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Last Witnesses: An Oral History of the Children of World War II

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From the Nobel Prize-winning author comes an oral history of children's experiences in WWII across Europe and Russia, in the celebrated tradition of her masterpiece, The Unwomanly Face of War. Bringing together dozens of voices in her distinctive style, Last Witnesses is Svetlana Alexievich's collection of the memories of those who were children during World War II. These m From the Nobel Prize-winning author comes an oral history of children's experiences in WWII across Europe and Russia, in the celebrated tradition of her masterpiece, The Unwomanly Face of War. Bringing together dozens of voices in her distinctive style, Last Witnesses is Svetlana Alexievich's collection of the memories of those who were children during World War II. These men and women were both witnesses and sometimes soldiers as well, and their generation grew up with the trauma of the war deeply embedded in them--a trauma that would forever change the course of the Russian nation. This is a new version of the war we're so familiar with. Alexievich gives voice to those whose stories are lost in the official narratives, uncovering a powerful, hidden history from the personal and private experiences of individuals. Collectively, these voices provide a kaleidoscopic portrait of the human consequences of the war.


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From the Nobel Prize-winning author comes an oral history of children's experiences in WWII across Europe and Russia, in the celebrated tradition of her masterpiece, The Unwomanly Face of War. Bringing together dozens of voices in her distinctive style, Last Witnesses is Svetlana Alexievich's collection of the memories of those who were children during World War II. These m From the Nobel Prize-winning author comes an oral history of children's experiences in WWII across Europe and Russia, in the celebrated tradition of her masterpiece, The Unwomanly Face of War. Bringing together dozens of voices in her distinctive style, Last Witnesses is Svetlana Alexievich's collection of the memories of those who were children during World War II. These men and women were both witnesses and sometimes soldiers as well, and their generation grew up with the trauma of the war deeply embedded in them--a trauma that would forever change the course of the Russian nation. This is a new version of the war we're so familiar with. Alexievich gives voice to those whose stories are lost in the official narratives, uncovering a powerful, hidden history from the personal and private experiences of individuals. Collectively, these voices provide a kaleidoscopic portrait of the human consequences of the war.

