Oral History and Eastern European Fatalism: The Last Witnesses by Svetlana Alexievich

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I have always been wary of people throwing maxims into conversations. Not because maxims incite and heighten spirits but because, more often than not, they favour truisms – empty shells – over rational thinking. Call me rigid on this.

Still, it feels oddly forgiving to notice how Svetlana Alexievich, Nobel Prize winner, pays lip service to Soviet history by throwing in a maxim in one of her books, Second-hand Times: “We’re always talking about suffering… That’s our path to wisdom. […] We’re the ones who went to camps, who piled up the corpses during the war, who dug through the nuclear waste in Chernobyl with our bare hands.” While to many, it may sound like pain olympics, to her audience – oral history amateurs – it reassures them that history without emotions is no history at all. Or more scientifically put, one cannot see through a troubled past without falling back on collective traumas. People from Eastern Europe know this well. 

In this review, however, we will instead look at one of her most recently translated books, The Last Witnesses. In it, Alexievich covers the stories of those who lived through the Second World War as children and who witnessed their country’s brutal occupation by the Nazi forces. 

As the conflict unfolded, houses burnt down and the dead piled up in mass graves, survivors now remember what marked their childhood. For some, it was the separation from their loved ones during mass evacuations without ever getting to see them again, while for others, the summary executions of their parents and siblings. But for many, it was the day-to-day hardship: the lack of food and the ensuing hunger and disease, the presence of death squads or, in some cases, the agonising wait for their parents to return home in the evening.

What makes this book feel different from many others is that it is not about facts and numbers (with which we are often too familiar) but about personal discourse and struggle to face a murky past. Call it an anthology of suffering and partial reconciliation. In this sense, Alexievich captures each interviewee’s thoughts and emotions in an environment reminding us of a counselling room – some witnesses stop half-way through their stories to weep, others reflect on how trauma changed them for the worse. Yet, a consensus emerges from the cacophony of voices: that the stories must be told, or otherwise there will be no one left to tell them. As one witness puts it, “Our words will be the last…”. Therefore, the author embarks on a journey to gather the surviving memories of war. 

Nevertheless, the task is not as straightforward as it seems. The issue with having people think of what happened to them during the war is that their memories often end up repressed by childhood trauma. In this book, some witnesses were either too young when the war broke out to recall what happened to them or sufficiently traumatised to not even attempt that. In one case, a man cannot remember much of his life in the concentration camp or orphanage following his liberation. In another, the woman suddenly recognises a familiar face on a bus ride but cannot link it to a known person. In the end, it turns out that the actual stranger cared for her in an orphanage while she waited to be reunited with her missing mum. That is why some of the stories are either too short – because there is nothing much to say – or focus instead on the witnesses’ lives following the war. 

But that is the charm of oral history. You do not seek detailed accounts of someone’s past unless the person interviewed was sufficiently old at that time to remember everything or insufficiently traumatised to let it slip by (although bear in mind that I study law, not psychology, so do not take my scientific word for granted). Therefore, do not always expect a thought-out story framework unless you know you are in for a major disappointment. 

Moreover, oral history is there to collect people’s stories and chart the unknown side of events. This reminds us that history is not there to just turn into a factsheet. On the contrary, writing it down must also include people’s spectrum of individual perceptions and emotions so that we understand how historical events impact us and influence our future. Last Witnesses successfully does that.

On a personal level, this book strikes home. Reading it made me appreciate the recent time spent with my family, during which I could dig deeper into their own past – and implicitly my own. Stories like how my grandma used to queue for hours on end to buy food almost each day to feed her children, all while holding a job to make ends meet. Or how, during those bleak days in communist Romania, mum was refused to hold a membership card just because of having earlier spoken against the regime.  

Stories like these can never be thoroughly verified for factual mistakes. I, for one, cannot tell whether my mum’s side of truth is the only one available just as much as I cannot quantify my grandma’s personal struggles. But what I can tell is how humble I felt when listening to their stories and how illuminating those few moments spent together were in terms of learning more about my family’s past. And while I cannot guarantee that you will feel the exact same need to explore your own past after reading this book, I can promise that it will, at least, give you a crashing course in the beauty of oral history. For that, I recommend it. 

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