British Pupils Honor Siege Survivors
Published: February 16, 2011 (Issue # 1643)
Alexander Belenky / The St. Petersburg Times
A group of British teenagers examines an exhibit at the Museum of the Defense and Siege of Leningrad on Feb. 14.
A group of British schoolchildren visited St. Petersburg this week to present a book they have compiled devoted to the Siege of Leningrad. Pupils from Calday Grange Grammar School, accompanied by their Russian teacher, went to the city’s Siege Museum on Monday to meet with siege survivors and present the book, titled "The Siege of Leningrad Through the Eyes of a Child.”
Few events loom larger in St. Petersburg’s history than the so-called 900 days. From September 1941 to January 1944, the city (then called Leningrad) was under siege by Nazi Germany. In addition to constant bombardment, Leningraders had to endure devastating food and water shortages. Those who survived got by on 125 grams of bread a day, if they were lucky; many were reduced to eating tree bark or pets. Modern historians estimate that about 1.5 million — a third of the city’s prewar population — perished.
One of the cruelest episodes of Nazi Germany’s war on the Soviet Union, the Siege of Leningrad left an indelible mark on the city and its people. Petersburgers have long been known for their fierce attachment to their native city, and the sheer fortitude of the survivors has inspired a deep sense of pride among their descendents. Nevertheless, the siege of Leningrad scarcely exists in the West’s collective memory. The reasons for Westerners’ ignorance of the siege are complicated, but the horrific nature of the event is certainly a factor. Most people simply cannot begin to contemplate what it must have been like to live through the 900 days.
But Yekaterina Hughes, head of the Russian Department at England’s Calday Grange Grammar School, is determined to keep memories of the siege alive. Her students, working with Russian schoolchildren — descendants of siege survivors — have produced a book titled "The Siege of Leningrad Through the Eyes of a Child.” The book contains siege survivors’ remembrances contributed by the Russians alongside artistic responses, such as drawings and poetry, to the siege by their British counterparts. Though the book features some basic history, its aim is not to provide a comprehensive overview of the siege, but to produce an emotional response.
By and large, it succeeds brilliantly. Even a general knowledge of what happened during the siege hardly prepares one for the emotional impact of personal experience. Many of the stories, poems, and drawings in the book are extremely moving. Yet, perhaps surprisingly, its overall tone is not one of despair. Along with all the suffering, moments of random kindness are also recalled: In one of the most touching stories, a woman gives her bread ration to a dying neighbor. The book as a whole conveys the belief that our common humanity can overcome any cruelty.
Hughes and her students presented the book at the Museum of the Defense and Siege of Leningrad on Feb. 14. Four siege survivors were also present. Like that of the book itself, the tone of their remembrances was surprisingly optimistic. One of them emphasized the extent to which ordinary life continued to go on: Movie theaters and concert halls remained open. Another spoke of the resolve of those who remained alive. "We always knew victory would come,” she said.