Siege Survivor Remembers the Struggle for Survival
Dmitriyeva was shocked when a schoolchild asked her about cannibalism during the siege.
Published: September 14, 2011 (Issue # 1674)
Dmitry Lovetsky / ap
Now 80 years old, Nina Dmitriyeva was nine when the Germans laid siege to Leningrad, as St. Petersburg was then known. The siege lasted for 872 days.
As St. Petersburg marked the 70th anniversary of the start of the devastating Siege of Leningrad last week, siege survivor Nina Dmitriyeva, a tiny but lively 80-year-old woman, recalled the most difficult moments of the siege in an interview with The St. Petersburg Times.
On Sept. 8, 1941, when the Nazis closed the circle they had formed around Leningrad, as St. Petersburg was then known, Dmitriyeva was nine years old and already confined to bed after sustaining a serious head injury during one of the first German bombardments of the city in June.
At that time, the city’s residents had no idea what awaited them, or that during the next 872 days, about a million of them would die from starvation and bombing. They could not imagine that in a few months’ time, their daily food ration would be just 125 to 250 grams of bread, made using every imaginable ingredient to make the mixture go further, that frozen corpses in the street would cease to shock them, or that they would burn all of the furniture in their apartments to keep themselves warm when the heating system failed, along with other utilities.
“I think in our family, the worst experience was endured by my elder sister Lidiya, whose two-year-old son died during the siege from starvation,” Dmitriyeva said.
“While my sister was at work, her neighbor looked after the little boy. One day, when my sister was due to go to work, the neighbor told her not to go because it seemed as though the boy would die. But Lidiya, my sister, still had to go to work out of duty. It turned out to be a lucky day at work, because her team was given some extra bread. Lidiya ran home, so happy because she finally had more food to give to her son. But it was too late. The child had already died. My sister could not eat that bread, and buried it along with her little son.”
Dmitriyeva’s own experience of the siege was, for a child, just as much of an ordeal. On a hot day at the end of June 1941, she was walking along Zagorodny Prospekt when she noticed a mass of Nazi planes in the sky.
“The sky turned dark, there were so many planes,” Dmitriyeva recalled.
Like all the other people in the street, she tried to run away, but a few minutes later was trapped under a huge pile of broken bricks when the neighboring building was hit by a bomb.
Dmitriyeva survived by mere chance, thanks to one of the firemen who arrived at the spot and noticed a piece of red fabric sticking out from under the rubble. It was a piece of the girl’s sundress. The firemen pulled her out and took her to the hospital. Dmitriyeva suffered a serious brain contusion and concussion.
The contusion was so bad that for the entire first year of the siege, the young girl had to stay in bed. She became dizzy every time she tried to get up.
Dmitriyeva said she was so weak after her injury that she could not chew properly and lost her appetite. The basic food that she and her mother had at that time was a small portion of bread and carpenters’ glue, which they used to make soup.
“I remember it seeming absolutely delicious at the time,” Dmitriyeva said.
Dmitriyeva said that there were both bad and good moments during the war. Once, when she was collecting her family’s daily bread ration in a store, two girls grabbed the food out of her hands and ran away. Dmitriyeva was frustrated and upset, but when she came home and told the story, the family’s neighbor in their communal apartment gave them a beetroot and a bit of flour.
“You know, surprisingly I still can’t blame those girls, because I understand the kind of despair that made them do it,” Dmitriyeva said.
Dmitriyeva said she clearly remembers the taste of American canned sausage, canned fish and bacon, a little of which her family received, like many Leningrad residents, through the lend-lease program in 1943 when British and American convoys delivered supplies to northern Russia.
“I loved that bacon so much, and ever since then — even now — I have tried to find something similar, but have never succeeded,” Dmitriyeva said.
Dmitriyeva, who is often invited by schools to tell her stories of the siege to younger generations, said that she was once left unsettled by a question about cannibalism during the siege.
“We didn’t eat anyone,” Dmitriyeva said, with a note of offense still audible in her voice. “There were such cases, but those were isolated ones. It happened to people who went completely crazy from hunger,” she said.
Dmitriyeva admitted that 40 years after the end of the war, when she was working as a hospital nurse, she was witness to a case in which a patient lost her mind, clearly affected by memories of cannibalism.
“The woman suddenly started hiding hospital food under her pillow, crying in her sleep and calling out someone’s name,” said Dmitriyeva. “Shortly afterward, the doctors diagnosed her with mental health problems, and she was sent to an asylum. Later, an acquaintance of the woman explained that during the siege the woman had lived in the city with her four children. They were all on the verge of starvation, so when the three-year-old child died, she had used his body to feed the others, saving them in doing so.”
When in January 1944, the Soviet troops finally managed to liberate Leningrad from the Germans, Dmitriyeva’s family decided to move to one of the city’s suburbs, Pavlovsk, where her sister got a job at a printing house. Dmitriyeva, who was only 13, joined her sister and worked there as well.
This was at the time when a few simple food items became available to buy without ration cards, so when Dmitriyeva received her first wage, she bought a spoonful of flour, some nettles and a potato. The family made a soup using these ingredients. People had to buy nettles at that time rather than pick them themselves because much of the land was mined, she explained.
“So we made the soup and it was so unbelievably delicious that I thought that when I grew up and got married I would cook such a soup every day!” Dmitriyeva remembered.
Of course, the quantity and variety of food available to Dmitriyeva’s future family turned out to be far better than that of the war and immediate post-war years. But to this day, like most of the people who survived the siege, she treats food with great care and respect to avoid wasting anything.
Despite having lived through such difficult times, Dmitriyeva, who worked as a nurse for all of her working life, has never lost her optimism or vivacious attitude to life. Even now, she makes home visits to elderly patients who need injections but are too old to wait in line for hours at a clinic. She accepts no payment for this service, and says that the siege taught her to help others selflessly.