30 review for Last Witnesses: An Oral History of the Children of World War II

  1. 5 out of 5

    Nataliya

    "I am a person without childhood. Instead of childhood, I had war." This is undeniably the most horrifying book I've ever read. It's the first book that actually made my heart physically ache. Reading it was like taking a razor blade to my soul. It was like slowly tearing my heart into bleeding pieces. How can we preserve our planet on which little girls are supposed to sleep in their beds and not lie dead on the road with unplaited pigtails? So that childhood would never again be called wa "I am a person without childhood. Instead of childhood, I had war." This is undeniably the most horrifying book I've ever read. It's the first book that actually made my heart physically ache. Reading it was like taking a razor blade to my soul. It was like slowly tearing my heart into bleeding pieces. How can we preserve our planet on which little girls are supposed to sleep in their beds and not lie dead on the road with unplaited pigtails? So that childhood would never again be called war-time childhood. Collected by Svetlana Alexievich, the author of the similarly soul-shattering Voices from Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster, these are the stories told by former "war children" who have survived the Great Patriotic War - Nazis against the Soviets - which lasted four years and took 27 million of Soviet lives. The Nazi had no qualms ruthlessly murdering Slavs and Jews, regarding them as subhuman, even less than animals, deserving to die for the 'crime' of simply existing. Simple and unbelievably horrifying, the stories of the childhood shattered by war made me cry and gasp in horror at the atrocities seen by children who had their innocence brutally ripped away and saw the absolute worst that can ever happen to anyone. "The war did not end quickly. They count - four years. Four years of shooting... But how many years of trying to forget?" I've heard similar stories before - my grandparents lived though a "war childhood" as well. Grandpa was seven when the war began, living in occupied Belarus. He still finds it hard to talk about constant hunger, daily threat of death, burned-down villages, murdered neighbors... Grandma was six, living in a relative safety of Kazakhstan, where the main enemy was hunger and soup made from grass was dinner. When she asked for 'real' food, her mother would tell her through tears to go to sleep instead, because then you can at least dream of food. To this day, my grandparents have never thrown out a single piece of bread. To this day, they detest any kind of war, no matter how righteous it may seem. "The Germans were going from house to house. They gathered the mothers of those who went to join the partisans. And they cut their heads off in the middle of the village. We were ordered, "Watch"... I want to forget it all..." The stories of the former "war children" in this book are all different - some were in the occupied territories, some were on the front lines, some were in the underground guerilla resistance - the partisans, some were in Leningrad under 900-day siege, others were evacuated to safer parts of the country, yet others were forcibly sent to Germany as slaves. But the common theme is the extreme pain of separation from their parents and facing death daily - their own and that of their loved ones. They all were subjected to things that no child should witness. And their perception of the horrors around them was though that peculiar simple childlike honest gaze that leaves the reader speechless and shaken. The villages were occupied by the Germans, with people often forced out of their homes into "zemlyanki", makeshift 'homes' that were basically holes in the ground, even in winter months. There was terrible hunger, and stealing a bit of wheat that now belonged to the occupants was immediate death, even if the 'thief' was a toddler. Age did not matter - the supposedly 'subhuman' Soviet children got the same treatment as the adults. Usually it was death. "Many years later I learned that they gauged out mom's eyes and tore out her hair, cut off her breasts. They sicced dogs on little sister Galya who hid under the tree and refused to come out. The dogs brought her out - piece by piece. Mom was still alive, she understood everything... Right in front of her..." Most villages had people - usually young men and women - join the partisans, the guerilla resistance in the woods. The punishment for knowing the partisans, helping them, being related to them was death - often for the entire village, children included. The 'guilty' were publicly executed - shot, beaten to death, hanged - and everyone, including their children, had to watch. They were not allowed to cry - the punishment was, again, death. Even for children. "They were shooting three people at a time. They would put them by the edge of the hole - and shoot at point blank range. The rest were watching... I don't remember parents saying goodbye to their children or children to their parents. One mother lifted the hem of her dress and covered her daughter's eyes. But even the little children did not cry..." The soldiers were methodically going from home to home, gunning down women, children, and the elderly. Sometimes they would burn them alive. Sometimes they'd force all the people into the open, interrogate them, and shoot either randomly, or shoot everyone. Those who survived, did so by unbelievable stroke of luck. That is, if you can call it 'luck' - watching all your loved ones, your friends, your neighbors brutally murdered. "The whole street burned. Grandmas and grandpas burned, and many small children because they did not run away with everybody else, they thought the Germans would not touch them. The fire did not spare anyone. You're walking - and see a black corpse, that means the old person has burned. And if you see from far away something small and pink - it means a child. They were lying on the coals, pink..." In the cities, things were not any better. The Jews were forced into the ghettos. The crematoriums in the concentration camps were welcoming Jews and Slavs alike. And the small children - they were taken to forcibly give blood since "German doctors believed that blood of children under age five helped quick recovery of the wounded. Had a youthful effect. I know that now..." The children, drained of most of their blood, either quickly died or got sick and were thrown into the concentration camps crematoriums. We used to eat... water. At dinner time, mom would put a pot of hot water on the table. And we would pour it into our bowls. Evening. Supper. There is a pot of hot water on the table. The children in Leningrad during the 900-day siege were dying of hunger. They ate grass, wallpaper, dirt. They ate their pets - and there were no pets left in the city. They watched everyone die. My heart breaks. "In this orphanage where I was, they had only children from Leningrad. They could not feed us enough for a long time. We would sit in class and chew paper. They fed us carefully... I was sitting at a table at breakfast. And I saw a cat. I jumped up, "Cat! Cat!" All the kids saw it and started chasing it, "Cat! Cat!" The teachers were local, they looked at us as though we were crazy. In Leningrad, there had been no cats left... Finding a live cat was a dream. Food for the whole month..." Thousands of children lost their parents, some forever. They were raised in orphanages, learning to go through life in as much of a "normal" way as possible, but longing to have something to call their own, longing for their parents, starved for parental love so much they would approach strangers and ask to be held - like mom would do. "At night, there was wailing. We were calling for mom and dad. Our teachers tried to avoid saying the word 'mom' around us. They told us fairy-tales and found books without this word. If anyone ever said "mom", the crying would start immediately. Inconsolable crying." But despite the horrors, the murders, the pain, the losses there was a common thread running though everyone's stories - the unbelievable kindness and compassion. People did not hesitate to take in the lost and orphaned children who were complete strangers to them even if it meant dividing already miserly food portions into even smaller pieces. They took the children in even if it could mean sure death for harboring a Jewish or a partisan's kid. They gave them everything they had, every last bit, to the children who were complete strangers to them. They sacrificed their lives to save the children who were strangers. There did not seem to be any strangers in the war - everyone was united by the common horror that they all shared. "What do I have left from the war? I don't understand what strangers are, because my brother and I grew up among strangers. We were saved by strangers. But how can they be strangers to me?" What really shocked me, however, was the kindness and compassion that children and adults alike were showing to their former enemies - the German POWs. Some children were astonished as their mothers gave them the ultimate "lessons in kindness" by sharing their tiny food rations with those who have treated them as subhuman, who killed their loved ones. The Leningrad children, recovering from 900 days of murder and starvation, were sharing their food with those who tried to starve them to death a few years prior. They were so heartbreakingly HUMAN in this because they knew the horror and the price of suffering, and found incredible strength to forgive. How could their hearts be so generous? I will never fully understand, and for that I am incredibly lucky. It's been decades since that war, but these stories still need to be heard. They cannot be forgotten. The absolute horror that war was should always be remembered. It should always remind us of the fragility of human lives, of the shattered lives and destroyed childhoods. The memory, the pain, the warning. Nothing, I repeat - nothing can EVER justify a war like this. Nothing can justify the stolen lives of the innocent. Nothing can justify the scars that will remain forever. Nothing. "But I can never be really happy. Completely happy. I can't do happiness. I'm afraid of happiness. I always think that it's about to end. This "about to end" always lives inside me. Childhood fear..."

  2. 4 out of 5

    Diane S ☔

    Originally released in Russia in the eighties, the translated copy is soon to be released here for what I believe is the first time. If you've read others by this author you know she gathers up first hand accounts of various events and catastrophies, then arranged them with little or no change. This book is a heartbreaker as most are when children are concerned. She interviews the now grown people, eliciting from them there memories of war, the Nazi invasion of Russia. There are a range of ages, Originally released in Russia in the eighties, the translated copy is soon to be released here for what I believe is the first time. If you've read others by this author you know she gathers up first hand accounts of various events and catastrophies, then arranged them with little or no change. This book is a heartbreaker as most are when children are concerned. She interviews the now grown people, eliciting from them there memories of war, the Nazi invasion of Russia. There are a range of ages, the youngest was four. She gives their names, what their present occupation is and what age they were in their first remembrances. "Then all the colors disappeared. All shades, for the first time the word death appeared; everybody began to repeat this incomprehensible word. And mama and papa weren't there." "I'm a man without a childhood. Instead of a childhood, I have the war." "During the war I hadn't seen a single child's thing. I forgot they existed. Children's toys......" The author beArs witness, she gives those who experienced the unimaginable a place to tell and share their stories, their memories. I applaud her for this. So this isn't an easy read, but along with the horror was kindness, someone who cared when no one else was left that belonged to them. ARC from Netgalley.

