A 98-year-old North Philly resident recalls the devastation she experienced during the 900-day siege.
Editor’s Note: Merlina was in her mid-20s and working as an engineer when her city was blockaded as the Nazis attempted to conquer the Soviet Union. Now 98, the Northeast Philadelphia resident originally wrote this account of her experiences in Russian. It was translated with the help of family and friends, and edited for clarity by the Exponent. A shorter excerpt appeared in the print edition.
With passing years, the Blockade of Leningrad during World War II is becoming a long-forgotten history, something unfamiliar, especially here in America. In Leningrad and elsewhere in the world there are few people still alive who survived these horrifying times.
I worked the whole 900 days in the city surrounded by the enemy, and would like to remind those who were there — and those who know nothing about it – about the way people worked and lived.
I will not dwell upon the military actions of our troops near Leningrad, I will only tell the smallest part of what I lived through and what is still fresh in my mind.
I first came in contact with the enemy’s treachery in August 1941. Besides regular work, each Leningrader had to dig trenches for the defense. On that particular day a large mass of people was gathered for trench digging at the Baltic Train Station. We waited for the train for a long time. At last a freight train arrived with a lot more cars than usual. At sunrise the train stopped in the fields after the Vaimari station. Everyone got off. The train left. There was no one to supervise the work. Dig where? How? With what? We didn’t even have a shovel. No one knew what to do, or where to go.
A plane appeared in the sky. We didn’t know yet how to tell if it was ours or the enemy’s. After circling the field, the plane came low and began to shoot the crowd with a machine gun. Everything happened in one moment. We reacted when we heard the first screams of the wounded and dying men.
People started to fall next to me. Then, feeling death coming closer, the scared and unguided crowd started running on the road toward Vaimari. A truck appeared on the opposite side. An officer was standing on the side screaming: “Get down!” The enemy’s plane was methodically circling the crowd, shooting and shooting at it. We were such a good display in our brightly colored clothes that the bullets easily reached their targets.
After running out of ammunition, the plane flew away. But we kept running. At first we ran so fast, but after the shooting was over, many came back for the wounded. Some of us had first-aid kits. They did not last long. We began to tear in pieces our handkerchiefs, shirts, anything that we could use. After treating the wounded, we carried them on the road, turning around and looking at the sky with fear, waiting for the enemy’s plane to come back any minute.
I do not remember now how we got to the nearest railroad station. But it was destroyed. We put the wounded in the shadow by the one wall that was left. Among us were some medical students who stayed with the wounded while we continued to walk, completely exhausted. By nightfall we made it to Volosovo station. From there we called the hospital and told them about the wounded. At night the train for Leningrad came. And in the morning everyone went to work as usual. What was that? Why weren’t there any officials? Why didn’t we have tools to dig with? Why were we shot at? What did the people die for? These questions were trying to reach someone, but my subconsciousness was blocking them — better not to ask or talk about this shame. The truth was too bitter.
THE ENEMY APPROACHES
At that time, I was working in the secret construction bureau of the Polsunov’s All-Soviet Scientific Research Institute. In that bureau we were working on creating a new jet engine. Our leaders were famous Soviet scientist Arhip Mihailovich Lulko and professor N.S. Vinogradov. Our younger team was supervised by Eduard Burvin, a very thoughtful and organized man.
At that time, the Soviet industry did not make some of the equipment necessary for our research so we had to make it ourselves. Eduard was always the best at it, despite the fact that he only had one arm. Each one of us first calculated and later constructed parts of the experimental model. We loved our work and did it with great enthusiasm. But we did not know the end results of the experiments due to the secrecy of our work.
With the enemy advancing toward Leningrad, the question of evacuation arose. An unknown anxiety took place. What does it mean – evacuation? Leave the city? Maybe leave our families? Uncertainty and the fear of reality were in front of us. Air raids began. The first damage, blood, pain and death.
In the office of the director of the institute (at that time it was Dr. Andrei Konaev), the supervisors of bureaus and labs gathered while the workers waited in the lobby. One by one, we were called into the office. It seemed that your destiny was decided there.
