70 Years Since the Siege of Leningrad

by Nathan Roi

Limmud FSU, the educational movement for young Russian-speaking Jews, marks the 70th anniversary of the Siege at a moving ceremony at the
Holocaust Memorial in Pushkin, near St. Petersburg.

The Siege of Leningrad was a prolonged military operation resulting from the failure of the German army to capture the city (now known again as Saint Petersburg). The siege started on 8 September 1941, when the last land connection to the city was severed. Although the Soviets managed to open a narrow land corridor to the city on 18 January 1943, lifting of the siege only took place on 27 January 1944, 872 days after it had begun. It was one of the longest and most destructive sieges in history, and the most costly in terms of casualties. During the siege, the Nazis cut all water and power supplies to the city while subjecting residents to constant air attacks and artillery bombardment. The population of about three million was left to starve or freeze to death, and an estimated one and a half million civilians and Soviet soldiers died during the siege. As German forces advanced toward Leningrad in 1941, the Jewish residents tried to move as close as possible to the center of the city. Those Jews who were unable to flee from the Nazis and remained in areas that had been occupied by the Nazis were tortured and killed.

Pushkin is a town located 24 kilometers south of St. Petersburg. It was founded in 1710 as an imperial residence named Tsarskoye Selo. In 1937, on the occasion of the centenary of the death of Alexander Pushkin, the town was renamed to honor Russia’s national poet. It was here that the Nazi advance was halted and it was the northernmost point reached by the German troops in the Second World War. The Nazi massacre of Jews in Pushkin during the Siege of Leningrad occurred on 9 September, 1941, when a group of 800 Jews were gathered in a cellar of the Tsarskoye Selo palace and then shot to death in a nearby park.

(l-r) Roman Polonsky, Director Russian-speaking department, JAFI; Steven Schwager, EVP JDC; Chaim Chesler, founder Limmud FSU; Israeli Ambassador Dorit Golender; Israeli Minister Sofa Landver; Matthew Bronfman, Chairman of Limmud FSU International Steering Committee; Stacey Bronfman; Ben Helfgott, VP Claims Conference; Eddie Shapira, Consul General in St. Petersburg; Dudi Rodman, St. Petersburg representative of JDC: Jenya Levova, VP Russian Jewish Congress; Dr. Aaron Weiss, holocaust historian; Leonid Kolton, director of the Hesed centers St. Petersburg

The Pushkin Holocaust Memorial was constructed in memory of those Jews who were captured and murdered during the siege of Leningrad. It was to this site during the recent Limmud Conference in St. Petersburg for Russian-speaking Jews, that a group of dignitaries, Holocaust survivors and young Limmud participants came to honor the Pushkin dead. Among them were Matthew Bronfman, Chair of the Limmud FSU International Steering Committee and Chaim Chesler its Chairperson, Steven Schwager, Executive Vice President of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, Ben Helfgott, Vice-President of the Claims Conference and himself a Holocaust survivor, Alex Miller, Chairman of the Education and Culture Committee of the Knesset, Karmel Shama-Hacohen Chairman of the Knesset Economics Committee, Dorit Golender, Israel’s ambassador to the Russian Federation, Sofa Landver, Minister of Immigrant Absorption, Roman Polonsky, head of the FSU Department of the Jewish Agency, Eddie Shapira, Israel’s consul-general in St. Petersburg, Dudi Rodman, St Petersburg representative of the Joint, Dr Aharon Weiss, a Holocaust survivor, Evgenya Lubova, Chairperson of the Russian-Jewish Congress in St. Petersburg and Leonid Kolton, the director of the Joint’s Hessed centers in the city, who conducted the ceremony.

A local Holocaust survivor, Ludmila Yampolskaya, spoke about the life of the Jews during the nearly 900 day-long siege. “People like living skeletons were roaming the streets,” she recalled in tears. Polonsky emphasized that the tragedy of St Petersburg and its heroic defense must never be forgotten. Schwager pointed out that for the last 20 years, JDC, through its Hessed centers and with the assistance of the Claims Conference, has been looking after survivors. “I hope and believe we have made life easier for those who lived through and survived the siege.”

Bronfman said that one of the aims of Limmud was to perpetuate Jewish life throughout the Former Soviet Union after the tragedy of the Holocaust. “The importance of this ceremony is to emphasize that the Nazis failed in their endeavor to extinguish Jewish life and here in St. Petersburg we are actively restoring it.”

photos courtesy Nathan Roi
translation Asher Weill