While the Leningrad Blockade (also known as the Siege of Leningrad) started on September 8, 1941, I chose November as the month of remembrance for it, because it was in November of 1941 that the final and most devastating reduction of food rations came into effect. From November 1941 to February 1942 the only food available to the citizen was 125 grams of bread, consisting 50 - 60% of sawdust, grass and other inedible substances.
Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) is a prominent city in my family's history. Most notably, two of my grandparents (one on each side: my maternal grandfather and my paternal grandmother) survived the Siege of Leningrad, although the physical and psychological aftereffects of it continued to haunt them both for the rest of their lives.
The first part of my tribute is dedicated to my Grandfather Vasily Petrovich Kuznetsov. I posted a chapter about him from my book A Child In Translation earlier this year. According to his will, I inherited his entire library and all of his notes. Through the course of my childhood and teenage years, Grandfather told me about World War II (or, as we call it Great Patriotic War), always concluding, "Promise you will remember this. People have to remember this." So, after his death, I made it my mission to transcribe his book, translate it and make it available to the public both in Russian and in English.
Below is an excerpt from Grandfather's book The Ring of Nine based on his journals from the Leningrad Blockade. As you read this, I urge you to take heed of my Grandpa's words, "Promise you will remember this. People have to remember this."
In the evening, when all the hospital workers go home or to their dormitories, the only people remaining in the hospital are the patients and a handful of personnel on duty. People who live too far from work or are physically incapable of making their way home are also allowed to stay. Our Nurse Lida, for example, lives at the hospital and goes home rarely with the only purpose of checking whether her building is still standing. She then goes up to her floor to check on her apartment and on her neighbors. Today Lida comes to our room for no reason – just to sit around. The patients don’t mind: first, we get to find out the city news and what’s going on at the front lines – bits and pieces of news, but news nonetheless; second, as long as Lida is in our room we are going to listen to her and not feel the hunger. Or, at least, the hunger will be dulled a bit. This mysterious psychological effect is actually capable of suppressing the physical pain of being hungry.
Sergey Vasilyevich is most interested in the lives of children left alone after their parents died. For some reason this topic seems to occupy him a lot. Perhaps he has several children of his own and can’t help thinking about them. His own uncertain state and his wife’s and children’s minimal food rations worry him constantly. So, now that Nurse Lida is in the room, the first question Pavlovski asks is, “Lida, dear, tell us – are there children’s hospitals?”
“Sergey Vasilyevich, I can’t tell you exactly where the orphanages and children’s hospitals are, but I guarantee you that they exist. You know full well, Sergey Vasilyevich that before the war our children were considered and treated like a privileged class, and my understanding is that this attitude toward children is still the same, it hadn’t undergone any significant changes.”
“No, Lida, our extreme living conditions have taken this privileged status from our children. Today they are worse off then us – half-corpses.”
“Guys, let us not touch this topic, it is very complicated and painful. Let us ask Lida to tell us what she saw in her building, at her landing and what changes she noticed compared to her previous visits,” Semyon Mikhailovich says.
“Well,” Lida says, “There really aren’t many changes. It’s just a building, it’s empty and everything feels strange. I was there yesterday to check on my apartment and wanted to cry. It just makes me mad. At the first glance the house is unharmed, only scratched up by the chunks of shell casings and powdered with soot, especially where the chimneys are. Our entrance is still in use, but there are some that haven’t been walked through in the last six months. They are covered with dirt and piled with a bunch of metal junk. What it’s doing in those entrances is impossible to tell. There aren’t many tenants left in the building: most families moved to the country; they used to go every summer but this year they left with a lot of luggage. Of those who left, many starved to death and others are scraping by. It’s impossible to find out a whole lot – even on your own landing. It’s awkward going around checking on other apartments – people might think something is up.
“Every time I go home and climb the stairs, it feels like an empty abandoned house. There isn’t a single living soul on the stairs, it’s dark and cold. The walls are covered with cobwebs mixed with dust and turned into frozen dirt.
“There is only one family living across from my apartment. The landing is swept, so it’s obvious that someone is still living there. I knock on the door. Stand there. It’s quiet. I know that these people are ill and can’t move quickly. So, I must be patient. I knock again. Put my ear to the door. I hear noises, footsteps, something bumps, security chain tinkles. The door opens quietly, there is a dark hallway, kitchen to the right and the living room straight across. There is a bed on the right side of the room near the wall, covered with a quilt, a coat, an afghan and something else.
“There is a potbellied stove in the left corner, its metal chimney directed through a window otherwise completely blocked with bricks. The second window is in the middle of the wall across from the entrance. It’s mostly covered with plywood with a blanket hanging over the top portion, causing the room to constantly be in the dark. If one wants daylight, there is a rope to pull up the blanket and open the top third of the window, which seems to be satisfactory to the tenants.