When I was called in, I was offered a chance to leave with Lulko’s group to a safer area. I refused. The fascists were rapidly advancing at Leningrad and I felt that evacuation was a betrayal to my city in peril and to my family.
On the first day of war, my husband and I went to the military draft office. I asked to be sent to the front lines but was refused: “You are on special list, so work where you are supposed to.” My husband, however, was immediately enlisted and became a tank battalion commander.
My mother – a doctor – had worked in the hospital in the little border town of Enso since the Finnish War. She was to be evacuated with the rest of the hospital staff, but decided to stay in Leningrad.
The research institute’s board was insisting on me leaving, promising to send my mother after me on the next train. We refused – my husband was on the front lines and here in Leningrad we would be closer to him, we’ll defend our city. As it turned out, the train that we were supposed to take was bombed by the enemy.
LEARNING A NEW LIFE
Once it was decided who was staying in Leningrad and who was not, the actual packing began. Everyone had to take apart their experimental models and send the necessary material to the safe zone. The whole Institute looked like an ant house wrecked by a bear. All the doors were wide open, even those that had a special coded lock and a short list of workers allowed there. Everywhere there were papers with calculations and equations on them, folders with documents lying on the floor – the same folders that had to be turned in at the end of every work day. This shameless nakedness of our secrecy was a punishable offense before; now it was just unpleasant, like we were carrying cargo that no one wanted.
All the workers remaining in Leningrad were transferred to the Kirov plant. In that bureau they were also working on jet engines, but using a different method. The supervisor was Siniaev, who later received a laureate degree for this work. His team was also evacuated soon.
The enemy got really close to the city. The districts of Verfi, Avtovo and the Kirov plant were not only suffering from air raid, but also from artillery fire.
Damaged tanks arrived at the Kirov plant for repairs, either by themselves or towed. It was a direct connection with the front. Our workgroup began to prepare the material of the then-famous KV tank to be sent to the safe zone. Only a few of us were left and there was an incredible amount of work to do. The deadline for sending all the blueprints and calculations was, as they say “yesterday”. Bunk beds were built in the basement of the plant. People went there to sleep after work.
I was refused the front lines again, so I enrolled in evening classes for nurses. There were never enough doctors and I was sure that I would be sent to the front as a nurse.
If I managed to get home on Vasiliy Island before sunset, the world appeared in some other dimension. There were no bombings, and people hadn’t even heard of them. People were waiting in lines like in peaceful times. You still could buy something in stores with rationing cards and even without them.
That hot August the city was evacuating intensively. Everything was going to the safe zone. Whole factories, offices and most important — children — were leaving. Each Leningrader had to work for the city’s defense during their free time – watching over the rooftops (the fascists dropped a lot of explosive bombs), working in the bomb shelters and assisting the evacuation.
I had to participate in the children’s send-off. A large crowd of parents whose children were leaving was gathered. A young man stood in front of me. He held a blond boy in his arms. The boy was hugging his father’s neck with both arms. He put his head on his father’ shoulder, it looked like no forces in the world could separate them. It was as if the boy felt something and he held even tighter to his father. I was the force that had to separate them. I met the father’s eyes – they were full of fear, despair and tears, and I was scared for them. I moved away, unable to suppress a lump in my throat.
Meanwhile the loading of trucks was coming to an end. Someone yelled, “Hand over the boy, you’re slowing everyone down!” I reached my arms for the boy. The man’s eyes were burning with hate and the boy began to cry, not like a baby, but like an adult. I came closer. I hugged them and cried with them. The three of us walked to the truck. Someone’s strong arms took the boy. Crying, he flew over us and appeared in the general crowd of kids. His father stood still for some time. Then he sat down on the ground and cried. It was sad to see a strong man cry. I left without being able to say anything. In my head a thought hammered away – will they ever find each other again? There was so much grief at that time in Leningrad.
