The Great War

One of the strongest memories of my grandmother: she could not hear German–on the radio or in a movie–without involuntarily crying.

On June 22, 1941 Germany invaded Russia. Orsha, my grandmother’s hometown, was captured during Operation Barbarossa on July 16, 1941. Before the war, Orsha had a Jewish population of nearly 8,000. A Judenrat was appointed and two ghettos were established in the town, and on November 26, 1941, over 5,000 Jews were murdered at the Jewish cemetery. This photograph (from Yad Vashem) documents the flight of the Rodkin family of Orsha, eastwards in June 1941, before the arrival of the Germans.

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Did any of my grandmother’s family escape? Who was shot? When did she find out? No one talked about these events during out summer visits to Orsha.

Meanwhile, September 1941 saw the beginning of the two-and-a-half year siege of Leningrad, which caused the greatest destruction and the largest loss of life ever known in a modern city. The 872 days of the siege caused unparalleled 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. People often died on the streets, and citizens soon became accustomed to the sight of death.

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Vava and the children were successfully evacuated to Siberia, where they spent four years. My grandmother, a doctor, was required to stay in Leningrad to attend to the sick and the wounded. As medical personnel, her daily ration of bread was slightly larger. Perhaps she worked at such field hospital near Leningrad:

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My grandfather Ivan went off to war, never to return. He died in 1944.

In the Summer of 1945, my grandmother, Vava, and two children returned to their home: two rooms in a communal apartment in Mokhovaya Street. Their building was not damaged but other buildings on the same block were badly damaged by German artillery fire.

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The only family photograph that survived from the war is this portrait of my grandmother, decorated.

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