I just finished The Unwomanly Face of War, Svetlana Alexievitch’s oral history of Soviet women in World War Two. I could only read the book a little at a time; there was too much pain, too much blood, too much thoughtless heroism in the face of incomprehensible suffering. Reading it quickly would inure you to their stories; precious testaments from a species of humans that once lived and is no more.
I wanted to share a few passages that stood out for me:
I remember the sounds of the war. Everything around booms and clangs, crackles from fire… In war your soul ages. After the war I was never young…
It’s a pity I was only beautiful during the war… My best years were spent there. Burned up.
Can I find the right words? I can tell about how I shot. But about how I wept, I can’t. That will be left untold. I know one thing: in war a human being becomes frightening and incomprehensible. How can one understand him? You’re a writer. Think up something yourself. Something beautiful. Without lice and filth, without vomit… without the smell of vodka and blood… not so frightening as life.
Sometimes I come home after these meetings with the thought that suffering is solitude. Total isolation. At other times it seems to me that suffering is a special kind of knowledge. There is something in human life that it is impossible to convey and preserve in any other way, especially among us. That is how the world is made; that is how we are made.
We had the Chimuk brothers in our detachment… They ran into an ambush in their village, took refuge in some barn, there was shooting, the barn was set on fire. They went on shooting till they ran out of cartridges…Then they came out, burned… they were driven around the villages in a cart to see who would recognize them as their own. So that people would give themselves away…
The entire village stood there. Their father and mother stood there, nobody made a sound. What a heart the mother must have had not to cry out. Not to call. She knew that if she began to weep, the whole village would be burned down. She wouldn’t be killed alone. Everybody would be killed. For one German killed they used to burn an entire village. She knew… There exists awards for everything, but no award, not even the highest Star of the Hero of the Soviet Union is enough for that mother… For her silence…
So what now? I carried our wounded man and thought: “Should I go back for the German or not?” I knew that if i left him, he would die soon. From loss of blood…And I crawled back for him. I went on carrying both of them…My precious one… there can’t be one heart for hatred and another for love. We only have one, and I always thought about how to save my heart.
What was going on in our souls then. Because there probably will never again be such people as we were then. Never! So naive and so sincere. With such faith.