  3. 5 out of 5

    Darwin8u

    "I remember the war in order to figure it out…Otherwise why do it?" - Nadia Gorbacheva, age 7 "My childhood ended…with the first gunshots. A child still lived inside me, but now alongside someone else…" - Efim Friedland, age 9 "There was shooting for four years…And how many years to forget?" - Katya Zayats, age 12 "We are the last witnesses. Our time is ending. We must speak… Our words will be the last…" - Valya Brinskaya, age 12 In The Unwomanly Face of War: An Oral History of Women in World War II, Sv "I remember the war in order to figure it out…Otherwise why do it?" - Nadia Gorbacheva, age 7 "My childhood ended…with the first gunshots. A child still lived inside me, but now alongside someone else…" - Efim Friedland, age 9 "There was shooting for four years…And how many years to forget?" - Katya Zayats, age 12 "We are the last witnesses. Our time is ending. We must speak… Our words will be the last…" - Valya Brinskaya, age 12 In The Unwomanly Face of War: An Oral History of Women in World War II, Svetlana Alexievich looked at WW2 through the eyes of the women who survived/fought in/lived through it. Using the same polyphonic, oral history, vignette approach Alexievich tells the story (mostly in Belarus) of the children who survived/lived through/(and yes) fought in it. The insights are sad, horrible, and also revealing and brutal in their horror and beauty. There is absolutely the WORST of humanity witnessed by these children and told in their retirement years to a historian, but beside those stories, imbedded in these remembrances of war a flower occasionally blooms that reminds the reader of both the dark and the light we float between. There are communities pulling together, mothers doing extraordinary things for their children, mothers created out of need, neighbors helping neighbors, sacrifices made by children to carry the burdens of others. I cried multiple times. I had to consume it slowly. It was amazing history. Too often we are fed the strategies and the geopolitical players in war, but Alexievich inverts that. She is granular. She feeds the reader the reality of war, as experienced and remembered, by the most vulnerable. We need more mothers. We need less war.

  4. 5 out of 5

    Chrissie

    “Stunning stories about what it was like to be a Soviet child during the upheaval and horror of the Second World War, from Nobel Laureate Svetlana Alexievich”. (From the GR book description.) EVERYBODY should read or listen to this book. Perhaps those who do not want to read it, need to read it most. The personal is revealed. It is devoid of analysis. It is devoid of blab. It looks at the emotional and long-lasting consequences of war on a personal level. Here is the nitty-gritty of war. The book “Stunning stories about what it was like to be a Soviet child during the upheaval and horror of the Second World War, from Nobel Laureate Svetlana Alexievich”. (From the GR book description.) EVERYBODY should read or listen to this book. Perhaps those who do not want to read it, need to read it most. The personal is revealed. It is devoid of analysis. It is devoid of blab. It looks at the emotional and long-lasting consequences of war on a personal level. Here is the nitty-gritty of war. The book will appeal to those who appreciate the straightforward over the intellectual, esoteric, obscure and abstruse. It will appeal to those who appreciate bare, simple prose and honesty. Each "story" is short, concise, to the point. Heartrending but without doubt definitely worth reading. One cannot read this book without tears welling up. Kindness and compassion for others is shown too--for example, children in an orphanage (view spoiler)[without siblings, parents or any relative pair up with another and look out for each other (hide spoiler)] . No, I do not want to give you examples, the book is filled with examples. Complete strangers help other complete strangers, over and over and over again. The inclusion of the good and not just deplorable human behavior makes the book readable. It gives balance. Julia Emelin, Yelena Shmulenson and Allen Lewis Rickman narrate the audiobook. It is extremely well read, by all three. I do favor the women narrators over Rickman’s narration. His performance improves as one goes along. When a man relates his story, it is he that speaks, and it is essential that there is a male narrating these sections. What is spoken is spoken with feeling, but not overdramatized. I have given the narration performance five stars. You do not think about the narration; it just blends in with what is said, and it works. This book is my favorite by the author. It was originally published in 1985. This is the first English translation. Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky are the translators. These “stories” are based on Svetlana Alexievich’s interviews with those Soviet children who survived the Great Patriotic War. She began gathering them in the late 1970s. ************************ *Last Witnesses: Unchildlike Stories 5 stars *War's Unwomanly Face 5 stars *Secondhand Time: The Last of the Soviets 3 stars *Voices from Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster TBR

  5. 5 out of 5

    Jennifer (Insert Lit Pun)

    When I started this I was like "how could this be more brutal than Zinky Boys and Secondhand Time?" and friends, I was naive. When I started this I was like "how could this be more brutal than Zinky Boys and Secondhand Time?" and friends, I was naive.

  6. 5 out of 5

    Beata

    Disturbingly sad accounts by children who survived WW2 in the USSR.

  7. 5 out of 5

    Bjorn

    The stories of Soviet children during WWII. Really just want to stare at the wall for a few hours now. What gets you isn't just the stories themselves, which range from bittersweet to hair-whiteningly horriffic, but that basically the only thing she tells us about their current lives is their profession. All these traumatized children grew - had to grow - up into functioning adults, "ordinary" members of society, carrying all this with them for decades, burying it, normalizing it. Now I've told yo The stories of Soviet children during WWII. Really just want to stare at the wall for a few hours now. What gets you isn't just the stories themselves, which range from bittersweet to hair-whiteningly horriffic, but that basically the only thing she tells us about their current lives is their profession. All these traumatized children grew - had to grow - up into functioning adults, "ordinary" members of society, carrying all this with them for decades, burying it, normalizing it. Now I've told you. (Pause) Is that all? Is that all that's left of something that terrible? A few dozen words...?

  8. 4 out of 5

    Cheryl

    Author Svetlana Alexievich interviewed people who lived in the Soviet Union (now present day Russia) and Eastern Europe who were children ranging in age from toddlers to teenagers during World War II. This book, written for young adults, presents an oral history of their thoughts and experiences. It was fascinating to “see” the war through a child’s eyes. Nearly all of the children experienced starvation. Some of the vividly described incidents they witnessed were very gruesome and brutal, while Author Svetlana Alexievich interviewed people who lived in the Soviet Union (now present day Russia) and Eastern Europe who were children ranging in age from toddlers to teenagers during World War II. This book, written for young adults, presents an oral history of their thoughts and experiences. It was fascinating to “see” the war through a child’s eyes. Nearly all of the children experienced starvation. Some of the vividly described incidents they witnessed were very gruesome and brutal, while other children experienced the kindness of strangers. It was very interesting to read about the ways in which these children processed and tried to make sense of the events as they unfolded. It was sad and heartbreaking to think that they lost a part of their childhood because of the war. The “Historical Context” section at the beginning of the book gives perspective and greatly enhances the narration. An additional glossary of terms used in the book is an added help for young readers. This book provides an opportunity for young people to learn about the war from others in their age group. It’s a very useful educational resource. Thank you to NetGalley, Delacorte Press, and author Svetlana Alexievich for giving me the opportunity to read the ARC of this educational book.

