"I am a person without childhood. Instead of childhood, I had war."This is undeniably the most horrifying book I've ever read. It's the first book that actually made my heart physically ache. Reading it was like taking a razor blade to my soul. It was like slowly tearing my heart into bleeding pieces.How can we preserve our planet on which little girls are supposed to sleep in their beds and not lie dead on the road with unplaited pigtails? So that childhood would never again be called war-time childhood. Collected by Svetlana Alexievich, the author of the similarly soul-shattering [b:Voices from Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster|357486|Voices from Chernobyl The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster|Светлана Алексиевич|http://d202m5krfqbpi5.cloudfront.net/books/1316637138s/357486.jpg|1103107], these are the stories told by former "war children" who have survived the Great Patriotic War - Nazis against the Soviets - which lasted four years and took 27 million of Soviet lives. The Nazi had no qualms ruthlessly murdering Slavs and Jews, regarding them as subhuman, even less than animals, deserving to die for the 'crime' of simply existing. Simple and unbelievably horrifying, the stories of the childhood shattered by war made me cry and gasp in horror at the atrocities seen by children who had their innocence brutally ripped away and saw the absolute worst that can ever happen to anyone. "The war did not end quickly. They count - four years. Four years of shooting... But how many years of trying to forget?"I've heard similar stories before - my grandparents lived though a "war childhood" as well. Grandpa was seven when the war began, living in occupied Belarus. He still finds it hard to talk about constant hunger, daily threat of death, burned-down villages, murdered neighbors... Grandma was six, living in a relative safety of Kazakhstan, where the main enemy was hunger and soup made from grass was dinner. When she asked for 'real' food, her mother would tell her through tears to go to sleep instead, because then you can at least dream of food. To this day, my grandparents have never thrown out a single piece of bread. To this day, they detest any kind of war, no matter how righteous it may seem."The Germans were going from house to house. They gathered the mothers of those who went to join the partisans. And they cut their heads off in the middle of the village. We were ordered, "Watch"... I want to forget it all..."The stories of the former "war children" in this book are all different - some were in the occupied territories, some were on the front lines, some were in the underground guerilla resistance - the partisans, some were in Leningrad under 900-day siege, others were evacuated to safer parts of the country, yet others were forcibly sent to Germany as slaves. But the common theme is the extreme pain of separation from their parents and facing death daily - their own and that of their loved ones. They all were subjected to things that no child should witness. And their perception of the horrors around them was though that peculiar simple childlike honest gaze that leaves the reader speechless and shaken.The villages were occupied by the Germans, with people often forced out of their homes into "zemlyanki", makeshift 'homes' that were basically holes in the ground, even in winter months. There was terrible hunger, and stealing a bit of wheat that now belonged to the occupants was immediate death, even if the 'thief' was a toddler. Age did not matter - the supposedly 'subhuman' Soviet children got the same treatment as the adults. Usually it was death."Many years later I learned that they gauged out mom's eyes and tore out her hair, cut off her breasts. They sicced dogs on little sister Galya who hid under the tree and refused to come out. The dogs brought her out - piece by piece. Mom was still alive, she understood everything... Right in front of her..."Most villages had people - usually young men and women - join the partisans, the guerilla resistance in the woods. The punishment for knowing the partisans, helping them, being related to them was death - often for the entire village, children included. The 'guilty' were publicly executed - shot, beaten to death, hanged - and everyone, including their children, had to watch. They were not allowed to cry - the punishment was, again, death. Even for children."They were shooting three people at a time. They would put them by the edge of the hole - and shoot at point blank range. The rest were watching... I don't remember parents saying goodbye to their children or children to their parents. One mother lifted the hem of her dress and covered her daughter's eyes. But even the little children did not cry..."The soldiers were methodically going from home to home, gunning down women, children, and the elderly. Sometimes they would burn them alive. Sometimes they'd force all the people into the open, interrogate them, and