These pages survived hundreds of thousands of bombs and missiles, the burning of books and furniture to fight off temperatures of 40 below, a 90 day evacuation over the melting ice of a frozen lake and a dozen trains to Tashkent, a year in evacuation, the journey back to Leningrad, Stalin’s purges of Jews and Leningradians, 40 years of Soviet Hell, the year long immigration from Russia through Austria and Italy to the United States during which countless family heirlooms were stolen, and finally her last 17 years in St. Paul, MN.
This is one of the few primary historical documents from the actual siege. As the deadliest battle in the history of the world claimed millions of lives and affected millions more, few people thought to keep a record of their so called lives. As everything burnable was used for fuel, and as sawdust used to make paper was instead used to make bread, there was little on which one could write. But as the last of the family’s books stoked the tiny flame in their tiny stove, my grandmother refused to add this record to the cleansing fire – for to burn such evidence would exonerate the perpetrators of the greatest crime in human history.
To translate this and add it to our shared memory is a great honor and a difficult task.
I don’t want to say that I’m re-living what she went through, no, but, there has not yet been a day when I was not made incredibly hungry and had to stop to eat while trying to translate. I have no logical fear of bombs or sirens, but, when I hear an ambulance or fire truck…
I see her words, fading on yellowed crumpling paper, smeared with tears, and letters that were mangled by a shacking hand. I see her as she weaves between the realities of her mind and those of the world outside. She speaks of longing and concern, she speaks of where she goes and what she eats, and as I read the lines I can hear the explosions, I can feel the room shacking, I can see the dead and trails of blood on the frozen roads. I am only at the end of November 1941, while there are still meager rations. With the coming December the numbers of dead from artillery will grow, those frozen to death will grow, those dead from bombs will grow, those murdered for their ration cards will grow, those dead of hunger will grow… into the hundred thousands.
If it is difficult now, I am not sure how the next few months of translation will go. But, I am convinced more and more every day of the necessity for this translation and for it’s publication. The fact that she survived, the fact that anyone survived when more than a million perished is beyond me. How the hundreds of thousands shells, bombs, rockets and bullets did not wipe out every living thing… how temperatures of 40 below zero did not freeze the rest to death… how living on less than a slice of bread (most of which was tree bark and saw dust) for days on end did not take the rest… is beyond me – it is beyond any of us.
And that is what I want to change.
I fear of what we may become. Though keeping the world from war, particularly a world war, is the only thing that makes sense, the absence of a mutual struggle against a shared overwhelming difficulty breeds a people unaware of the height of human potential and compassion and heroism.
I want my grandmother’s story to live, yes, but, I also want what she and everyone who stood beside her in May of 1945 felt and knew to live on and help us know ourselves