A Siege of the Memory

04.02.2020
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In recent weeks, politicians have spoken about the military tragedies of the 20th century and recalled the Holocaust and the Siege of Leningrad. But these two catastrophes have much more in common than just a date: In both Nazi camps and the city under siege, people were driven to an inhuman state by hunger, cold, and backbreaking labor, and hundreds of thousands of children suffered and died. But what is more important and terrifying is that that survivors later had to conceal the trauma caused by these nightmares. It has only been within the past 25 years that Soviet Jews who survived camps and ghettos have been able to talk about what happened to them. Under Soviet rule, the victims of the Nazi terror were given the vague classification of “Soviet citizens” and were not permitted to clarify their nationality, ethnicity, or religion. This makes the words that President Putin pronounced on January 23 at a forum in Israel sound especially cynical: “The Holocaust has always been a deep wound for us, a tragedy we will always remember.”

Who is this “us” for whom the Holocaust was a “deep wound?” Let’s admit that it really is time to acknowledge that even the word itself was never pronounced in public. After all, the absolute majority of people who remember or personally knew victims of the Holocaust or were victims themselves did not live to hear Putin express sorrow regarding the death of six million Jews “tortured in ghettos and death camps.” And as far as the hundreds of thousands of Roma killed (mostly in Auschwitz) are concerned, not one word of sympathy is devoted to them, even though many members of the Roma people who were shot, burned, and forgotten, can be counted among the number of “Soviet citizens” who perished.

Roma in Pskov and Novgorod oblasts who could remember the Holocaust were still alive several years ago, and some of their memories were recorded. I don’t know anyone alive now who recalls the history of how “the Germans chased after us on motorcycles and my father raised a white flag over the caravan,” which is what one elderly woman told me. But their children and grandchildren are alive and at least they must be told that the sufferings of their forebearers have not been forgotten, that the horrendous crimes and discrimination of the past should have no place in the present or future. A kind word must be said to anyone who was ever forced to remain silent after suffering terrifying trauma. Herein lies the enormous guilt of the “victorious powers.”

Survivors of the siege were also forced to remain silent, as Viktor Konetsky described in his autobiography: “You sit with your typewriter and descend into the nightmare of those times. And then it starts: ‘Why did you stuff so many corpses in there? How could it be they’re in the garbage pit in your courtyard? And adolescents are hacking them out of the ice? Why these horrors?…’”

Yes, it’s true, we did speak about the blockade (and even invited survivors to speak publicly in late Soviet times), but always in a heroic manner. Children were shown a ration weighing 125 grams and told that it actually wasn’t even bread but just oil cake and water, but no real reflection was offered. It was all just a sign of the “barbarity of the fascists” and the “feats of the people.” The question of why children were given less bread than working adults could not even be posed, because it was clear that “a person who doesn’t work, doesn’t eat” or, consequently, live. Even now schoolchildren are raised on the song about children thrown into battle: “They were only 12, but they were Leningraders.” The country is proud that it sent children to their deaths, even though the number of soldiers guarding Leningrad exceeded the number of soldiers laying siege to the city.

Families in the siege spoke in whispers about the fact that there were instances of cannibalism in Leningrad (I think every family knew about these cases), and no one had anything to say about the fact that leaders had delicacies on their tables even during the most terrifying days (even though many people knew about this). And try saying something about that now (for example, the banned film “Holiday”). The whispers of the families caught in the siege are still alive in the memories, not so much of survivors anymore, but of their descendants, and even their mouths are being plugged up.

My own impression from speaking with people who survived the siege as children is that they have felt tremendous insult and the trauma of abandonment and neglect their entire lives. Children, particularly very young ones, could not understand who was responsible for their misfortune and frequently blamed the people closest to them—their parents. This sense of affront remains in elderly people, who understand intellectually that their parents took superhuman efforts to save their lives, but still remember: “My mother worked in a pharmacy. She had chocolate for wounded people brought in from the front. I almost died from dystrophy three times, but she never gave me even one little piece.” Or something else, not about hunger: “My mother was a teacher in a daycare. When shooting started, she grabbed all of her charges’ hands, while I, the youngest of the children, ran behind them bawling. For a long time I thought that my mother didn’t love me. It was only years later that I understood that this was responsibility for someone else’s children.” And the most horrifying of all—a nighttime conversation between parents overheard by a child, when the father wanted to eat bread, but the mother wouldn’t give it to him: “This bread is for the children!” The father, who did not survive the siege, lived on in the son’s memory in the words: “If we survive, we can have other children.”

The people, these children of the siege, did not need their feats glorified; they needed help healing their trauma, help understanding that all the misfortune was not the fault of their parents, even those who could not restrain themselves and took food from their children, as in the recollections of Yuly Filippov: “My father somehow managed to get ration cards for me and my brothers, but he hid this from us. He became a barbarian. He didn’t want to help my older brother Zhenya, even though he had three ration cards. Zhenya died from hunger… I cried the entire night. I wanted to do something to my father. I even though about killing him with an axe for Zhenya, but a weak person would not have been able to do that.” Listening to this truth, knowing it, and discussing it would have helped to overcome the pain and even to forgive. Instead of the truth, we still have the rhetoric of the feat, as if the feat itself could take away the pain.

Parents were also guilty before their children in the eyes of the state. I was particularly shocked by a story from the siege about “leaving a child in danger”: A mother put her five-year-old daughter in line for bread and left. Just then, a female stranger came up to the girl and offered to take her somewhere and give her some gingerbread. The unsuspecting girl stretched out her hand and the unknown woman led her along an empty street. The girl was saved by a miracle: People appeared on this usually empty street because a tram had broken down. Among them was the girl’s neighbor, who understood that the girl was being led away and dashed to take her back. Even though the kidnapper tried not to give the child back, other passersby helped. The girl’s mother reported this case to the police. A police officer summoned her several weeks later, saying the he had to show her something. He took her down into a basement, where there was a storage area filled with clothes. “Look,” he said. “I want you to see this so that you don’t leave your child anymore. This isn’t the first time we’ve found something like this. The cannibals stole the children, it’s an entire network. Don’t you know what the jellied meat and patties they sell in Olympia Garden are made from?”

Saving children was the job parents, and if this job was sometimes assigned to officials, then it was often poorly considered in advance. One of my acquaintances blamed herself her entire life for not thinking to look for children’s documents when she went around houses on patrol, collecting children found alone there. She spoke about the siege for many years and gave speeches at meetings. Once, when she was talking about young boys saved by the patrols (“We found children crawling on the lifeless bodies of their mothers”), a member of the audience stood up and rebuked her: “I am one of those children. I don’t know my real name or the names of my relatives. There are many of us. Maybe our fathers returning from the front or our evacuated relatives were looking for us!”

These young patrollers cannot be seriously blamed—in a stupor from hunger, they themselves were just following orders. No one told them to take documents, so they didn’t. But the person who gave the order is guilty. The person who didn’t think about the child’s right to a biography, to a life, to memories, is guilty. The authorities of the city under siege, the authorities of the country, both past and present, are guilty. Anyone who denies the truth about the siege, the Holocaust, the war, who brags about the “feats of the people” as if it is a personal achievement, is guilty.

Stefania Kulaeva – expert, Anti-Discrimination Center Memorial

First published on the blog of Radio Svoboda

Drawing by Dima Buchkin from the album “Siege of Leningrad.” 1941-1942