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The siege of Leningrad – The diary of Tanya Savicheva

The siege started on 8 September 1941, when the Wehrmacht severed the last road to the city. Although Soviet forces managed to open a narrow land corridor to the city on 18 January 1943, the Red Army did not lift the siege until 27 January 1944, 872 days after it began. The blockade became one of the longest and most destructive sieges in history, and possibly the costliest in casualties suffered. Some historians classify it as genocide.

According to a directive sent to Army Group North on 29 September, “After the defeat of Soviet Russia there can be no interest in the continued existence of this large urban centre. […] Following the city’s encirclement, requests for surrender negotiations shall be denied, since the problem of relocating and feeding the population cannot and should not be solved by us. In this war for our very existence, we can have no interest in maintaining even a part of this very large urban population.”

Hitler’s ultimate plan was to raze Leningrad to the ground and give areas north of the River Neva to the Finns.

The two-and-a-half-year siege caused the greatest destruction and the largest loss of life ever known in a modern city. On Hitler’s direct orders the Wehrmacht looted and then destroyed most of the imperial palaces, such as the Catherine Palace, Peterhof Palace, Ropsha, Strelna, Gatchina, and other historic landmarks located outside the city’s defensive perimeter, with many art collections transported to Germany.

The 872 days of the siege caused extreme famine in the Leningrad region through disruption of utilities, water, energy and food supplies. This resulted in the deaths of up to 1,500,000 soldiers and civilians and the evacuation of 1,400,000 more (mainly women and children), many of whom died during evacuation due to starvation and bombardment. Piskaryovskoye Memorial Cemetery alone in Leningrad holds half a million civilian victims of the siege. Economic destruction and human losses in Leningrad on both sides exceeded those of the Battle of Stalingrad, the Battle of Moscow, or the bombing of Tokyo.

Civilians in the city suffered from extreme starvation, especially in the winter of 1941–42. From November 1941 to February 1942 the only food available to the citizen was 125 grams of bread per day, of which 50–60% consisted of sawdust and other inedible admixtures. In conditions of extreme temperatures (down to −30 °C (−22 °F)), and with city transport out of service, even a distance of a few kilometres to a food distribution kiosk created an insurmountable obstacle for many citizens. Deaths peaked in January–February 1942 at 100,000 per month, mostly from starvation. People often died on the streets, and citizens soon became accustomed to the sight of death.

Tatyana Nikolayevna Savicheva (Russian: Татья́на Никола́евна Са́вичева), commonly referred to as Tanya Savicheva (23 January 1930 – 1 July 1944) was a Russian child diarist who endured the Siege of Leningrad during World War II. During the siege, Savicheva recorded the successive deaths of each member of her family in her diary, with her final entry indicating her belief to be the sole living family member. Although Savicheva was rescued and transferred to a hospital, she succumbed to intestinal tuberculosis in July 1944 at age 14.

Savicheva’s image and the pages from her diary became symbolic of the human cost of the Siege of Leningrad and she is remembered in St. Petersburg with a memorial complex on the Green Belt of Glory along the Road of Life. Her diary was used during the Nuremberg Trials as the evidence of the Nazis’ crimes.

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Contents of the diary

Zhenya died on December 28th at 12 noon, 1941

Grandma died on the 25th of January at 3 o’clock, 1942

Leka died March 17th, 1942, at 5 o’clock in the morning, 1942

Uncle Vasya died on April 13th at 2 o’clock in the morning, 1942

Uncle Lesha May 10th, at 4 o’clock in the afternoon, 1942

Mama on May 13th at 7:30 in the morning, 1942

The Savichevs are dead

Everyone is dead

Only Tanya is left

— Tanya Savicheva
Tanya’s diary is now displayed at the Museum of Leningrad History, with a copy also on display at the Piskaryovskoye Memorial Cemetery.