Taissa Ishket was 11 years old when the Nazis invaded the Soviet Union in 1941. A survivor of the 900-day siege of Leningrad, she lived through some of the worst episodes of the war. Her story is at once deeply personal and emblematic of what millions of her compatriots experienced.
Prague, 9 May 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Just two months after staging their initial attack on the Soviet Union, in the summer of 1941, Nazi forces advanced to the outskirts of Russia's historic "northern capital," Leningrad.
The city's rail links to the outside world were cut at the end of August. By early September 1941, Leningrad's 3 million inhabitants found themselves fully encircled. A cruel siege, which was to last nearly 900 days and cost more than 600,000 lives, had begun.
Taissa Ishket was 11 years old in 1941. She lost both her parents in the siege of Leningrad, but she and her brother survived. Six decades later, she spoke to RFE/RL from her home in Siberia about what it was like to grow up during the siege. This is her story.
Even before the Nazis laid siege to the city, German warplanes conducted bombing runs over the city. At first, said Ishket, residents ran for cover. In time, though, they became impassive to the daily attacks.
"At the beginning, we would take refuge in the bomb shelter, but then an apartment house collapsed after being bombed and people were buried alive. The ground was shaking. We were pulling people out -- digging them out from under the rubble with our bare hands -- whoever we could save if there weren't any men around. Those who managed to escape from the bomb shelter were gray, and the next time they no longer went down into the shelters. People became numb with hunger, with fear, and they no longer were afraid of anything. We wanted to eat all the time. The hunger was horrible, but there was nothing to eat," Ishket said.
The winter of 1941-42 was spent with no heating, no water supply, almost no electricity, and very little food. Then, Taissa's parents were killed. Taissa and her brother remained alone in their half-destroyed apartment.
Determined to survive, Taissa lied about her age in order to double her daily ration of bread from a meager 125 grams to 250 grams. But this also meant that, by saying she was 13 years old, she qualified as an adult and would have to help the war effort.
"In 1943, young men were coming back wounded in droves. We studied and helped. Our task was to take off their bandages and put them back on after their operations, feed those with no hands, no legs, with no eyes -- young men. There were so many wounded that there was no space for them. During the day, we learned how to tie bandages, how to give shots. And during the night we never left their bedside because the cries of agony, the cries of agony went on and on. Everyone was hanging on desperately. Everyone wanted to live," Ishket said.
By this point, the apartment Taissa and her brother lived in had been converted into a makeshift defense post.
"We had machine-gun posts set up in the apartment. I was a little older, so they taught me how to fire a machine gun. When they started to fire the antiaircraft guns, shrapnel was flying all over the place. In the winter, everything was cold and horrible. We went down to the river to collect water. We would put a little salt in it and drink it to fill our stomachs," Ishket said.
In the summer, Taissa was sent into the countryside to collect turf as fuel for a tank factory. Conditions there were even harsher than in the city.
"Our team of four had to dig up 16 tons of turf. The place had earlier served as a pigsty, and there weren't any beds, of course. They woke us up at six in the morning. We got 125 grams of bread. But it wasn't bread, just pulp and some sort of grayish water supposedly with buckwheat, but we didn't see any. The turf was black in color, the sun was beating down, it was hot. We had no water -- nothing -- and we had to work, to meet the requirements. In the evening, we had no strength left. We linked up and crawled back to the pigsty, holding onto each other in order not to fall into the swamp. We lay down with no food. When we were lying down, we could see our spines poking through our stomachs. In the course of a month we delivered the turf," Ishket said.
The siege of Leningrad was definitively broken in January 1944. Thousands of German prisoners were taken, but the war continued, as did the daily battle for survival.
Taissa recalled the continued pain, the ever-present hunger, but surprisingly, she said, even when face to face with the enemy, there was an absence of bitterness.
"There were many German prisoners of war in Leningrad. You would get your bread ration, and they would lead them in columns right next to see. They had such pathetic, hungry eyes that we shared our ration. We would break off a piece of bread and hand it to them. We forgot our anger, and it gradually disappeared," Ishket said.
After the war, Taissa -- by then a lieutenant in the medical corps -- was sent to the Russian republic of Buryatia, east of Lake Baikal, to work in a hospital. She has remained there to this day, far away from the place of her youth but still close to its painful memories.
(This feature is based on an original program by RFE/RL Russian Service correspondent Aleksandr Maltsev in Ulan-Ude.)