A powerful portrait of the personal consequences of war as seen through the innocent eyes of children, from a Nobel Prize-winning writer.
Nobel Prize-winning writer Svetlana Alexievich delves into the traumatic memories of children who were separated from their parents during World War II--most of them never to be reunited--in this this young adult adaptation of her acclaimed nonfiction "masterpiece" (The Guardian), Last Witnesses: An Oral History of the Children of WWII.
The personal narratives told by those who were children during WWII and survived harrowing experiences, are astounding. So many children were separated from their loved ones in the midst of the terror and chaos. As a result, some grew up in orphanages or were raised by grandparents or extended family; others were taken in and cared for by strangers who risked punishment for such acts. Still others lived on their own or became underage soldiers. Forthright and riveting, these bravely told oral histories of survival reveal the heart-rending details of life during wartime while reminding us that resilience is possible, no matter the circumstances.
An Excerpt fromLast Witnesses (Adapted for Young Adults)
“HE WAS AFRAID TO LOOK BACK . . .”
six years old. now a worker.
June 1941 . . .
I remember it. I was very little, but I remember everything . . .
The last thing I remember from the peaceful life was a fairy tale that mama read us at bedtime. My favorite one--about the Golden Fish. I also always asked something from the Golden Fish: “Golden Fish . . . Dear Golden Fish . . .” My sister asked, too. She asked differently: “By order of the pike, by my like . . .” We wanted to go to our grandmother for the summer and have papa come with us. He was so much fun.
In the morning I woke up from fear. From some unfamiliar sounds . . .
Mama and papa thought we were asleep, but I lay next to my sister pretending to sleep. I saw papa kiss mama for a long time, kiss her face and hands, and I kept wondering: he’s never kissed her like that before. They went outside, they were holding hands, I ran to the window--mama hung on my father’s neck and wouldn’t let him go. He tore free of her and ran, she caught up with him and again held him and shouted something. Then I also shouted: “Papa! Papa!”
My little sister and brother Vasya woke up, my sister saw me crying, and she, too, shouted: “Papa!” We all ran out to the porch: “Papa!” Father saw us and, I remember it like today, covered his head with his hands and walked off, even ran. He was afraid to look back.
The sun was shining in my face. So warm . . . And even now I can’t believe that my father left that morning for the war. I was very little, but I think I realized that I was seeing him for the last time. That I would never meet him again. I was very . . . very little . . .
It became connected like that in my memory, that war is when there’s no papa . . .
Then I remember: the black sky and the black plane. Our mama lies by the road with her arms spread. We ask her to get up, but she doesn’t. She doesn’t rise. The soldiers wrapped mama in a tarpaulin and buried her in the sand, right there. We shouted and begged: “Don’t put our mama in the ground. She’ll wake up and we’ll go on.” Some big beetles crawled over the sand . . . I couldn’t imagine how mama was going to live with them under the ground. How would we find her afterward, how would we meet her? Who would write to our papa?
One of the soldiers asked me: “What’s your name, little girl?” But I forgot. “And what’s your last name, little girl? What’s your mother’s name?” I didn’t remember . . . We sat by mama’s little mound till night, till we were picked up and put on a cart. The cart was full of children. Some old man drove us, he gathered up everybody on the road. We came to a strange village and strangers took us all to different cottages.
I didn’t speak for a long time. I only looked.
Then I remember--summer. Bright summer. A strange woman strokes my head. I begin to cry. I begin to speak . . . To tell about mama and papa. How papa ran away from us and didn’t even look back . . . How mama lay . . . How the beetles crawled over the sand . . .
The woman strokes my head. In those moments I realized: she looks like my mama . . .
“MY FIRST AND LAST CIGARETTE . . .”
twelve years old. now a journalist.
The morning of the first day of the war . . .
Sun. And unusual quiet. Incomprehensible silence.
