Russell and Duenes

December 7, 1941: More Than 2,000 Per Day for Nine Months

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stpetersburgWinston Churchill, upon learning of the Japanese attack upon Pearl Harbor “took to his bed happy that night, and ‘slept the sleep of the saved and thankful.'” William Manchester and Paul Reid, The Last Lion, p. 423. And indeed, the attack has lived in infamy, as President Roosevelt proclaimed. But on this day, I want to highlight another attack, of the same war, which is unfathomable to me and really, to us here in the United States as a whole. We lost over 2,400 men December 7, and were plunged into a war that would last more than three additional years. But what of the people of Leningrad? What of their “infamy?”

As Manchester and Reid tell it, the winter of 1941 had been extremely brutal, and both the Red Army and the Nazis has lost a million-or-so men apiece to death or injury. But, as winter gave way to spring, Hitler boasted that “at the beginning of summer it will again no longer be possible to stop the movement,” meaning, the movement of the Wehrmacht deeper into the Soviet Union. (p.520).

When it came to Leningrad, “Hitler had ordered the complete destruction of the city and its nine million inhabitants, including six million refugees who had fled the countryside for the supposed safety of Leningrad. The Whermacht was ordered not to accept a surrender if one was offered.” (p.521). Leningrad (now St. Petersburg), had been “under siege since late August (of 1941) and lacking coal, food, and oil, more than 200,000 perished by early May.” Id. The city was being continuously shelled day and night by the surrounding German army. and “the people of Leningrad were starving to death at a rate of ore than 2,000 per day, and would do so for another 9 months, until the Soviets punched through a narrow land corridor. With water and sewer lines smashed, epidemics raged. . .  By the time the siege was lifted in January 1944, more than a million bodies filled communal graves, more fatalities than British and America casualties, military and civilian, combined, for the entire war.” Id.

Temperatures here in Topeka dropped into the single digits over the last few days, and I was out in it the other night, with my heavy coat. And upon hearing of this mass death in Leningrad, I tried to imagine myself as one of them, in comparable temperatures, with my city being shelled by heavy artillery constantly, with no food, no heat, no home and no clean water. What would it feel like to feel yourself freezing to death or starving to death in such climes? It was unimaginable. The events boggle the mind and pummel the heart.

“Even Dr. Goebbels flinched at the carnage and the stories of cannibalism, confessing to his diary that a Russian deserter’s report that ‘a great part of the population was feeding on so-called human flesh jelly . . . is so revolting that it makes one’s stomach turn to read it.’ In their dietary need for fat during the horrific winter of 1942, hundreds of thousands of Russians, from Leningrad to the Black Sea, added a touch of axle grease or crankcase oil to whatever rotten food scraps and bones found their way into cook pots.” Id.

I am not one to make light of American casualties, particularly those of December 7, 1941. But if any event deserves to live in “infamy” in that terrible war, the rape and slaughter of Leningrad is surely one of them. Such an episode helps me, at least, to readjust my lens on this world. Our Lord Jesus Christ saw this place for what it was. He saw the good things about it, of course, for He had made it “good.” But he also had a wide-eyed view of what it means to live in a world where sin, sin like that which destroyed the people of Leningrad, exists, both for what sin does in a temporal sense, and what it does in an eternal sense. My conception of our world is of a world that does not exist in reality. It is a conception that cannot genuinely take in a Leningrad in WW2. To do so is to be faced with the intolerable impotence and brevity of my own life, and to be shaken by my own sentimentalism and indifference to the suffering of others. May we perhaps take that lesson away from our remembrance of the “day of infamy.”

-D

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Written by Michael Duenes

December 7, 2013 at 1:14 pm

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