  9. 5 out of 5

    Mikhail Yukhnovskiy

    I feel that we, in Russia, have all become somewhat too used to the 9th of May celebrations of the Victory in the 1941-45 Great War . And the war seems less real year after year. The veterans are dying off, of ilnesses and age. This book returns one to the raw grief and suffering, remembered by the people who were children during the war. When reading this book I found myself very nearly crying, more times than I ever did before. When reading you feel pure HATRED to those who started the war and I feel that we, in Russia, have all become somewhat too used to the 9th of May celebrations of the Victory in the 1941-45 Great War . And the war seems less real year after year. The veterans are dying off, of ilnesses and age. This book returns one to the raw grief and suffering, remembered by the people who were children during the war. When reading this book I found myself very nearly crying, more times than I ever did before. When reading you feel pure HATRED to those who started the war and who committed all the atrocities during it. Highly recommended to everyone in order to truly remember and realize what a war is.

  10. 4 out of 5

    Skip

    Svetlana Alexievich won a Pulitizer Prize in Literature for this book, which is a first-hand account of the experiences of about one hundred different Russian children during WWII, ranging in age from ages 2-14. The vignettes average three pages. It's horrifying and the stories while different have common themes: bombings, starvation, trying to stay warm and move to safety, fathers heading off to war, mothers protecting as best they can or dying with the children being orphaned or passed along t Svetlana Alexievich won a Pulitizer Prize in Literature for this book, which is a first-hand account of the experiences of about one hundred different Russian children during WWII, ranging in age from ages 2-14. The vignettes average three pages. It's horrifying and the stories while different have common themes: bombings, starvation, trying to stay warm and move to safety, fathers heading off to war, mothers protecting as best they can or dying with the children being orphaned or passed along to relatives, etc. There are some happy stories, but the book does not shy away from the psychological scars of war. Personally, I found it too repetitive and the short format keeps readers from getting to know characters.

  11. 5 out of 5

    cypt

    Read this as part of the Nobel prize hype & therefore have mixed feelings about it. For one, it is a book that has you shaken. It's comprised of a 100 or so stories told by people who were children 2 to 15 years old during the WWII in Belarus. Although they're short, I couldn't read more than 10 stories in one sitting. To say they are horrifying is an understatement; more like, they make you numb. Their similarity is striking - nearly all of these children have witnessed their family and neighbour Read this as part of the Nobel prize hype & therefore have mixed feelings about it. For one, it is a book that has you shaken. It's comprised of a 100 or so stories told by people who were children 2 to 15 years old during the WWII in Belarus. Although they're short, I couldn't read more than 10 stories in one sitting. To say they are horrifying is an understatement; more like, they make you numb. Their similarity is striking - nearly all of these children have witnessed their family and neighbours murdered, helped bury them, been evacuated, lived in the care (or, "care") institutions, experienced hunger, been reunited with someone of their kin, if they were lucky. The sheer brutality of these testimonies is striking, but its repetition from story to story - even more so. There is no sign of Aleksejevič helself anywhere. I assume she did the talking, collecting and editing of these stories. That they are not given in any narrative order (such as, from the start of the war to salvation) allows the reader to experience the children's war as it must have been - seemingly unending, repetitious and very brutal. You won't forget it soon. My mixed feelings arose from the fact that this book, and some other ones, were written quite some time ago. They've been translated into my native language (Lithuanian) still during the Soviet period. Of course, the evil Nazi Germans vs the "our dear" Soviet soldiers was a convenient story to tell. But why the prize now? Maybe it's the committee's way to remind us that war is to be avoided at all costs, esp. with the radical right getting hold of power in Europe. Maybe it's a way to get us to be more welcome, more compassionate to the refugees to Europe. I've no idea. In any case, the prize has gone to a woman (check) who's a proponent of anti-putinist politics (check), so - very convenient indeed. What this book has actually taught me is to fear the pro-war propaganda even more. Right now, it's popular here in Lithuania to enlist into the army, fight the Russians if need be. Protect one's own homeland. Fucking no. If need be, I'm running away, if I only can, and taking my family. Sooner than you can finish this horrible, fantastic book.

  12. 4 out of 5

    Joyce

    Powerful, immersive accounts, the memories of 101 adults recalling their childhood in the Soviet Union during World War II. All those interviewed--male and female, children of soldiers, partisans, and even gypsies--were under 15 during the war. Tales of violence--many saw their parents and family members killed before their eyes--of privation mix with stories of generosity, kindness, and resourcefulness. This oral history is meant to be heard, although the short accounts are probably better take Powerful, immersive accounts, the memories of 101 adults recalling their childhood in the Soviet Union during World War II. All those interviewed--male and female, children of soldiers, partisans, and even gypsies--were under 15 during the war. Tales of violence--many saw their parents and family members killed before their eyes--of privation mix with stories of generosity, kindness, and resourcefulness. This oral history is meant to be heard, although the short accounts are probably better taken in small doses. Heartbreaking and occasionally heartwarming.

