

    I have a friend who was 8 in Berlin during the airlift. We have talked some about those years, but she’d really rather not remember much. She loves America and Americans, though, because she wouldn’t have survived without us. We are still the good guys. We haven’t caused these wars. We’ve tried to end them.

  2. As always, I appreciate your reviews.

  3. Sounds like a very powerful book thanks for sharing!

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