I FIRST HEARD ABOUT Svetlana Alexievich from a friend in my writing group who was reading the Belarusian author’s Zinky Boys: Soviet Voices from the Afghanistan War (1990, trans. 1992), a book based on hundreds of interviews with those who lost their sons in Afghanistan. The title of the book refers to the composition of the coffins in which the young Soviet soldiers killed in Afghanistan were shipped home. I asked if I could borrow it. “It is a little warped,” she said apologetically as she gave it to me. “Every page bears the tears I cried while reading it.”
This, I’ve learned, is a common reaction to Alexievich’s narratives, written in a genre that resides somewhere between ethnographic journalism and prose poetry. Alexievich’s other book-length publications available in English include The Unwomanly Face of War: An Oral History of Women in World War II (1985, trans. 2017), Voices from Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster (1997, trans. 2005 and, as Chernobyl Prayer, 2016), Secondhand Time: The Last of the Soviets (2013, trans. 2016), and now Last Witnesses: An Oral History of the Children of World War II (1985, trans. 2019), translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. When she won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2015, the Swedish Academy described her ongoing project as “a history of the soul.” Those who have watched HBO’s Chernobyl have perhaps unknowingly experienced Alexievich’s work: the series is largely based on the testimonies Alexievich collected from citizens of Ukraine, many of whom lived in Pripyat, the heart of the disaster.
Alexievich is a gifted listener and writer with a phenomenal sense of rhythm and repetition. The testimonies she brings to us are, to a degree, stylized. In her speech published by Cornell’s Global Perspectives Distinguished Speaker Series, In Search of the Free Individual (2018), she notes that “I gather my books from hundreds of details, nuances, shades, and tints. Sometimes an entire day of conversation produces only a single phrase. But what a phrase!” And yet these narratives do not read as “art”; they are the lived moments of Soviet and post-Soviet citizens, unforgettable accounts of disaster, war, hunger, and bloodshed. “It took me a long time to find a genre that corresponded to the way I viewed the world,” she writes in In Search of the Free Individual, “to the way my eyes saw and my ears heard … a genre that corresponded to my memory. I chose the genre of the human voice.” Her devotion to the human voice lays bare our capacity for cruelty and kindness. It exposes us, as it were, to ourselves. In a 2015 interview for The New Yorker, she told Masha Gessen, “We live in an environment of banality. For most people, that’s enough. But how do you get through? How do you rip off that coating of banality? You have to make people descend into the depths of themselves.” And so, in Last Witnesses, we descend into the depths of World War II through the lived experiences of hundreds of children.
There is no shortage of wartime narratives, and even of those written by and about children: the diary of Anne Frank and Elie Wiesel’s Night come to mind. But what Alexievich’s hundreds of interviews offer is a unique sort of collective sorrow — not one voice, one memory, one perspective, but the war viewed through a field of eyes. “Do I have to tell you this?” many of her informants ask at the beginning of her interviews. “I don’t want to speak of it, to remember.” And then they begin.
The primal concern of childhood — abandonment — is mentioned in a great number of the interviews in Last Witnesses. Many of the children lose both parents during the war. Some end up being raised by strangers. Even the strangers, sometimes, are taken away, or killed. The children are left to wander, alone or with other children, begging, hiding, trying to make sense of an unintelligible world. Here is the terror of disappearance and horrific violence — eyewitness accounts of family members being shot, burned alive, hung. Here are the acute, painful details of hunger and thirst: “We all suffered from thirst, we wanted to drink all the time. Everything inside was so dry that my tongue came out and I couldn’t push it back in. During the day we rode with our tongues hanging out.” Alexievich’s subjects return to images indelibly burned into their minds 40 years earlier, such as this one, recounted by Volodia Korshuk, who was seven:
We left the city on foot. Before my eyes a stone house ahead of us fell to pieces and a telephone flew out of a window. In the middle of the street stood a bed; on it lay a dead little girl under a blanket. As if the bed had been taken out and put there: everything was intact, only the blanket was slightly singed.
The story continues:
The Germans came into the cottage with the village headman, and the headman pointed at Mama: “Here she is.” […] They took mama and two other women whose husbands were with the partisans, and drove somewhere. No one knew where. In which direction. The next day they were found not far outside the village. They lay in the snow … It had snowed all night … What I remember, from when my mama was brought home, was that for some reason they had shot her in the face […] I kept asking my grandfather, “Why did they shoot her in the face? My mama was so beautiful …
It is striking to notice how often the children’s memories have a fairy tale quality to them. Nina Rachitskaya remembers “[o]ur children’s conversations”:
We sat and debated: if we catch a mouse (there were many of them during the war, both in the house and in the fields), could we eat it? Can we eat chickadees? Magpies? Why doesn’t mama make a soup out of fat beetles? […] Before their retreat the Germans set fire to our house. Mama stood looking at the fire, and there weren’t any tears on her face. The three of us ran around crying, “Dear house, don’t burn! Dear house, don’t burn!”
