A Survivor of the Siege of Leningrad (Filipp Moskvitin, 2004). Look at the eyes, they tell a story. God willing, such horror shall not happen again in our time…
The Second World War with its horrendous hardships was the most tragic chapter in the history of the 20th century. These were years of terror, when people suffered unspeakable hardships. A special place in the long string of wartime events goes to the 900-day siege of Leningrad. The atrocities of the Nazis, who tried to subdue the people of Leningrad with starvation and showered bombs on innocent civilians, are hard to grasp in the context of today. The daily bread ration was 125 grammes (4.4 ounces) per person in December 1941. Hundreds of thousands of Leningraders were killed or died of cold or starvation. But, the city miraculously survived the siege. 27 January is the 65th anniversary of the final lifting of the blockade. Witnesses to the siege grow fewer every year, and many of the survivors are reluctant to talk of those days, but, their memories give them no rest. One cannot listen to their painful stories without tears. Most say that they prefer to forget the horrors they experienced then.
Valentina Maksimova was a kid when her city was besieged by the Nazis. Her father was fighting the enemy at the front and her mother refused to have her five-year-old daughter evacuated for fear of losing her. In the first weeks of the bombings, the family was left with no shelter as their house was hit by bombs and they had to find a temporary home. Valentina said, “I survived by a miracle. My mother worked from early morning until late at night, so, I had to stay on my own. During the air raids, I hid under the bed or behind the oven, whilst mum prayed to God that our home would be spared. There were only adults in the building, and all of them were out at work, so, taking a run out to the bomb shelter alone was dangerous. A neighbour who worked nearly dropped in from time to time to see how I was doing”.
Valentina went on to say, “The most vivid memories of my childhood were that I was always hungry. I always cried for food, I told my mum I wanted butter and bread. My mother received a worker’s ration and a ration card for a kid which provided a minimal bread portion. She re-baked the bread in an oven to make it dry, brought water from the Fontanka River, and boiled it on the stove. Everything went into the oven in those days, even our furniture and books. I survived because mother made soup from pieces of dried bread boiled in water. Very rarely, she added a bit of cereal or a spoonful of oatmeal, which she had managed to get somewhere for me”.
The residents of Leningrad who survived the siege remember with reluctance what they had to eat in order to live another day. They ate anything edible… wood glue, boiled leather belts, and, in the summer time, grass. With the coming of spring, the lower branches of trees stood bare, as all the buds had been eaten. Valentina recalled, “Pig weed is known to everyone who survived the famine. Mum mixed it with a bit of bread and water and made cutlets. It tasted like grass, but, was edible. My mother found a job peeling potatoes in a kitchen. Everybody knew she had a child, so, she was allowed to take a small quantity of potato skins home and she made cutlets. They tasted so awful, and I can still feel that horrible potato aftertaste in my mouth”.
When asked how they managed to survive in such inhuman conditions, Valentina Maksimova and all the other survivors of the siege said they survived because they helped one another. She said, “One of our neighbours, Tyotya (“Auntie” in Russian) Dusia, sewed overcoats for soldiers. She had a son, two years younger than me. As she sewed for the front, she sometimes received a bit of oats or a tin of canned beef from the soldiers. Before feeding her son, she sent him for me, so that both of us could eat. She was my second mum. I owe my survival to other people’s kind hearts. We went through so much together”.
Valentina barely remembers the day the blockade was lifted, on 27 January 1944, for she was in hospital with her mother due to starvation-related illness. Luckily, both pulled through. Today, Valentina Maksimova is now one of the few survivors of the 900-day siege. Her only wish is that this will never happen again.
26 January 2009
Voice of Russia World Service