Our neighbor, an officer’s wife, came out to the yard all in tears. She whispered something to mama, but gestured that they had to be quiet. Everybody was afraid to say aloud what had happened, even when they already knew, since some had been informed. But they were afraid that they’d be called provocateurs. Panic-mongers. That was more frightening than the war. They were afraid . . . This is what I think now . . . And of course no one believed it. What?! Our army is at the border, our leaders are in the Kremlin! The country is securely protected, it’s invulnerable to the enemy! That was what I thought then . . . I was a young Pioneer.
We listened to the radio. Waited for Stalin’s speech. We needed his voice. But Stalin was silent. Then Molotov gave a speech. Everybody listened. Molotov said, “It’s war.” Still no one believed it yet. Where is Stalin?
Planes flew over the city . . . Dozens of unfamiliar planes. With crosses. They covered the sky, covered the sun. Terrible! Bombs rained down . . . There were sounds of ceaseless explosions. Rattling. Everything was happening as in a dream. Not in reality. I was no longer little--I remember my feelings. My fear, which spread all over my body. All over my words. My thoughts. We ran out of the house, ran somewhere down the streets . . . It seemed as if the city was no longer there, only ruins. Smoke. Fire. Somebody said we must run to the cemetery, because they wouldn’t bomb a cemetery. Why bomb the dead? In our neighborhood there was a big Jewish cemetery with old trees. And everybody rushed there, thousands of people gathered there. They embraced the monuments, hid behind the tombstones.
Mama and I sat there till nightfall. Nobody around uttered the word war. I heard another word: provocation. Everybody repeated it. People said that our troops would start advancing any moment. On Stalin’s orders. People believed it.
But the sirens on the chimneys in the outskirts of Minsk wailed all night . . .
The first dead . . .
The first dead I saw was a horse . . . Then a dead woman . . . That surprised me. My idea was that only men were killed in war.
I woke up in the morning . . . I wanted to leap out of bed, then I remembered--it’s war, and I closed my eyes. I didn’t want to believe it.
There was no more shooting in the streets. Suddenly it was quiet. For several days it was quiet. And then all of a sudden there was movement . . . There goes, for instance, a white man, white all over, from his shoes to his hair. Covered with flour. He carries a white sack. Another is running . . . Tin cans fall out of his pockets, he has tin cans in his hands. Candy . . . Packs of tobacco . . . Someone carries a hat filled with sugar . . . A pot of sugar . . . Indescribable! One carries a roll of fabric, another goes all wrapped in blue calico. Red calico . . . It’s funny, but nobody laughs. Food warehouses had been bombed. A big store not far from our house . . . People rushed to take whatever was left there. At a sugar factory several men drowned in vats of sugar syrup. Terrible! The whole city cracked sunflower seeds. They found a stock of sunflower seeds somewhere. Before my eyes a woman came running to a store . . . She had nothing with her: no sack or net bag--so she took off her slip. Her leggings. She stuffed them with buckwheat. Carried it off. All that silently for some reason. Nobody talked.
When I called my mother, there was only mustard left, yellow jars of mustard. “Don’t take anything,” mama begged. Later she told me she was ashamed, because all her life she had taught me differently. Even when we were starving and remembering these days, we still didn’t regret anything. That’s how my mother was.
In town . . . German soldiers calmly strolled in our streets. They filmed everything. Laughed. Before the war we had a favorite game--we made drawings of Germans. We drew them with big teeth. Fangs. And now they’re walking around . . . Young, handsome . . . With handsome grenades tucked into the tops of their sturdy boots. Play harmonicas. Even joke with our pretty girls.
An elderly German was dragging a box. The box was heavy. He beckoned to me and gestured: help me. The box had two handles, we took it by these handles. When we had brought it where we were told to, the German patted me on the shoulder and took a pack of cigarettes from his pocket. Meaning here’s your pay.
I came home. I couldn’t wait, I sat in the kitchen and lit up a cigarette. I didn’t hear the door open and mama come in.
“Mm-hmm . . .”
“What are these cigarettes?”
“So you smoke, and you smoke the enemy’s cigarettes. That is treason against the Motherland.”
This was my first and last cigarette.
One evening mama sat down next to me.
“I find it unbearable that they’re here. Do you understand me?”
