I have family members who were forced out of their homes and sent to Siberia by Stalin, later to be released and left homeless and stateless once the tides turned on the USSR In 1941, which has caused me to neglect to think or really learn about the actual toll that WW2 took on the USSR in general. My WW2 interests have most often been focused on Nazi crimes against Jewish populations in the USSR, but I never really stopped to also think about how the non-Jewish and non-collaborating population was really treated. Reading Last Witnesses by Svetlana Alexievich gave me a whole new perspective on how horrific the invading Nazi army was to the Soviet population in general, with absolutely no regards as to whether they were killing and torturing children, women, men, or animals. They bombed, strafed, tortured, and murdered their way through the land, leaving countless victims along the way. And once they were done with murder, they killed via famine and disease, another form of torture.
Last Witnesses is a very, very hard book to read and I would advise readers to take it slowly. I had to put it down a few times, for several days at a time, not just because of the difficulty of the subject matter, or because of the sheer volume of stories within the pages, but also because I wanted each one to stand out, and not fall within the masses of numbers. When you see the words “26 million dead”, while huge, these words don’t convey the real enormity of life lost during WW2 in the USSR. A third of the 26 million were soldiers, a third civilians murdered directly by the Nazis, and a last third also civilians, murdered indirectly via war-related famine and disease. Last Witnesses provides the stories of many children who survived the war and lived on with memories that no child should ever have to remember. The Nazi army literally killed at random on their push inland, and portrayed a brutality that went beyond what they portrayed in other countries (and that says a huge amount, as we know).
This book was originally published in 1985 in the USSR, and this new edition has been beautifully translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. The emotion, the pain, the suffering, and the incomprehension of these childhood memories comes across fully, you can hear the adults voices struggling to remember, to evoke the images that haunt them, and you can still feel the trauma that war caused decades before. Many or most of these voices must have now passed on, making it even more important for us to remember them, and to remember what they endured in the name of war.
These voices should be heard, and imprinted in our minds. Thanks to Svetlana Alexievich for this incredible work (I’m not surprised that she has been awarded a Nobel Prize for her incredible talents), and to Netgalley and the publisher for the advance copy of this book.