70 Years After Leningrad Siege, Working for Its Victims

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September 8 , 2011

Sara Bourovik
Top: Sara, a homebound Jewish survivor of the Leningrad siege, receives vital aid funded by the Claims Conference.
Bottom, Leningrad, USSR, A man holding his daily allotment of bread (125 grams). Photo: Yad Vashem
AJROn September 8, 1941, German forces surrounded the city of Leningrad, Russia (now St. Petersburg), cut all water and power supplies, and began an almost three-year campaign of constant air attacks and artillery bombardment of the approximately 2.5 million people, including 300,000 Jews, living in the city. As we mark the 70th anniversary this week of the start of the deadly siege, the Claims Conference remembers the estimated 1.5 million people who died because of the blockade and continues working to provide for its surviving Jewish victims.

The almost 900-day siege of Leningrad claimed the lives of more than 1.5 million people. Almost 6,000 were killed during German shelling and bombings, but most died from mass starvation, as the siege prevented fresh food supplies from reaching the city. Between January and February 1942 alone between 700 and 1,000 people reportedly died every day from starvation. With food supplies strained, German bombardments targeted the city’s infrastructure, laying waste to factories, schools, and hospitals; 3,200 residential buildings, 9,000 wooden houses, and 840 factories were destroyed in Leningrad and its suburbs. About 1.4 million men, women, and children were able to evacuate the city, but many died from hunger soon after.

Those Jews who were unable to flee from the Nazis and stayed in the territories that were occupied were tortured and shot. If the Germans had fully occupied Leningrad, all of the Jews would have been killed. Adding to the Jews’ misery, leaflets dropped over the city held Jews responsible for the city’s suffering.

After years of negotiations with the German government, the Claims Conference succeeded in 2008 in obtaining Hardship Fund payments for Jewish survivors of the Nazi siege. Certain Jewish persons who stayed in Leningrad at some time between September 1941 and January 1944 or fled from there during this period may receive a Hardship Fund payment, if they now live in the West. This negotiation marked the first time that Germany recognized the persecution of Jews who lived through the siege, and to date, the Claims Conference has paid more than 6,000 Jews who survived the siege.

Jewish siege survivors still living in the former Soviet Union (FSU) are not eligible for Hardship Fund payments. We continue negotiating to obtain payments fund for siege survivors living in Russia so that they, too, can receive the recognition and funds they deserve.

However, Jewish survivors of the Leningrad siege living today in Russia do receive social welfare assistance from the Claims Conference. Through a network of 22 Regional Welfare Communities and Hesed agencies, the Claims Conference funds homecare, medicine, food, winter relief, and emergency services for desperately needy Nazi victims in the FSU, many of whom survive only with our help.

Sara Bourovik was born in Leningrad in 1921 and stayed in the city during the siege with her parents, who died from hunger in 1942. When she was 20 years old, like everybody who was able, Sara was sent to dig trenches. Sara remembers German planes flying so low she could see the faces of their pilots. Russian soldiers were worried that the Germans would bomb the workers and so they hid during the day and worked at night. Sara received a ration card for 125 grams of bread a day, but it didn’t taste like bread; it was small and heavy, and made mostly from sawdust. She would get up early to get her rations each day before supplies ran out, and she would divide it into three parts to make it last.

On January 27, 1944, Soviet forces broke the siege and expelled the Nazis from the southern outskirts of the city. There was no need to wait for confirmation over the radio, Sara said, everybody was outside crying and hugging each other the day the blockade ended.

Today, Sara is homebound and moves with the help of a walker. Sara receives homecare services funded by the Claims Conference, one of the tens of thousands of elderly Jewish victims in the FSU who rely on vital assistance from our organization. The Hesed in St. Petersburg is Sara’s only connection to the outside world. Its assistance sustains her physically and emotionally.

As we mark the anniversary of one of the worst sieges in history, we honor its victims. The Claims Conference continues working to ensure that that Nazi victims living in the FSU, like those 6,000 siege survivors living in the West who received Hardship Fund payments, can receive some symbolic recognition of their experiences, even all these decades later.