Escape from Besieged Leningrad and Perilous Journeys

This letter has been found in the papers of my Washington housing owner Lisa Ritchie. Its author experienced not only the hell of besieged Leningrad, but also imprisonment in a Nazi concentration camp, an escape from it and then a journey along Germany in the last months before the collapse of the Third Reich. The original text is a typescript in English, in British spelling. It has five pages, but since the third page, the pagination starts from the beginning. The letter is not signed, but Lisa thinks it was sent to her grandmother Elizavietta Hartmann Artamonoff by one of her friends soon after the Second World War had finished (the Artamonoff family moved from Russia to the USA in the early 1920s, but Lisa’s grandmother could leave the USSR only in 1933).

Below is the text of the letter with Lisa’s introduction and my comments (all of them are put in square brackets or placed in the endnotes). The author’s spelling and punctuation are kept without any change except obvious misprints. I kept also the original paragraphs, although in a newspaper publication of the letter, Lisa divided some of them into more short ones (she mentions this in her introduction).


“The writer’s duty,” said Albert Camus, “is to speak for those who have no voice… for the unknown prisoner at the other end of the earth…to be on the side not of those who make history, but of those who suffer from history…”

In that spirit I give you an extraordinary document inherited from my grandmother, my babushka, Elizavietta Hartmann Artamonoff, who was finally able to leave the Soviet Union in 1933 but they refused to grant an exit permit to her only daughter Maria Leonidovna Rickmann. My Aunt Maria spent World War Two and the Blockade of Leningrad by the Germans. Babushka and the rest of us obviously worried terribly.

Only after the war did we receive a few letters from Aunt Maria but the Soviet censors had blacked out whole paragraphs. I met my aunt in Pesochnoye north of Leningrad in 1986, and she and others have corroborated the accounts that individuals such as Harrison Salisbury in 900 Days have described of terrible suffering and a number of instances of cannibalism in the starving city.

It may well have been in Paris that a friend of my Babushka’s, a Russian émigré married to a Frenchman named Louis, wrote for her in English this account of life in besieged Leningrad, internment as an Ostarbeiter in Germany, and her escape on foot.

The account is addressed to “M” for Metty, as her children called my Babushka, subsequently how many called her. Possibly my American mother typed the handwritten account on paper now beige and delicate, the pages which were tucked among Babushka’s memoirs she wrote though the 1950s. Russian historian Michael Mints, who is living here on a Fulbright while researching Western accounts of the Soviets’ role in World War Two, retyped the letter on computer to post on his new website. Without changing the style or content of the original, beyond breaking solid text into paragraphs for greater readability, I share with you now.

Since the document is a legacy to me, I am copywriting it in my name:

© Elisavietta Ritchie 2013, in memory of my aunt, Maria Leonidovna Rickman, who was there, and in the name of all others who suffer history at the hands of invaders and tyrants.

The text of the letter

My dear M,

You want to know about the siege of Leningrad, and I shall try to tell you about it. During my happy childhood I could not have guessed all the horrors life had in store for me: mamma dying of hunger and not buried—burned with others, without tomb, without a cross over her poor body!

Our tragedy began on September 8th, 1941 when the first German bombs fell on the Badaeff food stores and burned up all the supplies. On September 15th the town was surrounded and it was impossible to get out [1]. We made a great mistake when we refused to be evacuated at the beginning of the war—I did not want to leave the University where I was studying and we decided to remain; nobody believed the Germans would be allowed to reach Leningrad and that it would be so awful. In January, the planes no longer came, but the heavy artillery continued to shoot. The center of the town has not suffered too much, but the suburbs are completely destroyed. Our Gostiny Dvor is completely burned out, it burned for several weeks, the frost was so hard, there was no water to extinguish the fire. A house between the Catherine Canal and the Michailovskeis does not exist anymore, as well as several houses along the Canal and on the Fontenske. All the other houses in this area had no window panes. But hunger was more terrible than either bombs, fire or cold. There was nothing to eat! People ate not only cats, dogs, rats but…each other! Dead bodies were thrown away in the streets by the families who were not strong enough to drag the corpses to the Morgue. We received 125 gr. of black and sticky bread a day and nothing else! And sometimes we had to stand in the frost for more than 12 hours, waiting for our mouthfuls. In the “queues” you could see people fall down dead, some were swollen, other[s] dried out. Even on the Nevsky the snow came up to our knees; the water pipes were frozen, all the garbage and refuse were thrown on the frozen rivers, soon they piled up and formed mountains that rose higher than the balustrades. You can imagine the smell! The hungry people had no possibility of warming themselves, they had no wood left after they had burned their furniture. The dead could not be buried, there was no wood for coffins and the soil was so frozen that one could not dig; from time to time big cars passed and picked up the dead bodies. Certainly, the people were heroic, but passively, if I can use that expression. All the newspapers write is a little embellished and does not express the horror of our life!

The people held out, but what else could we do? We awaited death and no longer feared it, there was no hope left in our hearts! Only when we heard that the Russians had taken Tver (Kalinine) on December 17th a little hope returned, we wept for joy. But soon we plunged again into hopeless despair; the radio also was half dead as we were and did not announce anything. And we waited and waited in the darkness and the cold. In [2] February 1942, the Germans were driven further away and we were offered to evacuate, but mamma was too ill, she was afraid she would die on the train and told me to go away by myself, but I could not leave her and would rather have died with her. Before her death she asked me to play the Moonlight Sonata; I played in the unheated room, it gave her pleasure. When there was no sign of life, I sewed her body in a blanket, put her on a small hand sleigh and brought her to the Morgue. I shall never forget it! Nothing could be more awful than her illness and her death. In March 1942 I was able to leave Leningrad, and in the Fall of 1942, 7 months after mamma’s death, I fell into the hands of the Germans and was sent to work in Germany.

