Cover Image: Last Witnesses (Adapted for Young Adults)

Last Witnesses (Adapted for Young Adults)

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It shouldn't be allowed, giving 3 stars to a book like this, but that's where it is for me. I wish there had been more narrative between the memories, but there was none. So, instead of being drawn in, I felt bombarded by staccato stories. I did appreciate the end notes; there was a lot about life in the Soviet Union at that time that I didn't know.

Last Witnesses (Adapted for Young Adults) was a non-stop onslaught of recounted memories of people who were children in the eastern part of the USSR during World War II. Each person gets a few pages to tell about what it was like being a child while all around was war - death, starvation, and fear. Unfortunately, there was no context except for each person's story, and I think the book would have been better if it had been broken up into sections, chapters, or something so it flowed better.

My thanks to Random House Children's Delacorte Press and NetGalley for the ARC in exchange for an honest review.
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Thank you to NetGalley and Random House Children’s for the review copy of this book. I found Last Witness intriguing because I was interested in hearing true stories from World War II. Svetlana Alexievich compiled personal narratives told by those who were children and separated from their parents. The stories paint pictures of terror, survival and hope. Originally written for an adult audience, this is the young adult version. 

The stories are fascinating and true to the speaking of the subject. If the interviewer changed subjects abruptly or said, “Oh, I forgot!” it is in the narrative. This made it a bit challenging to follow. I can see using this in the classroom to present first hand information, but I think a student might find it difficult to read the stories independently. This ideal audience for this book is ages 12 and above.
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This book is a haunting telling of actual events from World War II through the eyes of the children who experienced it.  These short stories tell a child's perspective on a very adult issue.  
As a collection, this book is an invaluable resource for study of WWII and war in general.  Teachers can pull just one or two stories or children can read the whole collection to see what really goes on in war.
Overall, I found the book completely haunting.  Our nation has not lived something like this, where our country is invaded with foreign troops in quite a while.  It is hard, even for adults, to imagine these horrors.
This version is the young adult version so the stories are appropriate for kids.  I would suggest an adult be ready for any questions simply because of the covered material.
Many thanks to Net Galley for providing me with an ARC of this book.
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Thanks to Net Galley for this ARC. Lost Witnesses is a collection of stories from people who were children in Russia or vicinity during WWII. They recall their experiences living through war in various short accounts. I teach history and found this to be sad, yet fascinating. It would be a great primary source asset in a classroom where WWII is a part of the curriculum!
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Thank you to netgalley for allowing me to read this book and give an honest review.

This book was wonderful if that is ever a thing for a holocaust genre book. It was very bittersweet. To hear these first hand accounts of what it was like to be a child during World War II is heart wrenching. I wanted to hug them all. 
Thank you for writing about the hard stuff. Thank you for sharing these stories with the world.
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This definitely has an appeal for a niche market, but I found it too long and the stories not as appealing to the wider YA audience. By appealing, I mean that there are too many accounts in one volume for YA consumption. The horror of the events gets lost and one story runs into the other. A more curated edition would have much more impact. Their stories need to be told--I have found few volumes of Russian testimonies of terror from WWII--but this is not the one.
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This is a collection of true childhood accounts of the invasion of the Soviet Union by Germany during WWII. Completely devastating and horrifying. But, these children were resilient, they had to be in order to survive. This was tremendous work by the author to preserve history. Thank you, Netgalley, for the opportunity to read this in exchange for an honest review. 4 Stars
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For as much emphasis as school curricula place on WWII, this is the book that may bring attention to an often neglected perspective: the position and role of the Soviet Union in that struggle. I found this text quite accessible. In the e-version, the immediacy of touching the footnote number and then easily returning to the text allows effortless research of unfamiliar terms. The Historical Context preface gave a good description of how the USSR came in to the war, and what life was like for its citizens. This is where one can sense the vastness of the Soviet Union, and understand how difficult communication was during wartime. The testimonies of those interviewed are well-transcribed here. The author has not over-edited the words and phrasing of her contributors, so that you can hear the older people remembering - 'They were afraid...This is what I think now...' (Gena Yushkevich), 'I was so scared that my palms were wet' (Katya Korotaeva). And she let them tell their own childhood trauma, including back-tracking and idealized mamas and papas. The gentle handling of these memories gives them the same immediacy as Anne Frank's diary.
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Powerful. That's the best word I can come up with for this book.  Not many people know about the atrocities that happened in the Soviet Union during WWII.  Everyone just thinks of Hitler and Europe.  This book dives into the heart of the children who survived living in the Soviet Union during this time and their harrowing accounts of the devastation that occurred during that time. I would highly recommend this to any of my students or any fans of WWII literature.
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Some years ago, American writer Alice Walker wrote a picture book entitled “Why War Is Never a Good Idea”. More than anything else I have read, Svetlana Alexievich’s book shows why. It contains testimonies of those who were traumatically impacted as children by the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941 and the war that continued there until 1944. Yale historian Timothy Snyder calls the stretch of earth where Alexievich’s “last witnesses” were born—an area which extends from central Poland to western Russia, through Ukraine, Belarus, and the Baltic states—“the bloodlands” and for good reason. He writes that “mass violence of a sort never before seen in history was visited on this region.” People tend to think the horror of the twentieth century is located in the concentration camps, Snyder observes, but the camps are not where most of the victims died; the bloodlands are. Alexievich’s interviewees are for the most part Belarusians. Their childhood memories, which the author apparently collected, recorded, and shaped between 1978 and 2004, bear witness to the intense human and animal suffering in this part of eastern Europe as a direct result of Hitler’s aspirations and depravity. For Stalin’s genocidal acts and crimes against humanity, you will need to read another book.  

