«Мама, я хочу хлебушек» cried the little girl. Her starved eyes drooped over the thin slice of bread, a mere 125 grams, but her nose and baby-pudgy fingers could just barely reach over the low-hanging, wooden countertop table. This was my grandmother, Babushka Bronia.
«Броничка, у нас сегодня очень мало» her mother forced back tears to try to tell her that this was the only food they both had for the rest of the day; only working adults were given the daily 125 grams of that thin, moldy thing. What’s worse is that it wasn’t even all bread, it was actually mostly sawdust with some other inedible ‘things’ mixed in. But it was all they had.
She looked up at the ticking clock hanging overhead on the yellowish-white wall. It was only 7 in the morning and there wouldn’t be another food delivery from the military provisions truck until the next day. That moldy, bread-and-sawdust was it.
«Но мне животик болит» Bronia pressed her clasped hands against her stomach. It growled so loud that Murka, the calico alley cat that often came around, fled into the bathroom. And Murka was right to do so. After all, it wasn’t a mere coincidence that the zoo animals were the first to disappear.
People in Leningrad, Russia (present-day St. Petersburg) had been living under the “blockade” for almost two years now. In the years to come it would be known as the Блокада Ленинграда, the Leningrad Blockage or the Siege of Leningrad[*], but in 1943 it was simply the time when eating the cats and dogs off the street wasn’t unusual anymore. Scraping wallpaper paste made from potatoes was a mere supplement to the minimal rations, and boiling leather would maybe slough off some additional edible jelly. It simply meant staying alive one more day. That’s why Murka ran off into the bathroom that way. She had always been an alley cat, but now she was the only one around for miles.
«А на улицу можно?» Bronia looked out the mud-streaked window of their tiny living room. It was misty outside. It seemed to be that way every day for the last two years, a whole two thirds of her entire life.
«Нет, тебя съедят!» her mother chuckled at her own words, hoping it would ease Bronia’s genuine fear of actually getting eaten if she would go outside. She only hoped Bronia wouldn’t realize that her words spoke truth—cannibalism was real now. Over the last year there had been over a hundred illegal counts of cannibalism, with people choosing to eat the flesh of those that had died of hunger earlier on in the blockage. Why waste the precious food-stuff, why choose to die too, when you could live?
It would take almost another entire year before the blockage would end. By that time, over 1,500,000 soldiers and civilians had already perished from starvation, disease, or freezing to death. The resulting casualties exceeded those of the Battle of Moscow, the Battle of Stalingrad, or the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Unbeknownst to Babushka Bronia, it was Hitler’s plan to raze Leningrad to the ground. In Hitler’s directive sent to the Army Group North on September 29th, he wrote:
“Following the city’s encirclement, requests for surrender negotiations shall be denied, since the problem of relocation and feeding the population cannot and should not be solved by us.”*
I never had the chance to meet my Babushka Bronia, she passed away before I was born, but the stories my mother used to tell me about her have kept her alive in my mind my entire life. Every time we would visit the cemetery on her birthday, or day of passing, or any big holiday for that matter, I would have a chance at what seemed like being just a little bit closer to her.
In fact, there is a photo that my mother has kept by her bedside for the past twenty years or so, where my Babushka Bronia is smiling widely, gazing off somewhere beyond the reach of the camera. It is a black and white photo but I can no doubt imagine her hazel-brown eyes shining as the picture was taken, her wavy long brown hair laying gently on her shoulders. But there is always that feeling, especially on the nights when my family gets together for Shabbos dinner on Friday nights that she is right there with us, laughing and celebrating among us under the flickering candlelight glow.
This is an excerpt from the forthcoming book, Those We Love, by David Chernobylsky.
[*] Starting on September 8th, 1941, the ‘Siege of Leningrad’ is known as one of the longest and most destructive sieges in history, claiming the lives of some one million of the city’s civilians and Read Army Defenders. In 1942 alone, the siege claimed around 600,000 lives. “Siege of Leningrad begins.” History.com. A&E Television Networks, Web. 23 July 2014.
* Reid (2011): pp. 134-5