DESTRUCTION FROM ABOVE
In the first month of the war, food ration cards were given to us. At first, the bread rations were big. Nothing predicted the famine yet and still I was saying to myself: “I am not scared of the shells; I am scared of the famine.”
At the end of August, a huge fire started in the main food warehouse — Bodaev’s. It was either a bomb or arson. A bitter stench of burnt sugar lingered in the air for a long time. People looked through and through the remains, in hopes of finding something edible.
The ring of blockade came even closer. The rations for bread and other food were shrinking. Shelves in stores were empty. There were only cans with coffee beans and shelled walnuts. My mother bought some and it really helped us for some time.
Autumn came. At dusk the city was buried in darkness. All the windows were blocked from the light. The local anti-raid guards made sure there were no cracks that could serve as a target for the enemy’s planes.
One evening I did not go to class and I did not go home. The trams almost did not run. Usually I walked home more than 10 kilometers, bringing my mother a pea soup. At our plant it was given without ration cards. Even though it was late, everyone was working hard. There was a phone call – “The cafeteria is closing, hurry up.” We all walked out together. The only one who was left was director Syniaev.
We heard the air raid signal. We were used to them and continued to walk. Suddenly a nervous voice came over the local radio: ”Attention, attention, everyone on alert – a parachutist is in the air above the plant, don’t lose him!”
Everyone was imagining how much damage an enemy parachutist could bring to the plant in the total darkness. With our heads raised to the sky we all watched the slowly descending parachutist, ready to attack him, however, not without risk – of course he is armed and will shoot. When he was very low, the same voice on the radio screamed: ”It’s a bomb on the parachute, hide!”
That first moment people froze, unable to comprehend, until the survival instinct prevailed. People ran into each other, fell down and ran again. Then, the explosion happened. The bomb fell in between our building and the warehouse. The building was built right before the war. As always, the construction workers left all the pipes and radiators and such on the ground. The bomb fell on that pile. Luckily, it was not a big bomb.
In our building some walls came down, doors and windows. Our director, Syniaev, was hit with a piece of shell right under his heart. He was taken into the safe zone on the plane and survived. There weren’t many wounded. A few people were hurt by the pipes that flew all over our territory. When I came through the debris to our room, there was a piece of wall where my table used to be. Later, I joked that the soup saved me and I didn’t even eat it. If I didn’t go to the cafeteria, I wouldn’t be writing this now.
THE SIEGE BEGINS
Practice began in the nursing classes. At nights, after work we worked in Gorky’s Palace by the Narva’s Gates where the square was covered with red stones in memory of those who spilled blood for Revolution. After another air raid or bombing we had more than enough practice. I didn’t need to go to the front lines – it came to us.
The ring of blockade closed. We were cut off from the country. The enemy was in every direction. The bread portions dropped. Factory workers got 250 grams a day, office workers and dependents – 125 grams. You couldn’t even call it bread. Something was mixed with it.
Public transportation was not working for a long time. I got a message from my husband. A truck from his division came into the city. “Whatever it takes, come with this truck; it will take the cargo and leave tomorrow night.” I went to Rybazkoe, where my husband’s battalion was stationed. Some other relatives came there as well. We were invited to supper. I was surprised – on the table was canned fish and real bread and some other food. At that time, famine was already gripping our throats.
When I told my husband that in order to fix the samovar (we were using it in peaceful times) I had to exchange three days’ worth of bread portion and the week’s worth of grain, he became depressed. It was clear that they did not know what was happening in the city. Then he told me, “Soon it will be easier, you’ll see. We are getting ready.” I understood that he wanted to see me before a difficult attack and he was sure that they would break the blockade. It was November 5. On Nov. 13, I received the message that he was killed. From his whole brigade, only a few survived the first battle.
Our situation was getting even worse. All of us were doing unbearably hard labor in the factories. Winter came without notice. At first there was too much snow. No one was cleaning it up. Then the severe cold set in. The city was quiet, but it lived an inhumanly hard life. Everything was against us. We had no fuel – no warmth inside the houses. No light. No sewage, no water. We went to Neva River with kettles and pans, trudging through frozen piles of snow.