She wanted to fight. Since the first days. We decided to look for the underground fighters--we didn’t doubt that they existed. We didn’t doubt for a moment.
“I love you more than anybody in the world,” mama said. “But you understand me? Will you forgive me if anything happens to us?”
I fell in love with my mama, I now obeyed her unconditionally. And it remained so for my whole life.
“GRANDMA PRAYED . . . SHE ASKED THAT MY SOUL COME BACK . . .”
five years old. now a proofreader.
I learned to pray . . . I often remember how during the war I learned to pray . . .
They said: it’s war. I--understandably--being five years old, didn’t picture anything specific. Anything frightening. But I fell asleep from fear, precisely from fear. I slept for two days. For two days I lay like a doll. Everybody thought I was dead. Mama cried, and grandma prayed. She prayed for two days and two nights.
I opened my eyes, and the first thing I remember was light. Very bright light, extraordinarily bright. So bright it was painful. I heard someone’s voice, I recognized it: it was my grandma’s voice. Grandma stands before an icon and prays. “Grandma . . . Grandma . . .” I called her. She didn’t turn. She didn’t believe it was me calling her . . . I was already awake . . . I opened my eyes . . .
“Grandma,” I asked later, “what did you pray for when I was dying?”
“I asked that your soul come back.”
A year later our grandma died. I already knew what to pray for. I prayed and asked that her soul come back.
But it didn’t come back.
“THEY LAY PINK ON THE CINDERS . . .”
thirteen years old. now an engineer in hydrotechnology.
I’ll tell about the smell . . . How war smells . . .
Before the war I finished sixth grade. At school the rule was that beginning from the fourth grade there were final exams. And so we passed the last exam. It was June, and the months of May and June in 1941 were cold. Usually lilacs blossom sometime in May, but that year they blossomed in mid-June. The beginning of the war for me is always associated with the smell of lilacs. And of bird cherry. For me these trees always smell of war . . .
We lived in Minsk, and I was born in Minsk. My father was a military choirmaster. I used to go to the military parades with him. Besides me, there were two older brothers in the family. Of course, everybody loved me and pampered me as the youngest, and also as the little sister.
Ahead was summer, vacations. This was a great joy. I did sports, went to the swimming pool in the House of the Red Army. The children in my class envied me very much. And I was proud that I could swim well. On Sunday, June 22, there was to be a celebration marking the opening of the Komsomol Lake. They spent a long time digging it, building it, even our school went to the subbotniks. I planned to be one of the first to go and swim in it. For sure!
In the morning we had a custom of going to buy fresh rolls. This was considered my duty. On the way I met a friend, she told me that war had begun. There were many gardens on our street, houses drowned in flowers. I thought, “What kind of war? What’s she inventing?”
At home my father was setting up the samovar . . . I had no time to say anything before neighbors came running, and they all had one word on their lips: War! War! The next morning at seven o’clock my older brother received a notice from the recruiting office. In the afternoon he ran over to his work, got paid off. He came home with this money and said to mama, “I’m leaving for the front, I don’t need anything. Take this money. Buy Katya a new coat.” I had just finished sixth grade and was supposed to start secondary school, and I dreamed that they’d have a dark-blue woolen coat with a gray Astrakhan collar made for me. He knew about it.
To this day I remember that, on leaving for the front, my brother gave money for my coat. Yet we lived modestly, there were enough holes in the family budget. But mama would have bought me the coat, since my brother asked. She just didn’t have time.
The bombing of Minsk began. Mama and I moved to our neighbors’ stone cellar. I had a favorite cat, she was very wild and never went anywhere beyond our yard, but when the bombing started, and I ran from the yard to our neighbors, the cat followed me. I tried to chase her away: “Go home!” But she followed me. She, too, was afraid to stay alone. The German bombs made some ringing, howling noise. I had a musical ear, it affected me strongly . . . Those sounds . . . I was so scared that my palms were wet. The neighbors’ four-year-old boy sat with us in the cellar. He didn’t cry, his eyes just grew bigger.