  13. 4 out of 5

    Maine Colonial

    I received a free digital review copy from the publisher, via NetGalley. Imagine that you are a toddler, or maybe as old as 10 or so. You and your brothers and sisters and your family and friends are living an ordinary life, except that your father is away on military service. One day, foreign soldiers rumble in on trucks and tanks and begin shooting everyone, mostly women and children. You get away, but your mother is dead, along with most people you know. Or maybe you got lucky and you, maybe w I received a free digital review copy from the publisher, via NetGalley. Imagine that you are a toddler, or maybe as old as 10 or so. You and your brothers and sisters and your family and friends are living an ordinary life, except that your father is away on military service. One day, foreign soldiers rumble in on trucks and tanks and begin shooting everyone, mostly women and children. You get away, but your mother is dead, along with most people you know. Or maybe you got lucky and you, maybe with some of your family, fled to the woods and were able to escape to a place where the soldiers didn’t attack. For long years, you work and scavenge for food, barely keeping alive, until the war ends. Now consider the fact that this did happen to millions of children in the USSR during World War II, and that today these children are in their late 80s and 90s. You probably know people here in the US that age. Can you imagine if the shared experience of all the people you know that age was one of childhood horror? If your imagination can’t quite conjure up such a nightmare, Svetlana Alexievich takes you there with this searing collection of oral histories. She conducted her interviews in the 1970s, when these children had grown into their 30s and 40s. They had so many different experiences, including joining the partisans while not yet a teenager, going into hiding, moving far from home, being taken in by relatives or acquaintances, or being put into orphanages. What is common to nearly all these stories is the absence of a father from the start, often the loss of a mother, and in all cases the loss of a childhood. So many of them talk about wanting to have some kind of childhood after the war ended, even if they were nearly grown up by then. Often they coveted dolls and toys, and would even buy them, just to get that feeling of being a child that had been taken from them. This is a difficult book to get through, but worth it. If only we had learned from WW2 and didn’t keep putting children through the trauma of war, upheaval and loss of their families.

  14. 5 out of 5

    Emilija Topalzoleva

    I am not sure what is more heartbreaking about this book.. the stories that are terrifying and yet true or the fact that children lived with these stories being part of their lives. From all the books I have read about WWII, fiction and non-fiction, this one especially was so hard for reading and also so morbid, sad and in the same time disturbing. I can't find all the words to explain what feelings this book aroused in me. You want to read it and know what those people survived and yet it distu I am not sure what is more heartbreaking about this book.. the stories that are terrifying and yet true or the fact that children lived with these stories being part of their lives. From all the books I have read about WWII, fiction and non-fiction, this one especially was so hard for reading and also so morbid, sad and in the same time disturbing. I can't find all the words to explain what feelings this book aroused in me. You want to read it and know what those people survived and yet it disturbs all your senses. It's unbelievable what the children in that period have seen and experienced. I am so grateful to the author for collecting all these stories and making them public for all of us. Highly recommending this book!

  15. 5 out of 5

    wally

    finished today the 5th of february 2020 good read four stars really liked it kindle library loaner first from alexievich...a nobel price winner i discover after completion...a bunch, a hundred? more? less? don't know the exact number and somewhere it said "oral history" but each telling is from someone who was a child at the beginning of the great patriotic war as they called it in the u.s.s.r. russia. a handful were real young, all varied in ages from 2-3-4 to teen years all told in their voice finished today the 5th of february 2020 good read four stars really liked it kindle library loaner first from alexievich...a nobel price winner i discover after completion...a bunch, a hundred? more? less? don't know the exact number and somewhere it said "oral history" but each telling is from someone who was a child at the beginning of the great patriotic war as they called it in the u.s.s.r. russia. a handful were real young, all varied in ages from 2-3-4 to teen years all told in their voice and it was war so there's all that entails but spread throughout are...whatever metaphor you'd like to use...i'll say kernels of truth...would nuggets work? too cliche? and i suspect what might surprise you or enlighten you are not the same as those that did for me but there are small truths here, say you think you've heard it all...but maybe not...even small items like apparently a "stove" in russia and that area is not what many think of when the word "stove" is used and even now i'd have to search engine it to learn more...almost sounds like..."closet" would apply a word not used and there are other things...interesting narrative technique, too...apparently alexievich has used this elsewhere? and that style was one reason for the prize...coupled with the tellings?

  16. 4 out of 5

    Jenia

    Oof. I wanted to say something smarter but just oof. [Read in Russian, can't comment on English translation.] Oof. I wanted to say something smarter but just oof. [Read in Russian, can't comment on English translation.]

  17. 5 out of 5

    Gabrielė Bužinskaitė

    “The war didn’t end soon…They count it as four years... And how many years to forget?” Heart-breaking, terrifying and mournful book. I had tears in my eyes since the very first pages and it only got worse as I kept reading. Yet, I could not put it down — the haunting stories consumed me. “The Germans went from cottage to cottage…They gathered those whose children had joined the partisans…They cut their heads off in the middle of the village…We were ordered to watch. In one cottage they didn’t find “The war didn’t end soon…They count it as four years... And how many years to forget?” Heart-breaking, terrifying and mournful book. I had tears in my eyes since the very first pages and it only got worse as I kept reading. Yet, I could not put it down — the haunting stories consumed me. “The Germans went from cottage to cottage…They gathered those whose children had joined the partisans…They cut their heads off in the middle of the village…We were ordered to watch. In one cottage they didn’t find anybody, so they caught the cat and hanged him. He hung on the string like a baby…” “We ate…water…Dinnertime came, mama put on the table a pot of hot water. Colourless hot water, there was nothing to put in for color in winter. Not even grass.” “I knew that my mama was young and beautiful. Other children’s mamas were older, but at the age of five I understood that it was bad for us that mama was young and beautiful. It was dangerous. I even understood that it was good that I was little.”