Creative people began making iron stoves called “burzuiki”. I think they had them during the New Economic Policy and gave them the same name. The smoke from them was going either into chimneys or through the windows. To buy such a stove, you had pay with the same bread and grain, there was no other way. The stove was giving out warmth only when it was burning and we were burning anything we could find – furniture, wooden fences, etc. Light came from the tiny flame made from the can.
Even the smallest rations were delayed. And that small piece of bread did not look like bread. People fell on the streets from hunger and no one had the strength to lift them back up. To this another disaster was added: The enemy began to strike the wounded, frozen but still fighting city with regular every-day air raids. That meant more wounded people, more deaths, and many hours of air raid signals. After a hard day’s work, you couldn’t go home, you had to sit in bomb shelters, humid and crowded.
As much as I was afraid of famine, at first it was not that hard for me. However, my mother was suffering greatly. She smoked for many years and could not live without it. The soldiers were given tobacco and you could get it at the market. I secretly traded my bread rations for tobacco for her.
There was one shameful moment for me. One time I came home from work across the whole city. I laid down to rest because at night I had to be on the rooftop. On the window there was a jar with some jelly. It was dark brown and there was very little of it. In peaceful times it was probably used to lubricate machine parts. I wanted so hard to try a piece. But a voice in my head said: “No, it is for me and mom for 10 days.” When I woke up, the jar was empty. I was terribly upset that I couldn’t resist the scary famine instinct. But my stomach was not upset, it took everything.
DEATH ON EVERY STREET
There was a day when 17,000 people died of starvation. More men died than women, they took the famine harder. So many times in cafeterias I saw husbands grabbing food from their wives’ plates, gorging and stuffing it in their mouths. Or on the streets, the strong ones took bread and ration cards from the weak ones. The victims were certain to die from hunger if no one helped them. Often on the streets you’d see a lonely figure who, with the last effort, was dragging a sled with a dead body on it.
Often the corpses were piled on the roads. The special brigades couldn’t take them all away. In the morning, walking to work, I saw the frozen bodies. I tried to walk by faster, I couldn’t help them anymore. Some people who couldn’t stand the suffering of hunger cut off the buttocks from the corpses. It isn’t proper to talk about this, but it is the bitter truth. The cats and dogs had disappeared much earlier. Sometimes the truck came covered with a blanket and under it the arms, legs and heads were sticking out.
At the same time, we were sharing our last portions with those who were worse off than us. In those extreme situations, people’s true faces came to light. While helping others, people were really risking their lives. You saw kindness, attention, and understanding of another person’s suffering. Of course there were those who profited from death. Some dishonest people had a way to get the food and ration cards. They traded them for fur, gold and works of art. But I am certain that those luxuries acquired in such a disgusting way did not make them happy.
I remember December 5, 1941. I came home from work hungry and was waiting for my mother to bake pancakes from the coffee mush. The air raid signal went off. And right after it, an explosion, very near to us. Dry wall construction fell off, windows shattered, we couldn’t see anything in the dust. We clung to each other. In the silence someone screamed for help. I rushed to the door. It wouldn’t open. Perhaps there was no more staircase. Destroyed? I went into the room. On my pillow there was a huge piece of ceiling and glass. Death passed me by again. This time the coffee mush saved me and I didn’t even try it.
There was a horrible cold outside and the same in the room – the windows were nothing but emptiness. My mother and I sat in the corridor. We wrapped ourselves up in the blanket and waited for help. Later we covered the windows with wooden boards, but it was impossible to warm up the room. Sometimes in the morning our hair would be frozen to the pillow.
Despite the enemy’s ring of blockade, people continued to work. Factories were fixing damaged tanks. Those factories that were not evacuated did everything for the front. Hospitals tended to the wounded. Power stations produced the energy for factories and hospitals only. Bakeries went on baking their so-called bread.