I concurrently read ARCs of the adult and the more recent young adult editions of <i><b>Last Witnesses</i></b> (translated from the Russian) but my remarks will focus mostly on the latter. I was interested to see how a book, which provides first-hand accounts of wartime experiences and atrocities, would be altered for younger people. Not as much as you might think, it turns out. True, the young people’s version is shorter by about a third, containing only 65 of the original 100 accounts, a few of them with significant edits. Since the book is a collection of memories from some who were as young as two years of age in 1941 (when the Soviet-German War began), many of the recollections are understandably fragmentary. Editors of the young people’s version seem to have rejected a few of the original pieces because they are fractured and confusing, but it’s evident that more of them were excluded because of graphic content. <spoiler>One story that was cut concerns a young girl whose family survived famine during the 900-day Siege of Leningrad by eating beloved family pets. A couple of stories focus on the Germans’ fattening up of captive, pretty, blond children under the age of five in order to use them to transfuse wounded German soldiers. Nazi doctors apparently believed the blood of the very young promoted healing. The children whose blood was repeatedly taken almost always died. Other excluded stories tell of the Nazis’ sexual assault of girls and women, physical abuse and torture of children, and cruelty towards animals. Eyewitness accounts of the punitive/death-squad murders of Jews, local communists, POWs, and relatives of partisan fighters have also been omitted. Germans regularly compelled victims to dig the pits they would fall into when executed. They forced villagers and family members to watch. Any crying by witnesses meant that they too would be shot. Carried out by the notorious Einsatzgruppen, this was “the Holocaust by bullets” that preceded the construction of the Nazi death camps in Poland.</spoiler> 

While the young adult edition of <i><b>Last Witnesses</i></b> has fewer survivor accounts than the original, it does have additional special features to make the material accessible. First of all, there’s an introduction, which provides basic information about the founding of the Soviet Union and the terror Stalin inflicted on his own people prior to World War II: the mass killings, including political and military purges that weakened the Red Army; the policies that led to deliberate, genocidal famine; and the creation of the gulag network. An overview of Hitler’s goals is also presented. Early in World War II, the Führer had agreed to leave the Soviet Union alone in exchange for the western half of Poland, but, buoyed by victories in western Europe, he changed his mind and invaded the USSR after all. The land was rich in natural resources—oil and minerals; the soil was suitable for agriculture; and, besides, only communists and racially inferior humans—Slavs and most of Europe’s Jews—lived there. A brief summary of the war itself—a war in which German “criminality against civilians . . . was pushed to an extreme”—follows.  The introduction refers the reader to a map of eastern Europe, which includes the major cities mentioned in the witnesses’ recorded oral histories. Unfortunately, this essential component was lacking in both advanced reader copies. It’s not clear if the adult version was to include one at all, but I can’t imagine reading either edition without a map to show the vast distances child evacuees travelled (with other, unrelated children or with family members), usually in squalid cattle cars. Footnotes and a useful fifty-word glossary are also provided. The latter explains many words, terms, and events a younger audience might be unfamiliar with, as well as a few that adults might appreciate, too: “Boletus”, “katiushas”, and “quitrent”, for example, were words unknown to me. 

