Over the course of her career, the Nobel Prize–winning writer Svetlana Alexievich has tirelessly chronicled some of the most monumental events of the twentieth century, including World War II, the Chernobyl disaster, and the collapse of the Soviet Union. Each of her “documentary novels,” as she calls them, is the result of hundreds of interviews with ordinary people, whose accounts she meticulously synthesizes and weaves into sweeping, coherent narratives. “It all forms a sort of small encyclopedia, the encyclopedia of my generation, of the people I came to meet,” Alexievich has said. “How did they live? What did they believe in? How did they die and how did they kill? And how hard did they pursue happiness, and did they fail to catch it?” Last Witnesses, Alexievich’s 1985 collection of memories from Soviets who were children during World War II, has just been translated into English for the first time by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. A selection of stories from the book appears below.
Soviet children during a German air raid in the first days of World War II. Photo: RIA Novosti archive, image #137811 / Yaroslavtsev / CC-BY-SA 3.0 (CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)). Via Wikimedia Commons.
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 …
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. [The All-Union Pioneer Organization, for Soviet children from ten to fifteen years old, was founded in 1922. It was similar to Scout organizations in the West.]
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.
FOURTEEN YEARS OLD. NOW A MILKER.
I’m afraid of men … I have been ever since the war …
They held us at gunpoint and led us into the woods. They found a clearing. “No,” says the German, shaking his head. “Not here … ”
They took us farther. The polizei say, “It would be a luxury to leave you partisan bandits in such a beautiful place. We’ll leave you in the mud.”
They chose the lowest spot, where there was always water. They gave my father and brother shovels to dig a pit. My mother and I stood under a tree and watched. We watched how they dug the pit. My brother took one last shovelful and looked at me: “Hi, Verka! … ” He was sixteen years old … barely sixteen …
My mother and I watched how they were shot … We weren’t allowed to turn away or close our eyes. The polizei watched us … My brother didn’t fall into the pit, but bent double from the bullet, stepped forward, and sat down next to the pit. They shoved him with their boots into the pit, into the mud. Most horrible was not that they were shot, but that they were put down into the sticky mud. Into the water. They didn’t let us cry, they drove us back to the village. They didn’t even throw dirt over them.
For two days we cried, mama and I. We cried quietly, at home. On the third day that same German and two polizei came: “Get ready to bury your bandits.” We came to that place. They were floating in the pit; it was a well now, not a grave. We had our shovels with us, started digging and crying. And they said, “Whoever cries will be shot. Smile.” They forced us to smile … I bend down, he comes up to me and looks me in the face: am I smiling or crying?
They stood there … All young men, good looking … smiling … It’s not the dead, but these living ones I’m afraid of. Ever since then I’ve been afraid of young men …
I never married. Never knew love. I was afraid: what if I give birth to a boy …
EIGHT YEARS OLD. NOW A DRIVER.
I saw what shouldn’t be seen … What a man shouldn’t see. And I was little …
I saw a soldier who was running and seemed to stumble. He fell. For a long time he clawed at the ground, he clung to it …
I saw how they drove our prisoners of war through our village. In long columns. In torn and burned greatcoats. Where they stayed overnight, the bark was gnawed off the trees. Instead of food, they threw them a dead horse. The men tore it to pieces.
I saw a German train go off the rails and burn up during the night, and in the morning they laid all those who worked for the railroad on the tracks and drove a locomotive over them …
I saw how they harnessed people to a carriage. They had yellow stars on their backs. They drove them with whips. They rode along merrily.
I saw how they knocked children from their mothers’ arms with bayonets. And threw them into the fire. Into a well … Our turn, mama’s and mine, didn’t come …
I saw my neighbor’s dog crying. He sat in the ashes of our neighbor’s house. Alone. He had an old man’s eyes …
And I was little …
I grew up with this … I grew up gloomy and mistrustful, I have a difficult character. When someone cries, I don’t feel sorry; on the contrary, I feel better, because I myself don’t know how to cry. I’ve been married twice, and twice my wife has left me. No one could stand me for long. It’s hard to love me. I know it … I know it myself …
Many years have passed … Now I want to ask: Did God watch this? And what did He think?
—Translated from the Russian by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky
Svetlana Alexievich was born in Ivano-Frankivsk, Ukraine, in 1948 and has spent most of her life in the Soviet Union and present-day Belarus, with prolonged periods of exile in Western Europe. Starting out as a journalist, she developed her own nonfiction genre, which gathers a chorus of voices to describe a specific historical moment. Her works include The Unwomanly Face of War (1985), Last Witnesses (1985), Zinky Boys (1990), Voices from Chernobyl (1997), and Secondhand Time (2013). She has won many international awards, including the 2015 Nobel Prize in Literature “for her polyphonic writings, a monument to suffering and courage in our time.”
Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky have translated works by Pushkin, Gogol, Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, Chekhov, Leskov, Bulgakov, and Pasternak. They have twice received the PEN Book-of-the-Month Club Translation Prize (in 1991 for The Brothers Karamazov and in 2002 for Anna Karenina). In 2006, they were awarded the first Efim Etkind International Translation Prize by the European University of St. Petersburg. Most recently, they have been collaborating with the playwright Richard Nelson on plays by Turgenev, Gogol, Chekhov, and Bulgakov. Read their Art of Translation interview.
From the book Last Witnesses: An Oral History of the Children of World War II, by Svetlana Alexievich. Published this month by Random House, an imprint and division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © 1985 by Svetlana Alexievich. All rights reserved.
Last / Next Article