THE MIRACLE OF FLOUR
I remember one hard night in the end of December 1941. The bakery across from our house was closed. There was a bread line. People wrapped themselves in pieces of cloth, tightened up with belts or ropes – it was warmer that way. All you could see were the tips of noses sharp from hunger.
In the deep silence people stood and patiently waited for their priceless pieces of bread. From time to time someone fell down because of swollen legs. Silently, a few people would pick him up and prop him against the wall or walk him to the nearest building entrance.
It was way past midnight when the bakery door opened. Everyone walked in quietly. A dim lantern lit up the person behind the counter, who was wrapped up in something just like us. Someone lit a little flashlight. The shelves were empty. What happened? Will they really not give us bread? Our legs were giving up just from that thought. We stood motionless and defeated. The person holding the flashlight said dully: “Why did you open if there is nothing left? What were we freezing for?”
“We have flour instead of bread. It’s even better. You can make a soup or porridge.”
Flour? In the first minute I couldn’t even remember what that was, flour. Yummy pancakes appeared in front of my hungry eyes and my mouth watered.
The flour was different from bread — people who were supposed to get 125 grams of bread would only get 90 grams of flour and people with rations of 250 grams of bread would get 190 grams of flour. However, we weren’t arguing. Just give us the flour! But where can we put it? We had no paper to wrap it in, no bags either. It was poured directly into our frozen wood-like hands. My mother and I cooked the soup-porridge from that flour on the iron stove. It was a royal treat.
THE POWER OF “HAVE-TO”
In February 1942 I became sick and could not go to work. I had dystrophy and scurvy. My gums were bleeding. My teeth began to get loose; you could’ve pulled them out as easily as a carrot from the soil. My legs were swollen and I did not have the strength to move them.
My mother managed to exchange some clothes for fish oil. She gave me small portions of it. And I started walking again, nothing but skin and bones. I left for work. I couldn’t make the distance between home and the factory in one day. I had to sleep under the staircase in some building. It was then when I got frostbite. I remember that February 19 very well. I made it to the factory. I had to rest on the porch. During the day, the night’s frost switched to the bright sun and warmness. Some forgotten feeling took over me, and moved reality far away. In my imagination, I saw pieces of another life. Some rhythmical sound attracted my attention. I knew that sound a long time ago, it was associated with something nice. But I couldn’t remember what. I raised my head and saw: From the roof of the nearby house a crystal icicle was crying in the sun, dripping its shiny tears on something solid.
And in my head I thought, “God, what is that? Does the spring still exist? Do we even have the right to feel anything other than this pressure above us? I have to overcome my weakness. I have to work. I have to make it today.”
“Have to” was the word that made us take it, made us survive with the constant feeling of hunger. You had to get rid of that feeling, but it wasn’t easy. If I stopped working even for a moment I immediately started seeing images of “old-fashioned food,” which was making me sick. But we will survive. I had to help others survive. That day, I quit working at the factory. One week later, I was working in the military hospital. Today it is hard to believe that you can do so much in one day.
The 92nd Hospital was located in the high school on the 12th Line of Vasiliy Island — a long hallway with classrooms turned into hospital wards. One nurse had to tend to more than 120 wounded. We often did not have assistants. You had to do everything yourself – take the temperature, give the shots, change the bandages, distribute medications, and many other tasks. Our hospital specialized in treating “lower and upper body parts,” but we had many other cases such as frostbites, pneumonia, burns, abdominal bleeding.
Besides physical exhaustion from the large number of responsibilities, the moral exhaustion was just as hard. We saw patients who had to amputate arms and legs, people who had lost their sight or had their faces transformed. They imagined their future completely ruined and were becoming very depressed. They refused medications, food and even life. Since the nurses spent more time with wounded than the doctors, they had to help them find some support and hope for survival. They had to raise their spirits up, talk to them, make them feel better. For that, we did not care about time; we often stayed there after work. Their healing was our reward.