Another set of memories, recounted by Rimma Pozniakova, who was six at the time, seems to belong to the lost annals of Hansel and Gretel:
We walked for a very long time. We lost papa. Were frightened. Mama said that papa was taken to the concentration camp, but that we would go to papa. And what was a concentration camp? We gathered food, but what kind of food? Baked apples. Our house burned down, our garden burned down, there were baked apples hanging on the apple trees. We gathered them and ate them.
Our deepest understandings, outside of direct experience, come from story. The workings of good and evil cannot be understood through sermonizing or statistics. Bruno Bettelheim wrote in The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales (1976) that:
A child trusts what the fairy story tells, because its world view accords with his own. Whatever our age, only a story conforming to the principles underlying our thought processes carries conviction for us. If this is so for adults, who have learned to accept that there is more than one frame of reference for comprehending the world — although we find it difficult if not impossible truly to think in any but our own — it is exclusively true for the child. His thinking is animistic.
Stories such as Hansel and Gretel serve in part to inform children that the adult world is a thicket of banal evils, a place where they can be cast into the woods by their stepmother and where an impotent father might not stand in her way. These stories illuminate that there are those who aim to hurt others, like the terrifying witch who dines on little children with her brot. But these tales also serve to give children a sense of their own power and worth in the world. They tell us that, even when orphaned, one can survive in the woods — that adults cannot always be counted on, and that our heroes may in fact be other children. “Before the war I liked it when papa told us fairy tales. He knew many fairy tales and told them well,” says Nina Rachitskaya, who ate the baked apples from the trees. “After the war I no longer wanted to read fairy tales…”
Fairy tale–like heroism appears in these pages, as in this episode, recalled by Marlen Robeichikov, who was 11 during the war. He tells us about a child in his class who brought bread with vegetable oil on it while the other children were, quite literally, starving. “We exchanged whispers, shook our fists at him, meaning just wait till the class is over … We look — our teacher isn’t there, she is lying on the floor. She was hungry and also smelled this oil. And fainted.” The children band together and set aside some of their tiny bread rations to give to the teacher — only they know she would not take it from them, so they give it to her mother. Is this an example of Soviet collective responsibility, or simply the aptitude of children in crisis who, in the absence of any other sanity, forge their own morality? Alexievich, as always, withholds express judgment; she simply selects, artfully.
In Hebrew, the mourning prayer for the dead — the Kaddish Yatom — is also referred to as the Orphan’s Kaddish. This is the ultimate demonstration of a child’s devotion, their willingness to recite a prayer for 11 months after the death of their beloved parent. Last Witnesses is a sustained, belated Kaddish, a lament for all that is lost to children when they are subjected to the most extreme forms of human cruelty.
For those of us following the recent news in the United States about the camps for migrant children at the border, Last Witnesses cannot help but resonate. While the particulars of the lives of Soviet children in the 1940s differ from the immediate circumstances of displaced refugees from Central America, we may be able to understand the latter better after reading this book. Alexievich’s narratives remind us of how children see the world, and of what, and who, they remember. “I did not feel I was just writing the past, I felt I was writing the future,” Alexievich says of her work in Voices from Chernobyl. The same can be said for these accounts. They are not just the voices of a long-ago war, they are an urgent plea for the young and vulnerable.
Last Witnesses asks us to confront ourselves in every decision we make — what we buy, who we buy it from, where we donate, whom we hate, how we love. If we instigate or participate in abuse, or if we turn a blind eye to it, how will we be remembered? How will the smallest humans among us endure without a mother or father, or without adequate food, water, and shelter? The act of imagining one’s own children on the receiving end of unmitigated horror is, for most of us, just that — an act of the imagination. But it should be a call to arms.
Holocaust scholar and psychologist Dori Laub made a lifelong study of the significance of testifying to what one has seen or experienced directly: “Testimonies are not monologues; they cannot take place in solitude. The witnesses are talking to somebody: to somebody they have been waiting for for a long time.” These children waited over 40 years to speak to Alexievich of the unbearable. Then they had to wait another 34 years to be heard in English. “Do I have to tell you this?” they ask. It is our job — reader, mother, father — to listen.