Alexievich’s witnesses, even the youngest, recall the arrival of the Germans in June 1941. As children, they saw and heard the planes strafing the trains that were carrying them away from the fighting: to orphanages or settlements in Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Azerbaijan, or Siberia—and elsewhere.  Others describe the bombing of their villages, the arrival of black trucks, black motorcycles, and black-uniformed interrogation squads, carrying lists and going door to door to flush out the families of partisan fighters. Up close, the Germans looked surprisingly “ordinary”: handsome, strong, and healthy. Many witnesses comment they had difficulty reconciling these laughing, joking, harmonica-playing youths with the heinous acts they committed. 

Submachine gun fire from low-flying aircraft often killed parents as they fled cottages with their young. These were often the children’s first encounters with death, something most would grow used to. Families often ran into forests, sometimes to live among the partisans; other family groups travelled along roads, pushing or pulling carts with food and a few possessions. They made easy targets for the enemy overhead. Grandparents figure prominently in many accounts—rescuing children and small animals the children were attached to, chicks and kittens—but strangers played significant roles as well. Belarusian peasants commonly took in wandering or orphaned children, housed as many as six refugee families in a single dwelling, and despaired when they lacked food for those who were starving. In eastern European peasant communities, unrelated elders were often addressed as grandfather, grandmother, uncle, or aunt. During these dark times, they stepped in as though they really were blood relatives, putting their own lives at risk in order to shelter Jewish and partisan children. 

The Germans regularly burned the Belarusian villages they entered. According to the Smithsonian Magazine online, “By one historian’s count, occupying forces murdered all the inhabitants of 629 razed Belarusian villages, in addition to burning down another 5,454 villages and killing at least a portion of their residents.” 

<a href="https://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205260145" target="_blank"> <img src="https://media.iwm.org.uk/ciim5/295/612/mid_000000.jpg?action=e&cat=Photographs" alt="THE OPERATION BARBAROSSA, JUNE-DECEMBER 1941"> </a> <span> THE OPERATION BARBAROSSA, JUNE-DECEMBER 1941 <a href="https://www.iwm.org.uk/corporate/privacy-copyright">© IWM (HU 111384)</a> </span>

Children who travelled east often ended up in orphanages. One woman Alexievich interviewed spoke of feeling protected and loved by the teachers, nannies, and matrons of her orphanage, but far more survivors testify to the lack of tenderness in these institutions. Some orphans observe that the effects of living in such harsh, uncaring places have been long-lasting. As adults, they admit to being emotionally stunted, disconnected, even alienated from others. Maria Puzan comments: “Everyone in the orphanage had trouble growing up. I think it’s probably from pining. We didn’t grow up because we heard so few tender words. We couldn’t grow up without mamas . . .” Affection was not the only thing orphans were starved of in these institutions. Food was extremely scarce. Animals used for labour were often sacrificed, but even this did not meet needs for long. Children ate grass, bark and the buds on trees. There is one striking account of an incident that occurred near the end of the war when conditions were still very harsh: children saved their own limited rations to give to German prisoners. There are other powerful stories of humanity while in hell. When they were incarcerated in a Lithuanian concentration camp, one mother repeatedly reminded her daughter:  “We must remain human.” Another survivor, who was recruited to bring wounded Germans water, observes: “Hatred is a feeling that gets formed in a man, it’s not an innate thing.”

Alexievich’s book is full of rich and varied stories. There is a surprisingly humorous narrative of very young orphaned boys taken in by the Red Army. Compelled by officers to attend a school in one locale where the soldiers were stationed, the boys refused to cooperate with mere civilian teachers. We follow only the commands of our military leaders, they told their instructors. The commanding officer subsequently demoted them after issuing strict reminders that their job was to learn. 

