Thursday, January 27, 2005


World leaders gather today to mark the liberation of Auschwitz and we all should stop as a people to consider the blood on our hands. But there is another anniversary today; one that does not have the same burden of shared guilt, but that deserves commemoration in the scope of human suffering. On this day in 1944, the Soviet Union announced that the 900-day siege of Leningrad was lifted.

Nazi forces surrounded the city on September 8, 1941, cutting the nearly 3 million inhabitants off from all land links and from food and fuel supplies. The city had stocked enough to last for 1-2 months. The siege lasted 2 and half years. In the worst months, during the extraordinarily brutal winter of 1941-42, the residents starved on a ration of only 1/4 pound of bread a day, without heat, without electricity, and without water. 200,000 died in a two month period during this winter from starvation, hypothermia, shelling. Numbers vary for the total death toll, but good estimates put it at 1.1 million. The stories of what people did to survive, and the conditions under which they tried survive are as numbing and unfathomable as you'd imagine.

There was no land link, but there was water. And in the depths of winter, when Lake Ladoga froze enough for heavy vehicles to cross, supplies would trickle in across what became called the "Road of Life," and thousands were evacuated out on this icy highway. After the worst of the winter, the inhabitants had to wait until the lake thawed enough for the ice to break up so that ferries could run supplies in and residents out.

Irina's grandmother survived the worst months of the siege and was evacuated by ferry afterwards, only to learn that her favorite brother had been executed by Stalin's terror campaign years before. She said that her grandmother never had much faith in the efficiency of the Soviet troops, but was astonished by her evacuation. She ferried quickly across the lake under protection, and when she arrived on the other side, transport vehicles were revving and waiting and she was rushed into them and out of the way while troops provided cover from bombardment.

Dmitri Shostakovich began composing his seventh symphony during the siege of Leningrad, and he finished it after he was evacuated himself. Known as the Symphony of Leningrad, it was performed in the city during the siege to provide comfort and succour to the residents and to serve as a defiant statement against the fascist forces trying to break the will of the city.

The Russian suffering during World War II is scarcely imaginable, and it would speak well of us to remember and commemorate along with them.


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