During the shift there was only one goal – to get everything done, to not forget anything. When the shift was over, the exhaustion would overcome you. Along with my work I was also running a physical therapy course. I had a special training for that. With the recovering “walking” patients, we made some facilities. After a long time of not moving, their joints had to be restored, which took another half-day of my shift. On top of that I had my classes with the main surgeon of the hospital – Valentina S. – a fragile blonde woman with a character of steel, golden hands and ornate language. She taught us how to assist in surgeries. During the war, the nurses must know everything.
And in the morning I had to be back on my shift. Often there were times when as soon as I would get home at the 11th line of the Vasiliy Island someone from the hospital would come for me and I had to leave. More trucks came. More wounded arrived. I helped carry them off the truck, free them from blood-stained bandages, take them through the baths, take them into the wards or to the operating table to assist the surgeon. After that I couldn’t even make it home, even though it was so close, especially with all the fences burned so you didn’t have to walk around them.
Working in the hospital with its blood and wounds and suffering and an everyday fight with death for young lives was not easy but very necessary, and it made me stronger. The nurses also had social duties, which we performed in our free time. In the first winter of blockade we were sent to take apart the wood houses for heating. A few people would break off the boards from the roof and the pieces fell down in the emptiness. My head was spinning; I thought I’d fall down, too, with the next board.
Another responsibility was to read the letters to the wounded, write their responses, look for their relatives and sometimes go into their houses. Sometimes their relatives were very sick and we had to make sure they were admitted to the hospital. It was very distressing, but we felt good because we were able to save another life.
We had one more responsibility, the most depressing one. We were given the addresses of apartments from where no one came for rations cards. It meant that something had happened, because no one could survive without ration cards. In most cases we found extremely weakened people … or dead ones. Often the children were still alive and lying on the floor next to the dead. We took those kids and carried them to orphanages in which sometimes there was no regular staff. We took shifts there after our work in the hospital.
In the first days of the war they couldn’t evacuate all the children and those who were left in the city were sick with dystrophy and scurvy. They did not have enough food, heat or water. To look at them, to tend to them while they were dying was beyond the human capacity. Those faces, those sunken eyes, bodies wrapped up in skin — they couldn’t move, but they were so heavy to lift. Sometimes after work you came to the orphanage to find no adults. A lot of nurses had dystrophy as well. You hurried up to do everything you could for the kids – give them medications, bring water from the Neva River, heat up the stove, warm them up, cuddle with them. Working in the hospital with blood, death and suffering was tough. But with kids it was even tougher.
The closer the spring came, the less strength we had left. A lot of scurvy cases were all around us. Then came an order to collect pine needles from the trees. We were to make tea from them and give it to the wounded and also to drink it ourselves. The sun was getting hotter in spite of the enemy. But with the advancement of warmth another problem came – the threat of infectious diseases since we had no water or sewage system. No one was cleaning streets or courtyards.
A CITY COMES TOGETHER
As soon as it became warmer, the snow melted. Little rivers were running on the streets and it seemed like the hardest part was over. When not busy at work, everyone came out to clean the streets. The spade had to be lifted by three people – one couldn’t do it. And we cleaned the streets and yards. Not one person got sick with infection. We loved our wounded city, the city without lights or heat. We burned our furniture and even our books. We broke down and burned all the fences and old wood houses. But we did not cut down nor burn any trees. We were saving our city.
Under the spring sun the enemy “melted” as well and continued with air raids. During the winter with unusual for them coldness the fascists were a little quiet.
Oh God, can something grow fast on the trees and from the ground already! City officials suggested that people start vegetable gardens. Anyone who was able to started digging the soil in parks, boulevards and courtyards. Seeds and potato skins appeared on the market. Potato skins were traded for silver and other expensive things. It was said that you could grow potatoes from them. The first green tender buds appeared on the trees. At first we didn’t want to break them off. But you could make such a wonderful salad from the maple leaves! During winter we had to eat glue that damaged our throats and God knows what else, and here we had actual vitamins!
