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Many Leningrad residents, including 17-year-old Ganna Agrest, tried to escape across frozen Lake Ladoga.

Illustration by Sam Hadley


Common Core: RH.6-8.1, RH.6-8.2, RH.6-8.4, RH.6-8.5, RH.6-8.7, RH.6-8.9, WHST.6-8.2, WHST.6-8.4, WHST.6-8.7, RI.6-8.1, RI.6-8.2, RI.6-8.3, RI.6-8.5, RI.6-8.10, SL.6-8.1, SL.6-8.4, SL.6-8.6

NCSS: Time, Continuity, and Change • People, Places, and Environments • Individual Development and Identity


Trapped by the Nazis

In 1941, German forces tried to conquer a Russian city and starve its citizens. Read one teen’s incredible story of survival in a winning entry from Junior Scholastic’s 2019 Eyewitness to History contest.

As You Read, Think About: What can we learn from talking with people who experienced historic events?

Jim McMahon/Mapman®

In September 1941, Adolf Hitler’s German forces set out to destroy a city.

Two years earlier, Germany had invaded Poland, sparking World War II (1939-1945). Now much of Europe was under Nazi control. But Hitler wanted more: the Soviet Union—especially Russia, its most powerful republic. Seizing the city of Leningrad was key to his plans for conquering the entire nation.

Leningrad (now known as St. Petersburg) was then home to some 3 million people. Its naval base and hundreds of factories were central to Russia’s strength.

On September 8, 1941, German forces surrounded Lenin­grad, choking off all passage into and out of the city. The Siege of Lenin­grad would last for 872 days.

The siege was a time of unspeakable horror. When food ran out, people ate pets and “soup” made from boiled shoe leather. Residents died by the hundreds of thousands, collapsing from starvation or disease, or killed by enemy gunfire and bombs.

But the people of Leningrad refused to give in. They kept factories going and built fortifications to protect the city.

Ganna Agrest was 17 when the siege began. In the following interview by eighth-grader Sophia Leclerc, Agrest shares the story of how she survived one of the worst acts of war in history.

What You Need to Know

Photo 12/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Adolf Hitler speaking at a Nazi rally in Germany, around 1934

NAZI GERMANY The period from 1933 to 1945, when Germany was controlled by the Nazi Party. Led by Adolf Hitler (center), the party aimed to dominate Europe and destroy the Jewish people.

SOVIET UNION The world’s largest country during World War II. Russia (now an independent country) was its most powerful republic. If Hitler had conquered Russia, he would have controlled most of Europe and a huge part of Asia.

This is a shortened, edited version of Sophia’s interview.

Sophia Leclerc: When and where were you born?
Ganna Agrest: In Leningrad, now St. Petersburg, Russia, on July 11, 1924.

SL: When the siege began, how old were you and where in Leningrad were you living?
GA: I was about 17 years old, living in the downtown area near the center of the city with my parents and my younger sister, then 12.

SL: What was your life like before the siege?
We lived a normal life. My sister and I went to school, and our parents both worked as engineers. My sister and I enjoyed playing music at a music school. I practiced piano.

SL: How did you react when the siege started, and what changed in your daily routine?
Everyone was horrified and frantic. Many people were clueless and didn’t evacuate; they didn’t know what to expect. My parents had to halt their work when the siege started. Although there was no regular schedule, school kept going. Our school was very tall, about eight stories high, so classes had shifts to patrol the area on our school’s roof to make sure no danger was near.

SL: Did you work?
Ever since I was very young, I had wanted to work at a hospital. Everyone knew I had a serving heart. So I worked at a hospital, helping wounded people and soldiers. I had one of the most common and helpful blood types, type O, so I donated blood too.

SL: How did you and your family get food during the siege?
I was fed at the hospital where I worked and donated my blood, and I was lucky enough to receive extra food for me and my family. My family and I shared the food we got, and like other people, we sometimes traded valuables like furniture, clothes, and books for food. In winter, I witnessed people starving, freezing, and dying on the streets—those who had nothing to trade or no one to work for.

AP Images

People fetch water from an icy street in Leningrad in the winter of 1942.

SL: How did you get water?
There were no working water sources in houses, but luckily there was the Neva River in downtown Leningrad. That was the main source of water for everyone.

SL: What transportation was there? Was there fuel for cars?
GA: There was no transportation like that. People would walk or be pulled by sleds in the winter.

SL: How did you manage to stay warm?
GA: Many people had self-made heaters—there were many unique attempts, and some worked, more or less. Other people would burn anything they could: furniture, books, toys.

SL: Did you get to escape?
I escaped through the “Road of Life”—a path across Lake Ladoga, which froze in winter. In some cases, the lake was bombed and the path was destroyed, but my family and I were lucky enough to safely escape. We stayed with a nice family until we could one day return. My father stayed in Lenin­grad, working as an engineer to help build barricades to prevent intruders from entering the city. I felt upset to leave my home city.

SL: Were people sharing and understanding, or selfish?
Some people were very helpful and did all they could to help each other, but others kept a little more to themselves and tried to survive more on their own, selfishly.

The bread we received was almost no help with hunger. A tiny piece of bread was given! It was a scary time for everyone. Thieves stole other people’s bread, and in some cases, violence broke out.

SL: How did you and your family react when the siege ended?
My family and I traveled back through Moscow. We were happy to return home, but unfortunately, many of our valuables had been stolen while we were away. I later learned that my grandmother had died from starvation, and all of the boys I had been in classes with—except one I sat right next to in class—had died. Even so, everyone I knew there remained very hopeful and patriotic.

SL: What message would you like young people to know?
Prevent war. In any way you can, do whatever you can to prevent war. War is such a tragedy. People suffer so much, no matter what side you are on, so prevent war. 

Write About It! How do firsthand accounts of war differ from what’s in textbooks? What are the benefits and drawbacks of each? Write a paragraph explaining your answers, citing details from this article.

Eyewitness To History Contest

You Can Win Too!

Courtesy of Natalie Leclerc

Sophia Leclerc, 14 (top), says talking with Ganna Agrest (bottom) for our 2019 Eyewitness to History contest taught her the importance of learning about history from people who actually lived it. Sophia’s Q&A earned her runner-up honors. Enter and you could be a 2020 contest winner!

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