Translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky
Book 10 of my #20booksofsummer, Review no 168, and finished just in time for the beginning of Women In Translation month #WITMonth
First published in Russian in 1985, and published in English translation in 2019 in the UK by Penguin books.
Belarusian writer and oral historian Svetlana Alexievich is renowned for her books of expertly condensed interviews focusing on the female experience of the Second World War in the USSR, and on the legacy of Chernobyl. She won the 2015 Nobel Prize in Literature “for her polyphonic writings, a monument to suffering and courage in our time”.
This recently translated book is composed of the accounts of those who were children in the USSR during the Second World War, when Belarus came under Nazi occupation; 66% of Belarus’s Jewish population died. Alexievich, herself born three years after the end of the Second World War, interviewed her respondents during the 1970s, when these child survivors had reached adulthood. Each individual statement is headed simply, with the person’s name, age when war broke out or when they were first impacted by it, and their current occupation. There is no authorial comment or commentary, but this compendium of oral accounts speaks for itself.
The book is, of course, often devastating reading. How could it not be? I actually found it so viscerally upsetting that I’m not going to discuss the content in any sort of detail. Suffice it to say that I read many poignant, relentlessly distressing accounts, all true stories, recounted in a fragmentary way after a gap of many years, which at times quite literally made my blood run cold.
Alexievich’s respondents become distressed in retelling stories that have often remained buried for many years, and her project raises a few ethical questions. There are frequent ellipses, which creates the impression of accounts broken off amid intense emotion, though it may be more of a device to indicate where edits have been made.
Again and again, amid stories of traumatic bereavement, abject poverty and devastating hunger, are references to toys, or the lack of them.
One respondent, aged 7 when war broke out, remembers her little brother being so hungry that:
“he said to Mama, ‘Let’s cook my duckling.’ This duckling was his favourite toy, he had never let anyone touch it. He slept with it.”
Elsewhere, a woman remembers her two dolls being traded for a bag of rice to prevent the family from starving, while another remembers a pitiful lucky find:
“I found a doll somewhere, not really a doll, only a doll’s head. I loved it. It was my joy. I carried it around from morning till night. It was my only toy.”
I was horrified to learn that small children who found themselves in Belarusian orphanages were forced to donate blood to help Nazi soldiers, as German doctors at the time believed that the blood of children aged under five would hasten their recovery. There is something so dreadfully vampiric about this idea that is stood out for me even amid graphic accounts of lost lives, and it is an occurrence that is recounted not just once, but repeatedly by these respondents, as they reflect on their stolen childhoods.
This book is hugely important as a historical document recording the inexplicably cruel events of a particular time and place, and of the horrors visited on a generation. But I’m sure most people will, quite justifiably, want to avoid.