« Nous allons commencer notre descente vers Saint-Pétersbourg. L’heure prévue pour l’atterrissage est 15H50. La température actuelle est de 3°C »
(“We will start our descent now into Saint Petersburg. The time previewed for landing is 3:50 PM. The current temperature is 3 degrees Celsius.”)
It had been almost three hours since we took off from Paris, the flight was very smooth and I was very excited about joining the team in Russia, where I was going for the first time to follow our team’s research.
It took me approximately 40 minutes to get to Gatchina, a small city south of Saint Petersburg. The hotel was new and I learned that we were the first clients to stay there. The team arrived around 8PM, they told me they had been in another city, Luga (an hour and a half from from Gatchina). They shared some of the testimonies they had collected with me. Tomorrow, they told me, we will continue the interview of an 84 year-old woman who knew all the places in the village that the Germans had occupied.
Tamara: An amazing woman!
We left the hotel around 8:30 AM in the morning, it was dark and I wondered if the sun would appear at some point during the day. We drove through the beautiful landscape of trees and rivers on both sides of the road. At 9:15, the sun began to appear through the clouds in front of us.
We arrived in Luga around 10:00 AM and went straight to look for Tamara. I stayed outside the building as we waited for Tamara to come. I then saw a beautiful, energetic lady, dressed in a violet coat, and followed by three large dogs. I learned later that the dogs are fed by the neighbors in the buildings around hers.
She kissed everybody and seemed happy to take us around and share the stories she witnessed during that horrible period.
We started by the train station, a nice building with a beautiful park in front. The landscape completely transformed in my mind when Tamara began to tell us how the Germans closed that park to create a camp for Prisoners of War. She told us that she used to come to the park as a child and she saw how the prisoners arrived and left over a period of several months. I knew from the Soviet Archives that it had been a transit camp and the Germans made use of the train station to deport and receive these prisoners more efficiently. Today, there is a large memorial for the victims.
After half an hour in the freezing wind, we drove to another neighborhood to visit another memorial next to a large forest. There were several tombstones and a dedication to the civilian victims of the war. As per the archives, we know that approximately 8,000 people were killed and buried there, most of them were captured and imprisoned inside a building named the “Polygon.” The origin of the victims is not explained in the archives nor by the local people. The Jews were considered citizens by others and according to the locals, the Jews were totally assimilated in the rest of the population. There was no mention of a Jewish neighborhood in the village.
Tamara had an amazing energy and she absolutely wanted to show us the cemetery outside of the city where most of the Jews from the village were buried before the War. We drove about 5 miles until we entered a forest. Tamara got out of the car and started to look for the cemetery—she could not remember the exact location in the middle of the forest. It was very cold and windy but Tamara absolutely wanted to find the place again. We split up the team to search in different directions. After 40 minutes of walking, we found the place. Tamara was moved and tears appeared in her eyes as she showed us the tombstones of her neighbors. She was very close to the little children that she never saw again after they went away one day during Summer of 1943.
Vasili: A survivor of the Leningrad Blockade
“Why you didn’t tell me you are French?” he said running into the room to look for his jacket. “I have to dress up for you. Please help me with my tie.”
Vasili is 90 years old and he was lucky enough to survive the great famine of the winter of 1941.
Today, he is an amazing man who still holds all the memories of that terrible time. He told us about the work in the “usine” (factory) and that all the employees received 250 grams of bread per day in payment for the work they were doing. The factory was bombed in October 1941 and he lost his job. He was lucky enough to resist the evacuation organized in February of 1942.
Vasili goes to schools today to recount this terrible period to students. He is an example to them and the best way for them to learn from an eyewitness about this part of Russian history that cannot be forgotten.
It was already 4:30 PM when we left Vasili’s apartment, it was dark outside, part of the team stayed in the village to interview another witness whom did not want too many people in his apartment as his wife was not feeling well.
The route was longer on the way back to Gatchina, but we were full of encouragement to continue research in this area, even when sometimes it becomes difficult to find witnesses and even more, direct witnesses of the facts.