Here is one story from “Listen, Listen to My Heart’s Song.”
Having spent a fair amount of time in Leningrad and studying the city’s history, it is one of my favorite remembrances.
“…Now it’s called St. Petersburg, again. All this seems like a million years ago, but you asked, so here is some of what I remember-
I was near ten years old when the Germans surrounded the city. I’ll never forget it. It was 8 September 1941. It was a month before my birthday.
My father was somewhere on the front. We had not heard from him in weeks and had no idea where he might be.
We lived in a block not too far from the Astoria. We would walk there to visit the museum before it was closed. Our apartment was small but warm and cozy when it needed to be. My two sisters and I shared part of one room that was petitioned with a blanket.
My mother had a small job with the telephone company, but that stopped days before the Germans got close.
Before the siege, a lot of people had left the city. My mom was afraid for us if we were separated, so we all stayed with her.
She was able to get a ration card that brought us a little relief before the brutal winter struck.
Before the city was encircled, we knew very little of what was going on in the war. We knew Hitler had attacked, breaking the treaty, but we didn’t know much else about what was happening to our soldiers in the west.
It wasn’t long before soldiers started returning to the city telling horror stories of the battles that cut our men to shreds.
There were about three million people in the city when the demands to surrender were issued by the Germans. No one, I recall, gave any thought to surrender. Maybe if we knew how bad it was going to be, we might have thought longer about our decision. We didn’t know at the time that there was hardly any food, fuel, or any medicines stored by the city government.
Soon, after the first bombs, there was no public transportation.
Within a month, it was a nightmare in the city.
It got cold.
No one was allowed to leave the city.
Everyone was starving and talking about nothing but food and getting warm. In December, it was freezing cold. It was forty below. The streets had frozen people lying where they had fallen. It was awful!
We were eating dishes made out of glue and pigweed, soups made from boiling belts we had gathered off those who no longer needed them.
My sisters and I spent a lot of time scurrying around the neighborhoods looking for anything that could be eaten. We drained whatever oil we could get out of abandoned cars to use to cook wheat pancakes if we could find a pinch of wheat. That was our job. Go out and find fuel and anything we could eat.
We also needed to find water.
Sometimes we would go out to the lake and carry back as much water as we could. It was very hard work. The water was dirty and needed to be boiled before we could drink it. Everyone was afraid of getting sick.
The three of us, my sisters, and I once found a route out of the city that took us to a farm on the edge of the city, maybe ten kilometers out. The Germans were much further out, leaving us some space to travel where we were relatively safe. They were sending bombers all the time and shooting shells at us all day and all night. After months of that, we grew somewhat familiar with the sounds and lost some of our fear of being bombed. The biggest fear was starving to death.
The streets had more and more dead, frozen where they stopped fighting the cold and hunger. We jumped over them as we ran from block to block, heading towards the country.
Towards the end, in ’44, people were eating the dead.
We once found a farmer who gave us some potato skins along with a warning that he would turn us over to the Germans if he ever saw us again. He was afraid we would steal from him. We would have stripped his place bare, given the opportunity!
During January and February of 1942, over 200,000 starved to death. Everyone was losing loved ones. We lost many. We were beginning to believe our father would not return.
My sister Natalia got really sick in ’43 for a few weeks. We were so afraid for her. She pulled through by the grace of God. Some neighbors shared some of their meager rations with us to help her. I will never forget them and pray every day for them, wherever they are now.
We sisters were a pretty good team scavenging from morning until sundown. We would bring home anything that looked like it could be eaten. The trees, in spring, got stripped of buds the moment they showed. I remember all the lower branches of every tree being bare.
By early ’42, there was not a dog or cat left in the city. That was sad.
We would bring home pieces of clothing off bodies to pile on top of us at night.
Anything that could be burned was brought home for the little cooking stove. We tore out the windowsills and broke up the wood for our fire. We were surprised no one had thought to do that earlier in the winter. A couple of men chased us off one afternoon, threatening to kill us if they ever saw us on their block again. I think they were serious. Everyone was serious about staying warm and eating something, anything.
Two lifelines were what kept us going. An ice route on Lake Ladoga allowed some food to come into the city. That road also allowed hundreds of thousands to escape. A road was built to Tikhvin, which also brought in some food. The Germans were intent on destroying those routes with bombing and canon fire. We wondered why they didn’t attack and take the roads. We had no idea in what shape their men were in out on the perimeters.
We would go to the collection place when we got word of food coming into the city and gather what our ration cards allowed us to take home. Some potatoes from nearby farms were turned in to the officials and then passed out to all of us gathered for food. Vegetables were sometimes available. We all would have died without these supplies coming into the city.
Oh, did I tell you a number of the schools stayed open.? Yes, we went to classes a couple of times a week. A few times, we went to the Hermitage to meet in one of the great halls. It was strange to see the walls bare of the art that hung there for so many years. We all gathered around a fire in an oil barrel to hear lectures about the art that once was on display.
You could see your breath.
It was so cold in there-
Those years seem to close in on each other without much distinction between them. We tried to celebrate birthdays and holidays as best we could. It all became just one long struggle hoping it would end.
Finally, it ended. On 27 January 1944 we were free.”
Copyright © 2021/2008 M.Barrett Miller
All rights reserved.
Net Profits from “Listen, Listen to My Heart’s Song,” & “Atreus’s View From a Tent” will be donated to the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society.