Children of War: Diaries 1941-1945
Moscow: Argumenty I Fakty, AIF Kind Heart Charitable Foundation, 2016.
Mention a diary written by a child during the Second World War and the name of Anne Frank springs first to mind. Once read, the harrowing story of a young girl who was confined for two years with her family in an attic in Amsterdam, in constant fear of being discovered by the occupying Nazis, can never be forgotten. Eventually betrayed, the Franks were taken to a concentration camp where only her father survived. Anne’s diary is all that is left of her lost childhood.
Not surprisingly, other young people, too, kept their own diaries, recording, sometimes in minute but always illuminating, details of lives that no child should have to face. Over time, many, perhaps most, of these written accounts of the horrors of war, seen through the eyes of young people denied a normal childhood, will have been lost to posterity. Destroyed along with the homes where their families lived, hidden beneath the earth, or discovered by enemy forces and thrown onto a fire, only a fraction of these testimonies will have survived. This makes the recent publication of no fewer than thirty-five diaries of Russian children in the early 1940s all the more remarkable; half of these accounts, recorded on scraps of paper and old exercise books, have never been in print before.
Credit for this unique publication is owed to a group of intrepid journalists of the Russian weekly, Argumenty I Fakty, who have tracked down the varied accounts of contrasting wartime observations, the only thing unifying them being the shared suffering of children. The greater number tell of the horrific conditions experienced by those caught up in the siege of Leningrad, but for others in the ghettoes and concentration camps or sent to work in factories in Germany, conditions were no less hostile. Alongside the editors, three translators – Andrew Broomfield, Rose France and Anthony Hippisley – have done an exceptional job in bringing these intimate accounts to the attention of English-speaking readers.
The conditions experienced by wartime children are hard to imagine, and perhaps nowhere more so than during the siege of Leningrad. Surrounded by German troops, there were some 400,000 children living in the city at the start of the ordeal; three years later, when the siege was lifted, only half this number remained. Some had managed to escape but most were the victims of starvation or disease. Tanya Savicheva, for instance, was a young girl whose life was cut short. The imminence of death was all she knew in her brief life and in her concise diary she records the vulnerability of all around her, until she, too, was struck down by the kind of disease that thrives on bodies too weak to resist.
Other children wrote of being constantly hungry, if not literally starving, and trying to survive on small crusts of bread and soup made from a handful of cabbage leaves if they were lucky. LeraIgosheva’s diary was reflective: ‘Hunger is a terrible torment’, she wrote, ‘All your other thoughts become dulled. All you think about is food…’ Nor was hunger the only threat to survival: temperatures in Leningrad typically drop to many degrees below zero and, even with their furniture broken up for firewood, fuel was in desperately short supply. As if that was not enough, the Germans relentlessly bombed the city. Yet, for all the privations, Lera was one of the survivors and after the war went on to work for more than fifty years as a teacher of mathematics.
Elsewhere, war meant different things but always it wrested away the joys of childhood; the children were adults before their time. An astonishing figure of close to 4.5 million young people were forcibly taken from their families and sent to work in slave conditions in the factories and fields of Germany. Vasya Baranov was one of the ‘russsicherScwein’, a young man taken in a packed cattle wagon to work in Leipzig, separated from his sweetheart, Olya, who came from the same village. His perceptive diary not only describes the conditions endured but shows his utter determination to survive, against all odds. At one point he recounts his own physical decline:
When I looked in the mirror, I was so unlike myself that I was amazed. As white as snow, a sharp, pointed head, wild eyes buried deep, a hideously skinny nose, yellow teeth, no hair, a face covered in stubble. That’s what they turn a man into in about two and a half months.
A short review like this cannot begin to do justice to a collection extending over nearly 500 pages, every one of which is a book in itself. The worst thing that can happen to a child is to deny it the joys of childhood. This historical record says it all. In the face of such evidence, one might have thought that lessons would have been taken: never let it happen again. And yet, no less painful is the realisation that history, through to the present day, repeats itself. Soon, no doubt, we will read comparable accounts of children in Syria and Nigeria, South Sudan and Yemen. Tragically, the diaries of this book, Children of War, are but a chapter in a volume where pages are constantly added. When, indeed, will we ever learn?
Reviewed by Prof. Dennis Hardy