“They lay pink on the cinders”

An excerpt from Last Witnesses, an oral history of World War II in Russia.

For her new book, Last Witnesses (Random House), author Svetlana Alexievich (Voices From Chernobyl) recorded the memories of Russians who were children during World War II.

This is the story of Katya Korotaeva at 13. Today, she is an engineer in hydrotechnology.

I’ll tell about the smell … how war smells …

Before the war, I finished sixth grade. At school, the rule was that beginning from the fourth grade, there were final exams. And so we passed the last exam. It was June, and the months of May and June in 1941 were cold. Usually lilacs blossom some time in May, but that year they blossomed in mid-June. The beginning of the war for me is always associated with the smell of lilacs. And of bird cherry. For me, these trees always smell of war …

We lived in Minsk, and I was born in Minsk. My father was a military choirmaster. I used to go to the military parades with him. Besides me, there were two older brothers in the family. Of course, everybody loved me and pampered me as the youngest, and also as the little sister.

Ahead was summer, vacations. This was a great joy. I did sports, went to the swimming pool in the House of the Red Army. The children in my class envied me very much. And I was proud that I could swim well. On Sunday, June 22, there was to be a celebration marking the opening of the Komsomol Lake. They spent a long time digging it, building it, even our school went to the subbotniks. [Subbotniks, from the Russian word for Saturday (subbota), were Saturdays devoted to volunteer work for the community.] I planned to be one of the first to go and swim in it. For sure!

In the morning, we had a custom of going to buy fresh rolls. This was considered my duty. On the way I met a friend; she told me that war had begun. There were many gardens on our street, houses drowned in flowers. I thought, “What kind of war? What’s she inventing?”

At home my father was setting up the samovar … I had no time to say anything before neighbors came running, and they all had one word on their lips: War! War! The next morning at 7 o’clock, my older brother received a notice from the recruiting office. In the afternoon he ran over to his work, got paid off. He came home with this money and said to mama, “I’m leaving for the front, I don’t need anything. Take this money. Buy Katya a new coat.” I had just finished sixth grade and was supposed to start secondary school, and I dreamed that they’d have a dark blue woolen coat with a gray Astrakhan collar made for me. He knew about it.

To this day, I remember that, on leaving for the front, my brother gave money for my coat. Yet we lived modestly; there were enough holes in the family budget. But mama would have bought me the coat, since my brother asked. She just didn’t have time.

The bombing of Minsk began. Mama and I moved to our neighbors’ stone cellar. I had a favorite cat, she was very wild and never went anywhere beyond our yard, but when the bombing started, and I ran from the yard to our neighbors, the cat followed me. I tried to chase her away: “Go home!” But she followed me. She, too, was afraid to stay alone. The German bombs made some ringing, howling noise. I had a musical ear, it affected me strongly … those sounds … I was so scared that my palms were wet. The neighbors’ 4-year-old boy sat with us in the cellar. He didn’t cry, his eyes just grew bigger.

First separate houses burned, then the whole city. We like looking at a fire, at a bonfire, but it’s frightening when a house burns, and here fire came from all sides; the sky and the streets were filled with smoke. In some places it was very bright … from the fire … I remember three open windows in a wooden house, with magnificent Christmas cactuses on the windowsill. There were no people in this house anymore, only the blossoming cactuses. … The feeling was that they weren’t red flowers, but flames. Burning flowers.

We fled. … In villages on the way, people fed us with bread and milk — that was all they had. We had no money. I left the house with nothing but a kerchief, and mama for some reason ran out in a winter coat and high-heeled shoes. We were fed for free; no one made a peep about money. Refugees came pouring in crowds.

Then someone in front sent word that the road ahead had been cut by German motorcyclists. We ran back past the same villages, past the same women with jugs of milk. We came to our street. … Several days ago it was still green, there were flowers, and now everything was burned down. Nothing was left even of the centennial lindens. Everything was burned down to the yellow sand. The black earth on which everything grew disappeared somewhere; there was only yellow sand. Nothing but sand. As if you were standing by a freshly dug grave …

Factory furnaces were left. They were white, baked by the strong flame. Nothing else was recognizable … the whole street had burned. Grandmothers and grandfathers and many small children had burned. Because they didn’t run away with the others, they thought they wouldn’t be touched. The fire didn’t spare anybody. We walked and if you saw a black corpse, it meant a burned old man. If you saw something small and pink from a distance — it meant a child. They lay pink on the cinders …

Mama took off her kerchief and covered my eyes with it. … So we reached our house, the place where our house had stood several days ago. The house wasn’t there. We were met by our miraculously spared cat. She pressed herself to me — that was all. No one could speak … even the cat didn’t meow. She was silent for several days. Everybody became mute.

I saw the first fascists, not even saw but heard — they all had iron-shod boots, they stomped loudly. Stomped over our pavement. I had the feeling that it even hurt the earth when they walked.

But how the lilacs bloomed that year … how the bird cherry bloomed …