My mother died in August 1942. I was left all alone. I didn’t even have any old friends left. They say a person is always alone in the world. In the earthly sense, loneliness is a dangerous feeling. It eats up your soul and dissolves any desire to live. A person needs to live for someone. It was good to have a lot of work, it saved me.
In the district health administration office I was asked to work freelance at the hospital where my mother had worked. One time they brought in a fragile teenager whose legs had given up. No one came for her when she checked out and she could only move a little bit at a time. We became friends and shared everything. To save fuel during winter we sat together near a small stove and slept under one blanket. In the morning our braids were frozen together on the pillow as if to mark our great and devoted friendship.
THE “ROAD OF LIFE”
The second winter of blockade was already familiar and it was not much worse than the first one. In cruel battles with great human casualties, our troops broke up the blockade ring. The “Road of Life,” as it was called, came across the frozen Ladoga Lake. The trucks carried people to the Great Land – to the safe zones. Trucks also went in with ammunition and food for us. Fascists were constantly bombing this road so trucks with people or food and ammo were going under. I do not know that road. I only saw it after the war.
The breaking of blockade did not bring any sufficient changes to our lives. All we got was a little more bread. In 1944 I was called away from the hospital back to my regular work in the Leningrad Electric Power Station where people knew me. I was made the senior electrical engineer at the 7th Electrical Station. There were no wounds there, no one was dying. But the responsibility was enormous. We provided energy to the district around the station, to the nearby factories and offices that worked for the defense – North Cable Factory, Sluzkaya’ Factory, etc. We never had enough people. The fuel was always scarce. If we were to make a mistake or, God forbid, create a critical situation, it was considered “sabotage in the time of war” and had dire consequences.
But we had our fun as well — the Theatre of Musical Comedy was working again! We walked to the show straight from work. There were always a lot of soldiers among the public. Someone was on crutches. It was hard to believe that you could dive into the music and for some time forget your troubles and worries. The curtain went up. The forgotten feeling of holiday took ahold of me. And almost right away, the curtain went down. Unbearable air raid signal. Everyone jumped up from their seats, crowded the exit and ran down to the bomb shelter. I felt so sad and depressed. Cry or don’t cry – it won’t help. The long-awaited joy was over.
January 1944: The blockade was lifted. We found out at night and ran out to the streets. They were lit – the street lighting was back on. People were celebrating, screaming “victory!” and hugging. The boards came off from the windows. It seemed unbelievable that you could walk freely without a badge at night. It felt as if you had taken off a heavy cast that was bounding your moves and always hurting you. In the first few minutes, your head spins a little bit as if you had to use your body for the first time and get used to the freedom of movement. There was no shooting. No curfew. No darkness. There was running water. The lights were working. Perhaps one day I could go to the theatre without an air raid. Maybe the bath houses would work again… No, that was too much dreaming.
The war was over. I ran to the Palace Square because I was told that tank battalions were there. The tanks were lined up on the perimeter of the square decorated with flowers. The soldiers were sitting on top of their tanks. They were tanned, dead tired but happy. It was the end of the terrible and the beginning of new life presented to us by destiny.
I ran along the tanks looking at faces and hoping that maybe my husband would return, maybe it was a mistake and he did not die in 1941 and I would meet him, those things happened. But it was not for me.
My memory mercilessly brings back the events of those days; old wounds physical and personal hurt me again and again. But they are necessary for those who carry them and for those whose lives were saved at the cost of millions of other lives. Not only lives, but our whole existence was saved when slavery under fascism did not happen. It is necessary to remember so those whose lives were saved will treasure them.
We should ask if we are worthy of lives saved at such expense. Are we doing everything we can? Are we kind to relatives and strangers? Maybe there is something to be changed. Suffering, whether personal or not, can often cleanse your soul. When you look closely at the outside world, some things gain value and some lose it. When you look closely into the eyes of a stranger, you can see his sorrows and by doing so perhaps take some of it upon yourself.
Rachel-Lyudmila Merlina still organizes annual commemorations of the end of the blockade, most recently at Tabas House in Northeast Philadelphia.