Orphans were sometimes taken in by partisan fighters as well. Occasionally they went on scouting or other missions. One ten-year-old child, Vasya Saulchenko, who was sent to get a wounded German’s gun, ended up shooting the soldier because the man pointed the weapon at Vasya’s face. This was the first time the boy killed, and it troubled him little during the war; there wasn’t time—“we lived among the dead,” he said, “we even got used to it,”—but, as an adult, he admits to being tormented by recurrent nightmares in which he is trying to fly away, but the soldier keeps pulling him down into a pit. The young adult edition does not retain the paragraphs in which Vasya admits he cannot speak to his son about his experiences. Telling him “would destroy his world. A world without war . . . People who haven’t seen a man kill another man are completely different people . . .” I don’t understand why this important passage was left out.

For me, some of the most poignant stories concern the fragile friendships that formed between children in the direst circumstances: orphanages, concentration camps, or on the streets of cities. One story tells of the close relationship between two boys—one Belarusian; the other, Jewish—who met on the streets of Minsk, lived together in an abandoned apartment, and started shoeshine and luggage-carrying businesses. They acted as porters for Nazi officers arriving by train. Fearing that his friend’s Jewish identity would be discovered, Eduard Voroshilov clipped back his pal Kim’s curly black hair and made sure the boy always wore a cap. One day when the two were anxiously awaiting payment, a German officer pushed Kim, knocking off his hat. His Jewish identity exposed, Kim was taken to the ghetto. Eduard saw him several times afterwards. He regularly went to the ghetto’s barbed-wire fence to toss potatoes to the boy . . . until, after a night of shouting that could be heard across the city, his Jewish friend disappeared.

Again and again while reading this book I thought of the opening line of Frank McCourt’s memoir “When I look back on my childhood I wonder how I managed to survive at all,” so well does it apply to the experiences of the eastern Europeans who tell their stories here. The majority of the last witnesses to whom Alexievich listened have themselves likely died by now. When they spoke to her, though middle-aged and older, they were still grieving their lost childhoods and they continued to long for their dead parents. The psychological effects of their wartime experiences were profound. Immediately after their traumas, many were unable to speak; a few were unconscious for days. Later, some were terrified by the noise or appearance of airplanes or trucks. Sleep disorders—nightmares, shouting, and sleepwalking—were common. Later, memory impairment made it challenging for them to learn in school, and emotional disturbances, including an inability to feel, to cry, to show affection, or forgive made close relationships difficult. “People were a burden to me, I had trouble being with them,” confesses one woman. “I kept something inside that I couldn’t share with anyone.” Another woman had learned from her mother’s experience that physical beauty was dangerous. She became alarmed when her own appearance was praised. Yet another told Alexievich she feared men, not dead ones but the living, and she had never married as a result. The loss of beloved pets and farm animals had caused extreme grief in childhood for some. One woman recalled crying for days as a child over the death by shrapnel of her beloved cat. So marked was she by that experience that when her own daughter begged her for a kitten she could not fulfill that wish. Some of these discussions of the traumatic aftereffects of war have been excluded from the young people’s edition of the book.

This is the third of Svetlana Alexievich’s oral histories I’ve read.  I’ve been engaged and moved by all of them, but this one made me weep.

As an adult, of course I understand that Hitler had to be stopped, but that doesn’t mean I will ever believe war is a good idea. 

Thank you to Net Galley and the publisher for providing me with a digital advanced reader copy.
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A narrative containing the stunning stories of children who lived through the Second World War and ultimately demonstrated the indomitable strength of the human spirit by persevering against all odds through unimaginable pain, loss, and trials.
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This is an incredible look into the impact war has on its smallest victims. The first-hand accounts of people who were children during the war is eye opening and heart breaking. The use of oral histories allows a deeper connection to each of the individuals presented. It would have been interesting to have an updated introduction to the book. Seeing as how it was written over 35 years ago under the communist regime, it would be interesting to see if the author's viewpoint has changed, or perhaps broadened since the fall of the Soviet Union.
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This book contains several accounts of the conflict between Russia and Germany during World War 2 from the Russian perspective. Each short chapter is told from the witness's POV, all of which, were young at the time of the War. 