  18. 4 out of 5

    Marks54

    I have been reading a lot about the Russo-German war in WW2 but reading Grossman’s biography and by working through Life and Fate. When I saw Last Witnesses, it was a natural addition to my list. Svetlana Alexievich is a wonderful Nobel Prize winning author who wrote The Unwomanly Face of War about the role of women in the Russian war against the Nazis. Like that book, Last Witnesses is an oral history of the experiences of Russian children following the outbreak of war in June 1941. What she ha I have been reading a lot about the Russo-German war in WW2 but reading Grossman’s biography and by working through Life and Fate. When I saw Last Witnesses, it was a natural addition to my list. Svetlana Alexievich is a wonderful Nobel Prize winning author who wrote The Unwomanly Face of War about the role of women in the Russian war against the Nazis. Like that book, Last Witnesses is an oral history of the experiences of Russian children following the outbreak of war in June 1941. What she has done is to assemble a large number of accounts from individuals who were asked to look back on their specific experiences at the start of the war. I suspect that many if not most of these accounts were collected when the respondents were adults - that is in the 1960s to 1980s. It is likely that this work was not published earlier because the USSR had not yet fallen. Being published now implies that most of the respondents are either no longer alive or else are over 90 years old. The punchline is that this is original information from direct witnesses of the German attack and all of the havoc it wreaked on the USSR. There is nobody else left to tell the story about how children experienced this mass tragedy and these witnesses are well into the process of dying off. These witnesses have a story that needs telling and a lot of material to communicate. I do not want to get into the details, but just imagine little kids talking about the start of the Holocaust from the vantage point of how it affected their lives and with a focus on specific memories. I understand the criticism - this is not really kid memories but the results of discussions with adults looking backwards with the help of the significant public narrative about the war and lifetimes of various efforts at remembering. Won’t these accounts be biased? Perhaps, but so what? Readers should look at the accounts and try to find the fatal biases. I did not see much. Siblings and parents are murdered. Entire villages are murdered and put to the torch. Atrocities are committed on a wide scale basis. These are not matters of conjecture or arguments. We know what happened. What is fascinating is the variation in reactions that come out in the accounts. The accounts sound reasonable and yet sound unreasonable, in that I have trouble thinking of how I would have processed these event as a kid or how my children would have seen them. The accounts are moving, well written, and persuasive. Each account is fairly short but consistently, the book is hard to put down. I highly recommend the book.

  19. 4 out of 5

    Bonnye Reed

    On August 23, 1939–shortly before World War II (1939-45) broke out in Europe–enemies Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union surprised the world by signing the German-Soviet Nonaggression Pact, in which the two countries agreed to take no military action against each other for the next 10 years. https://www.history.com/topics/world-.... In June of 1941, Germany began a quick rout through Mother Russia, both in the air and on the ground, killing everything in their path. This book by Svetlana Alexievic On August 23, 1939–shortly before World War II (1939-45) broke out in Europe–enemies Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union surprised the world by signing the German-Soviet Nonaggression Pact, in which the two countries agreed to take no military action against each other for the next 10 years. https://www.history.com/topics/world-.... In June of 1941, Germany began a quick rout through Mother Russia, both in the air and on the ground, killing everything in their path. This book by Svetlana Alexievich is a collection of the thoughts and memories of Russian children, children of various ages from several areas of Russia, of what they remembered of the German invasion of their homeland. I am so glad that Ms. Alexievich had the foresight to collect these memories. Originally published in 1985, this English translation is courtesy of RandomHouseBooks.com, Penguin Classics. Many of these stories would have been lost without this written work, and I am grateful for this translation, courtesy of Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. Every parent should read this book. And every soldier. We in the USA tend to think of war as soldiers battling soldiers, even with the obvious nightly news that proves that wrong. And we also consider it to be 'Over there'. This book is a reminder that war is Hell. Anywhere. Everywhere. I received a free electronic copy of this study from Netgalley, Svetlana Alexievich, and current publisher Penguin Classics. Thank you all for sharing your hard work with me. I have read this work of my own volition, and this review reflects my honest opinion of this work. pub date July 2, 2019 Penguin Classics Random House Books Reviewed July 7, 2019, at Goodreads, Netgalley, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Kobo. Not available at BookBub.

  20. 4 out of 5

    Karen Cowgill

    Started this book yesterday, and I had a hard time reading it. Just so SAD! I cried a lot, but I still give it 5 stars. It is a very good book, people should READ this book. It is about the war seen through the eyes of Soviet children. There are some wonderful moments, but, since it is about war it is very sad, too. Any one who loves history, should DEFINITELY read this book!! This book is from 1985 ( I think). The people in it are probably dead, that is why their voices NEED to be heard. I am s Started this book yesterday, and I had a hard time reading it. Just so SAD! I cried a lot, but I still give it 5 stars. It is a very good book, people should READ this book. It is about the war seen through the eyes of Soviet children. There are some wonderful moments, but, since it is about war it is very sad, too. Any one who loves history, should DEFINITELY read this book!! This book is from 1985 ( I think). The people in it are probably dead, that is why their voices NEED to be heard. I am so sad that most of that generation is dying out and that there soon will be no one left who REMEMBERS! A tough read, but we need to keep these kind of books available so that future generations will know what ACTUALLY happened. getting off of the soap box, now. Please READ THIS BOOK!!

  21. 5 out of 5

    A.L. Sowards

    This is a collection of memories by Soviets who were children during WWII. As you might guess, it's incredibly sad--absolutely heartbreaking. I listened to part of the audiobook and the narrations were very well done. There was so much evil and so much sorrow. But there were also incredible acts of kindness and generosity. I only listened to about half of it. I do most of my audiobook listening while driving or cleaning, and I didn't want my four-year-0ld to listen with me. I plan to finish it at This is a collection of memories by Soviets who were children during WWII. As you might guess, it's incredibly sad--absolutely heartbreaking. I listened to part of the audiobook and the narrations were very well done. There was so much evil and so much sorrow. But there were also incredible acts of kindness and generosity. I only listened to about half of it. I do most of my audiobook listening while driving or cleaning, and I didn't want my four-year-0ld to listen with me. I plan to finish it at a later time. It's an easy book to put aside for a while because most of the accounts are short and aren't directly connected to the account before them. For several accounts I certainly wished for more closure. At the beginning of each memory, readers are told the name of the person and their age when the war began. These are accounts from survivors, but readers aren't always told how the person survived the war. One account ended with a boy in Nazi hands for helping hide weapons for Partisans--but doesn't say how he avoided execution. Definitely not a happy book, but an important book.

