The Nobel laureate brings her unique style of collecting firsthand memories to the stories of those who were children during World War II.
Like all of Alexievich’s (The Unwomanly Face of War: An Oral History of Women in World War II, 2017, etc.) books, this one makes for a difficult but powerful reading experience. The Nazis ruthlessly killed entire villages or took all the men who might be partisans out to be shot, transporting women and children to concentration camps. One universal memory of these children was the complete lack of color: Everything was gray or black; spring never arrived. Many raged that they never had a childhood, which was stolen from them. As one 13-year-old recounts, “I learned to be a good shot….But I forgot my math….” The children were not immune to Nazi tortures, and the author does not hide that fact from readers. Even 70 years later, many couldn’t bear to remember the horrors of separation, the killings, and the hunger, which was perpetual—many ate grass, bark, even dirt. One man said there were no tears in him; he didn’t know how to cry. The ages of Alexievich’s subjects range from 4 to 15 years, most in the younger range because the teenagers were usually taken for slave labor or shot. Children were sold as slaves to German farmers and worked to death, but one of the most heinous crimes has to be the Aryan-looking children’s being taken to camps so their blood could be used for transfusions for injured soldiers. The stories of escaping to the East, many alone, are remarkable, especially as we see the total strangers who took them in and treated them as family. Strangers were all they knew, and it was strangers who saved them. There are some uplifting stories of parents finding their children after the war, but many never found anyone.
As usual, Alexievich shines a bright light on those who were there; an excellent book but not for the faint of heart.