By Jim O’Neal
The suffering brought on by World War II was enormous, but when the total picture is considered there is little doubt that the greatest pain was borne by the people who lived within the grasp of the century’s most vicious tyrants: Joseph Stalin and Adolf Hitler.
While Americans were busy managing the factories that made them the “Arsenal of Democracy” and focusing on Japan, the people of Central Europe and Western Russia were in a life-and-death struggle fought on the very streets of their cities.
Throughout the winter of 1941-42 and onward for 900 days, the people of Leningrad were suffering dramatically. Concerned that his German army might encounter enormous losses if they launched an all-out assault, Hitler ordered a blockade of the city. By starving its 3 million people, he hoped to break Russian morale and force them to surrender.
Since Leningrad was closed on the west by the Baltic Sea, to the east by the 80-mile-wide Lake Ladoga and to the north by the Finnish army, the Wehrmacht only needed to seal the southern flank to isolate the city. But even as the Germans closed ranks around them and started bombing warehouses and supply routes, the hearty citizens showed they would not be so easily defeated. Volunteers built thousands of air-raid shelters and pillboxes, and cut down trees to block the Germans’ path.
By late December 1941, Leningrad was down to two days’ supply of flour and people had to make bread from cellulose, sawdust and floor sweepings of flour. Animal feed became human food, weeds were boiled to create soup and the dead were hidden so families could continue receiving their daily rations. 53,000 perished that month, and by February another 200,000 would join them.
Somehow the city hung on.
Then came a breakthrough. Scientists discovered Lake Ladoga had frozen so deeply that it could support truck traffic. They cautiously started sending convoys across the “Road of Life.” In the first seven days, 40 trucks sunk to the bottom, but dozens of others made it and returned with precious food. Then women and children were evacuated and the city limped along in darkness and silence since there was no oil to light the lamps and even the birds were dead. In fact, every creature – living or dead, including the human corpses in the gutters – had been picked over by the hungry hordes.
Leningrad Radio broadcast from the generator of a ship frozen in a river and aired the sound of a metronome between programs to let listeners know the city was not dead, yet. By the time Leningrad was liberated in January 1944, nearly 1 million people had died.
There were more civilians dead than in any city, in any war, in the history of mankind.
During this siege, Hitler became obsessed with conquering Stalingrad and that proved to be a fatal mistake that cost him the war. The little colonel from Bavaria proved to be a poor general.
Intelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is President and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as Chairman and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].