Boris Vershvovsky was 16 when German soldiers surrounded his hometown of Leningrad on Sept. 8, 1941, to begin one of the most brutal sieges in history. Known as the Leningrad Blockade or the Siege of Leningrad, the Germans blocked off the entire city from the outside world for 900 days. Vershvovsky, now 88, vividly remembers the air raids, bombings, sirens and starvation.
“There was no electricity, no water, no heat, no plumbing; you can’t imagine what it was like,” he recalled on Monday evening at the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia’s Tabas House in the Northeast. He and other survivors who had been children at the time gathered there with friends and family members to mark the 70th anniversary of the lifting of the blockade.
The Nazis had intended the siege to be the linchpin to conquering the rest of the Soviet Union. Even for a populace that had grown accustomed to the privations of war, severing the city’s contact with the rest of the country resulted in unprecedented, life-threatening hardship. There were precious few deliveries of food, medicine, clothing or supplies of any kind. As many as 1.5 million people were estimated to have died before the Russian army finally ended the siege on Jan. 27, 1944.
“Those who survived were very strong, disciplined, special people,” said Vershvovsky, whose father died in a battle with German soldiers. “People were starving, everything was freezing, food was limited.”
Vershvovsky, who emigrated from St. Petersburg (as Leningrad is known today) in 1992, recalled that his daily food ration was 125 grams, or about 4 ounces, of bread. To prevent starvation, his mother, a factory worker, gave him skin from animals that was used to make glue.
Without toilets, he continued, people had to get rid of their waste in their backyards. His job, like many teenagers, was to stand guard under the roof of a building.
Although seven decades have passed since this grim chapter of history ended, Vershvovsky says that it is still important to gather with survivors to remember the past and acknowledge their survival. Celebrations commemorating the 70th anniversary of the end of the blockade took place around the globe on Monday, including a parade in St. Petersburg. Vershvovsky has been attending the Philadelphia memorial every year since it began a decade ago.
Another blockade survivor, 98-year-old Rachel-Lyudmila Merlina, is the driving force behind the celebration at Tabas House, where she also lives. An electrical engineer who worked as a nurse during the siege to aid wounded soldiers, the 5-foot tall Merlina suffered from dystrophy, scurvy, frostbite, bleeding gums and hunger.
“Hitler was hoping he would destroy the city in 10 days, but it didn’t happen,” she said, addressing the group in Russian.
Several survivors, including Alexandr Pernavskiy, 87, who served in the Baltic Sea Navy, shared memories and read poetry. Pernavskiy, who was 14 at the time of the siege, says his father died from starvation in March 1942.
“It is important for us to remember what happened,” said Pernavskiy, who also volunteers as the local president of the Alliance of Veterans of War and Labor, Inc. “We are a family of survivors; it was a fight for freedom against fascists.”
Rabbi Lev Furman, a former dissident born in Leningrad after World War II, shared the story of his parents’ survival and led the group in the Kaddish. He recalled those who perished during the siege and those who died in the past year.
Like many from the former Soviet Union, Merlina and her family left St. Petersburg in 1992. She settled in Northeast Philadelphia where she now leads an active social life, takes yoga at the Klein JCC and writes for the Russian-language newspaper, Jewish Life.
Her daughter, HIAS Pennsylvania’s special projects coordinator Marina Merlin (who dropped the “a” in her last name when she immigrated), said the annual blockade commemoration is always emotional for her mom, but she continues organizing it “to remember the people who didn’t survive, to pray to God that they were saved and to bring this memory to their children and grandchildren.
“You cannot find a family in Russia that doesn’t have someone missed, killed, or wounded during World War II. This was the tragic piece of history that can be compared to the Holocaust.
“There are very few people left on this earth who survived the blockade,” she continued. “As January 27th approaches, it always hurts; the wounds never heal.”