“Two dinner chairs and a table stand behind the headboard of the bed. Two more massive wooden chairs lie broken up in a pile in front of the potbellied stove – they are designated for firewood. The ceilings are dark from smoke, walls are grayish, the floors are dirty but appear to have been swept.
“The neighbor has two children. Her husband is in the army. The girl Masha is not even seven years old yet. The boy is only just thirteen. Her two other children died in December as did their grandmother. The eldest boy Grisha, being the senior male in the entire building, joined the group of civilian object defense. When the German airplanes used to frequently shower us with fire bombs, the kids put them out or push them off the roofs onto the streets below. In the past, they used to catch traitors who launched rocket propelled grenades or seek out places where spies were hiding. In other words, the kids did their best to fight this scum. There are no more bombings, the sky is clear and the kids have less work to do, but they continue protecting their designated locations. Grisha had asked his mother several times to let him go work at the factory, but she wouldn’t let him go. So, he stayed at home to take care of the other children.
“In Grisha’s opinion, the artillery shellings are worse than the bombings. Whenever there is an air raid, at least the radio announces the approach of airplanes and the possible target locations. When there is a shelling, they only mention the targets after the first shells have already fallen, after they have caused destruction and casualties, after the tragedy that have taken place because people didn’t have time to prepare.
“The girl Masha stays at home protecting her designated object – her apartment. Normally the door stays closed with only a latch and the chain during the day making it easier to open. When her mom opens the door, we come in together. The stove puffs lazily, the round chair legs refuse to catch fire. The flame licks the little round logs and fades out before gaining any force. The mother continues cooking some kind of soup and heating water, but the stove refuses to cooperate – it hisses and whistles, but the firewood doesn’t catch. She is forced to throw in the last of their kindling – some dry splinters and tree branches. The fire immediately crackles to life, filling the stove and filling me to the soul with its homey warmth. Masha stands in front of the stove with her arms outstretched, feeling her hands quickly getting warmer, feeling the heat touching her face as it spreads through the entire room. Her pale little face with tip-tilted nose becomes too hot near the stove and she backs away.
“Her mother, regardless of the amount of heat, always reminds her, ‘Masha, don’t come close to the stove, your clothes will catch fire, and you with it.’
‘It’s better to die in warmth, then to freeze to death,’ Masha whispers quietly.
‘Masha, what are you talking about?’ her mother asks.
‘Nothing,’ Masha utters squinting at the stove and taking a step back.
‘Masha, what’s wrong? What’s all this death talk?’
"Masha remains quiet. After a pause she says, still looking at the fire, ‘We are all going to die anyway. All my girlfriends are dead, and I am still living.’ Then she asks, ‘Mom, is Hitler a person?’
‘A very bad person.’
‘Is he a beast?’ Masha asks.
‘He is worse than a beast. Not every animal attacks human beings, and he attacked all of humankind.’
‘Mom, what does he want from us?’
‘He wants to make us into slaves.’
‘What are slaves?’
‘A slave is a person without rights, a captive.’
‘I don’t understand, mom.’
‘I’ll give you an example. Remember when we went to a village near Pskov in the summer?’
‘Yes, mom I remember – every littlest thing! It was nice. We drank lots of milk, went swimming in the river, splashed water at each other and irritated Grandpa Kuzma. He often fussed at us: thus and such, I’ll catch you all and put you in a big barrel. But he only stomped his old boots but never went after us. He fussed a lot, but didn’t put anyone into a barrel.’ Masha smiles at the pleasant memory, as she imagines the river, the water, the barrel, the fields, her friends and the clumsy Grandpa Kuzma.
‘Well,’ – her mother says, ‘Grandpa Kuzma used to take water to the farmers working the fields. His little horse barely dragged the barrel and often strained so much that you could see every little vein under its skin. The little horsy worked very hard.
‘Sometimes Grandpa Kuzma climbed off the cart and helped the horsy to get back on the road, but as soon as the horsy felt better, grandpa climbed back on top of the barrel. He tugged at the reins and yelled: come on, miserable thing, we’ll sleep at night, time to work. But he never struck the horsy, he only whispered something at it and patted its head.
‘Hitler wants me, aunt Lida and other women to drag the water barrel by ourselves instead of the horsy, while he beats us with a whip like animals – that’s what it means being slaves. Understand, little one?’ – the mother asks.
‘Now I understand. So, Hitler needs lots of water.’
‘Not just water,’ her mom says with a smile, ‘The Nazis want coal, wood, workers, factories… And we are all supposed to work for them for free like grandpa Kuzma’s horsy.’
‘Now I really understand, mommy. So, grandpa Kuzma’s horsy was a slave too.’