x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Leningrad siege survivor lucky to be alive

As Russia marks Victory Day, a Leningrad siege survivor recalls her 'happy moments' in an air raid shelter watching Walt Disney cartoons.

ST PETERSBURG, Russia // Nationwide Victory Day celebrations are being held today in Russia to commemorate the 65th anniversary of the defeat of Nazi Germany in the Second World War - known in Russia as the Great Patriotic War.

The annual celebration is Russia's most sacred holiday, and a time also to celebrate the survivors and victims of the devastating three-year Siege of Leningrad by the Nazis, which came to symbolise the war for Russia. The bombs that rained down on Leningrad - the former tsarist capital that is now named St Petersburg - terrorised the city's hungry, haggard residents. But for Zinaida Repkina, who was seven years old at the time and attending school in makeshift classrooms at the famous Lenfilm movie studios, the bombardments brought something other than death and destruction: Mickey Mouse.

During the bombings, the schoolchildren were rushed into the Lenfilm bomb shelter, where they were shown Disney cartoons that had ended up in the Soviet Union - either as trophies picked up by Soviet forces or donations from western allies - Ms Repkina, now 76, recalled in a recent interview. "When the bombings started, it was the happiest time for us ? we were too foolish to understand," she said. "All the time they were showing us these funny cartoons. We ran joyously into that bunker."

Ms Repkina, a retired teacher and German linguist, is among the dwindling number of survivors of the horrific siege. One million people - about one-third of the city's population - are believed to have died in the siege, which last from September 8, 1941, to January 27, 1944. An overwhelming majority of the victims starved to death. "We walked by one elevator that was filled with corpses," Ms Repkina said. "They had died of hunger. No one even had any energy to remove the bodies."

There are some 200,000 remaining survivors - known as "blokadniki" - of the siege, said Irina Skripachyova, the head of a prominent survivors group called Residents of Besieged Leningrad. About 176,000 live in St Petersburg, while no more than 20,000 are scattered throughout Russia, Ms Skripachyova said. A few thousand live abroad in former Soviet republics, the United States and Israel, among other countries.

Ms Repkina had a chance to avoid the siege. Her father, a geologist, was trying to evacuate his family when he was scooped up on the street in 1941 and mobilised on the spot. As the Germans approached Leningrad, city authorities ordered all children to be evacuated. Ms Repkina was taken along with other children to Vologda, 600km east of Leningrad. "A week later, all of the mothers arrived with wild eyes and took their children," Ms Repkina said. "When I was back home with my mother, she told me: 'We're going to die together.'"

By November of 1941, Ms Repkina, like all children in the city, had a daily bread ration of 125 grams. She and her family lived in a communal apartment with 10 other people, burning furniture and books to stay warm in winter temperatures hovering around -15°C and dropping as low as -30 °C. She and her mother survived, but everyone else in the apartment died. "One woman's mother died, and she hid the body under the bed for two weeks in order to receive her ration cards," Ms Repkina said. "No one even knew."

Her own mother secured a job at a city morgue, where cannibalised human remains were sometimes brought in - a ghastly gauge of the desperation that pervaded the besieged city. Some of the human flesh made its way to local markets, she said. "It was not something that was talked about anywhere or by anyone," Ms Repkina said. In January 1943, Soviet forces managed to break the blockade of Leningrad, though the Germans retreated only a year later. The Soviet penetration of the blockade allowed for the delivery of supplies to the city, introducing to Ms Repkina for the first time goods such as canned lard, dried egg powder and soy milk.

In the end, it was the morgue that allowed her family to survive the siege, Ms Repkina said. The morgue workers received extra bread rations and, more importantly, vodka that they could trade to soldiers and sailors for canned meat, cocoa, sugar, sunflower oil and other goods, she said. "Everyone who survived had some little extra resource to fall back on," Ms Repkina said. By the end of the war, Ms Repkina's hair had already turned grey. She was 11 years old.

cschreck@thenational.ae