  22. 5 out of 5

    Nita Zogiani

    While reading this book, I realized that I kept searching for my own war story in those of the four year olds and their experiences of war. It’s difficult to rate this book, but I know it leaves me with Dostoyevsky’s question: can we justify our world, our happiness, and even eternal harmony, if in its name, to strengthen its foundation, at least one little tear of an innocent child will be spilled? And his own answer: this tear will never justify any progress, any revolution. Any war. It will al While reading this book, I realized that I kept searching for my own war story in those of the four year olds and their experiences of war. It’s difficult to rate this book, but I know it leaves me with Dostoyevsky’s question: can we justify our world, our happiness, and even eternal harmony, if in its name, to strengthen its foundation, at least one little tear of an innocent child will be spilled? And his own answer: this tear will never justify any progress, any revolution. Any war. It will always outweigh them. Just one little tear..

  23. 5 out of 5

    Cam

    There about 50 people that give their story of what happened to them as children during ww2 in Russia. It’s a very interesting book.... very touching!

  24. 5 out of 5

    Richard Newton

    Another powerful book from Alexievich. To begin with I thought this was weaker than the others of hers I have read, but through the book its power to shock, move and sympathise grows. It uses her familiar journalistic style of a series of first person stories from a variety of commentator. The fact that this is all told from the viewpoint of people who were children in the war, and who mostly saw the full brutality of the nazi regime first hand makes it all the more powerful. Many of the stories Another powerful book from Alexievich. To begin with I thought this was weaker than the others of hers I have read, but through the book its power to shock, move and sympathise grows. It uses her familiar journalistic style of a series of first person stories from a variety of commentator. The fact that this is all told from the viewpoint of people who were children in the war, and who mostly saw the full brutality of the nazi regime first hand makes it all the more powerful. Many of the stories are sad, a few describes truly shocking events. If you want to know what it is to suffer and survive in terrible circumstances you would be advised to read this book. If you also want to understand why those from the Eastern side of Europe have a different attitude to WWII than most of us in the west then this is also worth reading. If you are not familiar with Alexievich's style it is told through short pieces, almost verbatim recordings of what people side to her - there is no editors voice or commenting, although she did of course edit the book and must have selected the pieces she chose to include. It is this style of telling you by showing rather than explaining that makes her books so powerful. Her books are not light read, but I would recommend everyone to read at least one of them. The translation is excellent, (with the one minor irritation for the English of the use of the American word "candy" instead of "sweet" - but this is a really trivial point. The translation is otherwise masterful).

  25. 5 out of 5

    Cav

    I am conflicted about how to rate this one... Last Witnesses is a compilation of dozens of first-hand accounts from children across Europe and Russia at the onset of, and during The Second World War. Each story is fairly short; most covering only a few pages. The accounts in the book are absolutely horrific; they are actually worse than can be imagined. The stories of wholesale human misery recounted here are unimaginably terrible... Here's one that exemplifies this horror: "...We lived outside I am conflicted about how to rate this one... Last Witnesses is a compilation of dozens of first-hand accounts from children across Europe and Russia at the onset of, and during The Second World War. Each story is fairly short; most covering only a few pages. The accounts in the book are absolutely horrific; they are actually worse than can be imagined. The stories of wholesale human misery recounted here are unimaginably terrible... Here's one that exemplifies this horror: "...We lived outside the village in German bunkers, because our village had all burned down, our old cottage had burned down and the beams for the new house. Nothing of ours was left. We found some army helmets in the forest and cooked in them. German helmets were big as cauldrons. We found food in the forest. It was scary going for berries and mushrooms. There were lots of German shepherds left; they attacked people and killed little children. They were used to human flesh and human blood. To its fresh scent… When we went to the forest, we gathered in a big group. Some twenty of us…Our mothers taught us that we should shout as we walked in the forest, so that the dogs would get scared. While you were picking a basket of berries, you’d shout so much that you’d lose your voice. Get hoarse. Your throat would be all swollen. The dogs were big as wolves. They were drawn by the human scent…" While the stories the book covers make for an important historical reference, this formatting does not make for a favorable reading experience, IMO. So while I do appreciate the historical value of this book, the unusual formatting didn't really resonate with me... 3 stars.

  26. 4 out of 5

    Keen

    3.5 Stars! “They counted off fourteen of those who stood nearest. Gave them shovels and ordered them to dig a hole. And we were driven closer, to watch them dig…They shot three people at a time. They stood at the edge of the hole and fired point-blank. The rest of us watched. I don’t remember parents saying farewell to their children or children to their parents…They shot fourteen people and began to fill up the hole. Again we stood and watched them cover the hole with earth, trample it with boot 3.5 Stars! “They counted off fourteen of those who stood nearest. Gave them shovels and ordered them to dig a hole. And we were driven closer, to watch them dig…They shot three people at a time. They stood at the edge of the hole and fired point-blank. The rest of us watched. I don’t remember parents saying farewell to their children or children to their parents…They shot fourteen people and began to fill up the hole. Again we stood and watched them cover the hole with earth, trample it with boots. And they patted it down with the shovels, so it looked pretty. Neat.” Originally published in Russian back in 1985, this is the fifth book of Alexievich’s to be translated into English. To say that this is confronting, scarcely begins to cover it, but it does give you some idea of what lies buried within these gristly pages. This is filled with so many remarkable and countless horrific recollections and harrowing fragments which all amount to a real catalogue of terror. World War II took a far greater toll on innocent civilians than it did on the soldiers fighting it, and no other nation sacrificed as much as the Soviet Union did, so in many ways it seems astonishing that any children in the western USSR made it through the war alive, let alone so many. There is so much senseless slaughter in here. Habitual murder and killing on an industrial scale. It is disturbing to see just how inventive and barbaric so many of the Germans became in their cruelty towards women and children. It makes you wonder about the sort of circumstances that could breed such people, a culture that could result in so many freely indulging in such needless acts of widespread evil. There are countless, barbaric scenes where they seem to revel and savour the torturing of the most weak and vulnerable people. A problem with this is that there are just so many stories, and most are only two maybe three pages long, so you are just getting to grips with one when another one arrives. It can get a bit overwhelming, but still it gives us an idea of the sheer scale. But this shouldn’t and doesn’t detract from what Alexievich has done by bringing all of these horrendous memories together. It is hard to over-estimate Alexievich’s hugely vital contribution to Russian/Soviet history. Her combined body of work covers so many of the major events and tragedies which have befell the Soviet people whether it be Chernobyl, the Afghan War, The Great Patriot War or the fall of Communism. If you haven’t read her work before, you should first go to “Chernobyl Prayer” or “Zinky Boys” which show how powerful and significant the scope of her work is. All the same this was a troubling yet hugely important read.