I find that we often have young readers looking for books on World War II, with a great interest in the U.S. involvement and the Nazi element. Rarely am I asked for a Russian perspective. That is a shame. Russia has a rich history that is usual for us to understand. Namely, this read will provoke empathy from readers. 

Defiantly a great addition to any library. Only con would be that the introduction, while important and informative might be a too dry and long of a read for this age/reading level. This book also features a glossary, about the author, and about the translators.
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With care for the witnesses and nuance fitting the depth and harsh reality of the history presented here, Alexievich perfectly adjusts this important text into a more digestible version for younger readers. The information is still rich and critical, while the language itself is to the point, not weighing at all on overly scholastic vocabulary and depth. The accounts are all relatively short as well, giving readers perfect bursts of perspectives without being overshadowed by one another.
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Author Svetlana Alexievich interviewed people who lived in the Soviet Union (now present day Russia) and Eastern Europe who were children ranging in age from toddlers to teenagers during World War II.

This book, written for young adults, presents an oral history of their thoughts and experiences. It was fascinating to “see” the war through a child’s eyes. Nearly all of the children experienced starvation. Some of the vividly described incidents they witnessed were very gruesome and brutal, while other children experienced the kindness of strangers.

It was very interesting to read about the ways in which these children processed and tried to make sense of the events as they unfolded. It was sad and heartbreaking to think that they lost a part of their childhood because of the war.

The “Historical Context” section at the beginning of the book gives perspective and greatly enhances the narration. An additional glossary of terms used in the book is an added help for young readers.

This book provides an opportunity for young people to learn about the war from others in their age group. It’s a very useful educational resource.

Thank you to NetGalley, Delacorte Press, and author Svetlana Alexievich for giving me the opportunity to read the ARC of this educational book.
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Full review on goodreads for this Holocaust nonfiction book that reads like poetry. Just left me wanting more and not sure of its appeal to young people.
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I went into this book thinking that the individual stories would be intermingled with prose to give context to specific situations. Rather, this book is more a collection of interviews and in this young adult version it feels as though a lot is cut out. I think I would recommend this book to a middle grade demographic rather than a young adult demographic. While the interviews pulled at my heartstrings and I grieved for their situation and loss, I felt a lot of the time as if I were missing parts of the stories. I think this book would be good for a juvenile audience as an introduction to WWII or war in general.
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I’ve already read War’s Unwomanly Face so I knew what kind of horrors to expect. This was such a hard read. While this is a YA edition and stories from kids, I would be hesitant about who I recommended this too. It’s important and real, but this book is very heavy. It’s been a few years since I’ve read War’s Unwomanly Face, but there are still a couple scenes I will never forget. This book also has stories of horrific things that happen during war.
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"Last Witnesses" by Svetlana Alexievich 
Release Date: 8.31.2021

Svetlana Alexievich shares the traumatic memories of children during World War II.  These stories are astounding.  Most children were separated from their families, growing up in orphanages or with grandparents, extended family, or even strangers.    

Originally released in Russia in the 1980s, this English translated copy is heartbreaking.  Ms. Alexievich interviews 100 adults featured in this book as children, discussing their memories of war and the Nazi invasion of Russia.  


Thank you to NetGalley for the opportunity to read in exchange for my review.

#netgalley #netgalleyreads #netgalleyreview #bookstagrammer #bookstagram #historicalfiction #readersofinstagram #historicalfiction2021 #2021bookreleases #booknerd #instabook #lastwitnesses #svetlanaalexievich
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In Svetlana Alexievich's newest addition to this genre, The Last Witnesses, the author gives an austere look at a population often overlooked during wartime, the children. Recorded in a journalistic style, Alexievich offers a first-hand account of children inside the Soviet Union during World War II.  Like black-and-white photographs in a retrospective exhibit, the author offers no commentary or explanation, merely a few pages of historical background, and then releases her readers into the mind of a child. What follows is a freefall into a narrative that bounces back and forth between ages, locations, and personalities. A stark but strangely sympathetic picture of those caught within the net of war, this is a book educators will enjoy. Useful as a reference and a catalyst for classroom discussion, The Last Witnesses is a book worth adding to any classroom library.
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