shoot either randomly, or shoot everyone. Those who survived, did so by unbelievable stroke of luck. That is, if you can call it 'luck' - watching all your loved ones, your friends, your neighbors brutally murdered."The whole street burned. Grandmas and grandpas burned, and many small children because they did not run away with everybody else, they thought the Germans would not touch them. The fire did not spare anyone. You're walking - and see a black corpse, that means the old person has burned. And if you see from far away something small and pink - it means a child. They were lying on the coals, pink..."In the cities, things were not any better. The Jews were forced into the ghettos. The crematoriums in the concentration camps were welcoming Jews and Slavs alike. And the small children - they were taken to forcibly give blood since "German doctors believed that blood of children under age five helped quick recovery of the wounded. Had a youthful effect. I know that now..." The children, drained of most of their blood, either quickly died or got sick and were thrown into the concentration camps crematoriums. We used to eat... water. At dinner time, mom would put a pot of hot water on the table. And we would pour it into our bowls. Evening. Supper. There is a pot of hot water on the table.The children in Leningrad during the 900-day siege were dying of hunger. They ate grass, wallpaper, dirt. They ate their pets - and there were no pets left in the city. They watched everyone die. My heart breaks."In this orphanage where I was, they had only children from Leningrad. They could not feed us enough for a long time. We would sit in class and chew paper. They fed us carefully... I was sitting at a table at breakfast. And I saw a cat. I jumped up, "Cat! Cat!" All the kids saw it and started chasing it, "Cat! Cat!" The teachers were local, they looked at us as though we were crazy. In Leningrad, there had been no cats left... Finding a live cat was a dream. Food for the whole month..."Thousands of children lost their parents, some forever. They were raised in orphanages, learning to go through life in as much of a "normal" way as possible, but longing to have something to call their own, longing for their parents, starved for parental love so much they would approach strangers and ask to be held - like mom would do."At night, there was wailing. We were calling for mom and dad. Our teachers tried to avoid saying the word 'mom' around us. They told us fairy-tales and found books without this word. If anyone ever said "mom", the crying would start immediately. Inconsolable crying."But despite the horrors, the murders, the pain, the losses there was a common thread running though everyone's stories - the unbelievable kindness and compassion. People did not hesitate to take in the lost and orphaned children who were complete strangers to them even if it meant dividing already miserly food portions into even smaller pieces. They took the children in even if it could mean sure death for harboring a Jewish or a partisan's kid. They gave them everything they had, every last bit, to the children who were complete strangers to them. They sacrificed their lives to save the children who were strangers. There did not seem to be any strangers in the war - everyone was united by the common horror that they all shared."What do I have left from the war? I don't understand what strangers are, because my brother and I grew up among strangers. We were saved by strangers. But how can they be strangers to me?"What really shocked me, however, was the kindness and compassion that children and adults alike were showing to their former enemies - the German POWs. Some children were astonished as their mothers gave them the ultimate "lessons in kindness" by sharing their tiny food rations with those who have treated them as subhuman, who killed their loved ones. The Leningrad children, recovering from 900 days of murder and starvation, were sharing their food with those who tried to starve them to death a few years prior. They were so heartbreakingly HUMAN in this because they knew the horror and the price of suffering, and found incredible strength to forgive. How could their hearts be so generous? I will never fully understand, and for that I am incredibly lucky.It's been decades since that war, but these stories still need to be heard. They cannot be forgotten. The absolute horror that war was should always be remembered. It should always remind us of the fragility of human lives, of the shattered lives and destroyed childhoods. The memory, the pain, the warning. Nothing, I repeat - nothing can EVER justify a war like this. Nothing can justify the stolen lives of the innocent. Nothing can justify the scars that will remain forever. Nothing."But I can never be really happy. Completely happy. I can't do happiness. I'm afraid of happiness. I always think that it's about to end. This "about to end" always lives inside me. Childhood fear..."