  27. 5 out of 5

    David

    This is a 2019 translation of a book published in the former Soviet Union in 1985, long before the author won the Nobel Prize. This is a good book, and worth reading, but not enjoyable. I did not find this book as terrifying as the online excerpts (in The New York Times here and The Paris Review here) of the author's book of interviews with Chernobyl survivors, it's still pretty damn scary, even if I believe that the interviews were edited for political orthodoxy by Soviet authorities. Which is to This is a 2019 translation of a book published in the former Soviet Union in 1985, long before the author won the Nobel Prize. This is a good book, and worth reading, but not enjoyable. I did not find this book as terrifying as the online excerpts (in The New York Times here and The Paris Review here) of the author's book of interviews with Chernobyl survivors, it's still pretty damn scary, even if I believe that the interviews were edited for political orthodoxy by Soviet authorities. Which is to say, although the book is almost completely bereft of the Russian-on-Russian cruelty which I am sure took place, there was more than enough horrific German-on-Russian cruelty to supply the nightmares of ordinary folks for months on end. In fact, the only problem with this book is that I could not read it in the evening, as whatever I read after dark usually bleeds (literally, in this case) into my dreams. I only have a limited number of things to say, so I say them over and over. One of them is the admittedly sentimental notion that you can, in some small way, honor the almost-nameless and -forgotten millions who died needlessly due to the political lunacy of our so-called leaders by reading about them. Another one is that the great volume of knuckleheads abroad in our world today who are clamoring for dramatic change in liberal democracy are actually clamoring to recreate the world portrayed in books like this one, which would be OK with me if only the rest of us could be excluded from the results of their idiocy. Thanks to Penguin Random House and Netgalley for a free electronic advance review copy of this book.

  28. 4 out of 5

    Ylva

    At first I read this book wrong - I read it like a history book. And it is, but this is oral history. There are few hard facts about WWII in the Soviet Union. There's no map at the beginning, no overview of the campaigns, no timelines or information. And this left me a bit confused. It still did at the end and I docked a star. A map at the very least would have been helpful, especially since many of the snippets mention place names and I had to look them up to see if we were in Poland or Belarus At first I read this book wrong - I read it like a history book. And it is, but this is oral history. There are few hard facts about WWII in the Soviet Union. There's no map at the beginning, no overview of the campaigns, no timelines or information. And this left me a bit confused. It still did at the end and I docked a star. A map at the very least would have been helpful, especially since many of the snippets mention place names and I had to look them up to see if we were in Poland or Belarus or Russia. This is however a very good book if you want to know what WWII was like for civilians. These are all small recollections from people who were children at the time, and while a few were old enough to join the partisans most lived out the war as civilians. It's the kind of book that gives you a little insight into the everyday, casual horror of war. The kind of stories where soldiers will shoot your mother in front of you and set the house on fire with the children inside, but take the time to save a handful of kittens. The various stories span a wide specter - from those who survived the ghettos of Warsaw, to those who joined the front at age 14, to those who were evacuated early and lived out the war in relative, starving peace. The happy endings are far between and few; by the end I had to take a few breaks. It's a good book, but it grinds the soul out of you at the same time.

  29. 5 out of 5

    Mary Katerine

    I'm not ready to write a proper review, but i will do this soon. UPDATE: It took me a couple of weeks to get the courage to write this review. Because, after I have finished reading it, I couldn't deal with what I have learned. I'm not even sure I can now, but I'll try. My history teacher had this saying, that history repeats itself because we never learn from the past. I believe that we want to forget. This wasn't your regular book about war. It didn't have a happy ending. Things didn't get better I'm not ready to write a proper review, but i will do this soon. UPDATE: It took me a couple of weeks to get the courage to write this review. Because, after I have finished reading it, I couldn't deal with what I have learned. I'm not even sure I can now, but I'll try. My history teacher had this saying, that history repeats itself because we never learn from the past. I believe that we want to forget. This wasn't your regular book about war. It didn't have a happy ending. Things didn't get better after the war was over. Families didn't reunite in the end. This was about the war. How it really was, told by people who were there. And, the shock to be even greater, it was from the point of view of those who were kids back in those days. This isn't the first book that I read by Svetlana Alexievich. It's not a novel. It is composed of the memories of those who were from 2 years old to 14 years old. I didn't want to read this. But I needed to know. I started with the first page and couldn't stop, even though the descriptions were so colourfull that I knew they will hunt me.

  30. 4 out of 5

    Isabelle

    My heart has been broken and mended for almost every chapter. The little boy who, being as starved as the rest of his family, suggests they try to cook his most precious belonging, a toy duck for dinner. The kids who had witnessed their own family being taken away and massacred. The children who didn't have the childhood they deserved. The worst thing is that this costly and brutal kind of war still exists. These were the Alan Kurdis and Omran Daqneeshs of WWII. An exceedingly powerful book abou My heart has been broken and mended for almost every chapter. The little boy who, being as starved as the rest of his family, suggests they try to cook his most precious belonging, a toy duck for dinner. The kids who had witnessed their own family being taken away and massacred. The children who didn't have the childhood they deserved. The worst thing is that this costly and brutal kind of war still exists. These were the Alan Kurdis and Omran Daqneeshs of WWII. An exceedingly powerful book about a timeless tragedy.

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