This book is Svetlana Alexievich’s fantastic oral history of those witness to the invasion of what was the old Soviet Union. In June 1941 the Germans entered the new Soviet Union via Eastern Poland, Ukraine, Belarus as they headed north to Leningrad, south to Stalingrad and towards Moscow.

Seeing this war from a child’s point of view is haunting and insightful and strangely memorable. Like most historians there are plenty of post-it-notes now adorning my copy, so that I can emphasise how war affects the innocent. Svetlana was way ahead of her time in recording this oral history, something that is finally coming to the fore in this country.

When you hear the words of Vasia Kharevsky, who was four years old when the Germans came, stating “I’m a man without a childhood. Instead of a childhood, I have war.” He would have seen events unfold when, as a Slav, he was deemed as ‘sub-human’ by the Germans. What happened as the German’s cut through the Soviet Union had not been seen prior to 1941. This book brings out that history.

Or in the 1980s when Alexievich interviewed Zina Kosiak, then a hairdresser, who was eight years old when war came. Her story is really the before and after, the after bringing misery and death, before the war happy memories of her family. “I’m already 51 years old. I have children of my own. But I still want my mama.” I recognise that feeling from my Polish grandfather, whose relationship with his father ended because of war and exile and who did not find out he had survived the war and lived until the 1970s.

One of the most poignant passages is something many families will understand, that once war was over it was rarely talked about. “Papa and mama were sure that there would never again be such a terrible war” fortunately that has held true.

“We are the last witnesses. Our time is ending. We must speak …….. Our words will be the last.”

This book is testament to those who witnessed a brutal war first hand, who are now becoming fewer.

Paul Diggett 5/5

Last Witnesses: Unchildlike Stories by Svetlana Alexievich
Penguin Classics 9780141983554 pbk Jul 2019