[New pagination begins.]

I arrived there in the beginning of 1943. The journey was awful—huddled in cattle wagon, with hardly any food. During the first 36 hours we remained locked in our wagons, and were not allowed to get out, even for natural needs. Afterwards we could get out in turns, accompanied by an armed German soldier who often held us by our sleeve during the procedure. On our arrival in Germany, at Frenchfort on Oder, we remained a whole week in a special camp (durgangslager [3]—passager camp), where we were forced to put up with all sorts of humiliations: we had to remain all day completely naked for medical examination, passing from a room heated like a furnace, into a room as cold as an icebox. The men who “examined” us were young SS insolent and rough. This lasted several days. Then we were photographed, with a number around our neck (502 was mine) and we were sent to work. My job was in a factory of electric batteries situated in a large village between Berlin and Frankfort on Oder.

Oh, the dreadful factory!

It was dark, dirty, cold. We worked with carbon to make the batteries from 6 AM to 6 PM. When we came out we were as black as Negroes! It was hard work, we transported heavy boxes and pails full of boiling tar. I still have the marks of burns by that awful tar.

Our only food was 300 gr. of bad black bread and twice a day a soup made of unwashed carrots and rutabaga. Owing to such nourishment there was an epidemic of furuncles. [4] I had dozens of them all over my body, all colours and sizes. I thought I was going to rot alive, the German village doctor would give me nothing, but Vaseline. But, God is merciful; I was saved thanks to my strong organism. I was ill for 6 months. After I was cured I gradually became accustomed to that convict life. French and Russian prisoners who were working with the German peasants taught us how to act: steal the batteries and exchange them outside for food or old clothes, because we had nothing to dress with. Fortunately, for us there was no control at the doors of the factory, we brought the batteries in our sleeves, vests, panties. But often there were searches in the barracks, and if batteries were found, it was terrible! Once, in winter, as a punishment we transported huge stones on Saturday and Sunday from 6 AM to midnight, without rest or food. But on Monday everybody had found another “safe” place to hide the batteries, till the next search.

Notwithstanding all our morale was pretty good, we were brave. Still we cried a lot; sometimes it seemed that [this] life would never end and that we would be slaves all our lives. German women were especially cruel and nasty, they despised us because we were in rags, without stockings, summer and winter, and only wooden “sabots” on our feet—I should say wooden slippers.

Thanks to our traffic in files we succeeded in getting better food, potatoes, and were able to stand and work. In the evening it was very hard to keep up our spirit[s]. Work ended at 6 PM, we needed at least an hour to wash up and at 8 PM we had to be back at the barracks, because we were locked up. That way we had one free hour a day and on Sundays from 2 PM. But if one was 1 or 2 minutes late at night, the whole camp was kept for four weeks without leave. During those periodical arrests I used to see Louis just 2 or 3 minutes, we wished each other good-night over the grille fence of our yard, risking to be caught by the “Lagerführer,” a madman whose pleasure was to annoy us. In this fence we had hidden holes through which we crawled out at night to steal potatoes in the adjoining fields. We were real thieves, but to rob a German was not a crime, they had made animals out of us. On our chest[s] we wore [a] square of blue material with white letters OST. We were worse than plague.

In January 1945 there were rumours that we would be evacuated, French and Russians in different directions. In order to remain together, Louis and I fled together during the night of February 2–3. We walked for 5 days and nights through mud and snow, that is we walked during the night and during the day hid in the woods. We arrived in a small German town and presented ourselves at the Arbeitsamt as French husband and wife. The German asked for our documents, I told him as extraordinary story and I cannot understand how it happened he believed me, but as it was evacuation time from the Oder in great disorder, it was possible. Well, we got the permission to life in a small village, Louis at the Commando of prisoners, I, in a tiny room in a barrack overstocks of coal. We both worked in a sewing factory making bones [5], but we felt that the end of the war was near and didn’t work much. On April 26th after spending 3 days and 3 nights in the woods, bombarded by the Russians, we were liberated by the Red Army. We were not yet out of danger, the Germans were shooting us from the other side of the Spree. Louis crawled and dragged our little hand cart with food, he succeeded in saving it, all the other carts left by our companions in the middle of the road were squashed by attacking tanks. We walked a whole week towards the Polish border and got to Poznen. We remained there for two weeks with kind people who fed us without accepting anything in return. Then we got a passport from the French military mission at Warsaw and started towards Tcheckoslovakia—the journey was long and tiring. We rested for three days at Prague, then boarded a plane for Paris. Louis was overjoyed!


[1] In fact, the blockade already began on September 8 after the German troops had reached Shlisselburg and thus completely cut off Leningrad from the rest of the country. The railway transportation was cut off even earlier, on August 27, that virtually deprived the inhabitants of the opportunity to evacuate to the east.

[2] Maybe 1st February, the original text is not clear.

[3] Correct is DurchgangslagerGerm. “transit camp.”

[4] Boils on the skin.

[5] Meaning is unclear.