The Siege of Leningrad was one of the deadliest episodes of the Second World War. The drawings of one woman who lived through it will soon be on exhibit at Cambridge University. (Image source: WikiCommons)
“Marttila used her pencil to record the grim spectacle of a starving city in hopes of preserving the memory the dead.”
Elena Marttila has kept the memories of those killed at Leningrad alive through her art. (Image source: Darwin College)
ELENA MARTTILA WAS an art student living in Leningrad in September of 1941 when the German army surrounded the city.
For the next several months, the 18-year-old daughter of a purged Red Army officer would bear first-hand witness to the hell that resulted from the longest and most murderous siege in modern history.
As the Nazi blockade cut the city’s two-and-a-half million residents off from the outside world, the young illustrator volunteered as a nurse in a local children’s hospital. Between her long shifts giving care to Leningrad’s tiniest victims, Marttila used her pencil to record the grim spectacle of a starving city in hopes of preserving the memory the dead. Before Leningrad was relieved in January of 1944 (nearly 900 days after the siege began), as many as 1 million civilians had perished.
Elena, now 94, survived the ordeal, but the images of what she saw during that first harrowing winter haunted her. Throughout her long post-war career as an artist, teacher and author, Marttila would continue to revisit her wartime experiences through her work, transforming many of her original sketches into cardboard etchings.
“While my hand can still hold a pencil, I will continue to tell the story of my fellow Leningraders, who are dear to my heart,” she said. “I wish for [my art] to become a warning against the dangers of war for the preservation of our humanity.”
Now for the first time ever, a selection of Marttila’s most poignant illustrations will be going on display in the West. Beginning next week, the University of Cambridge’s Darwin College will host Art and Endurance in the Siege of Leningrad, a two-month expo featuring her drawings. The pieces will be accompanied by lectures, film screenings and panel discussions.
The event kicks off on Jan. 19 and runs through March 17. For more information, visit: artandendurance.org.
(Darwin College has shared the following samples from the the expo with MilitaryHistoryNow.com readers)
A cellist trudges through the snowy streets to a performance. Sadly, Leningrad’s major cultural landmarks that lay behind the German lines, like the Catherine and Peterhof palaces, were plundered of their treasures. (Image source: Darwin College)
The historic capital of Russia, Leningrad (formerly St. Petersburg) was the second largest city in the Soviet Union. The siege more than halved the population. In fact, more people died there than were killed in Stalingrad, Hiroshima or Nagasaki. This image “Crossroads” depicts the body of a sailor lying dead in the streets. (Image source: Darwin College)
“Crystal Cradle” During the siege’s first winter, temperatures in Leningrad plunged to a numbing -30 deg. C. (Image source: Darwin College)
During the early phase of the siege, civilians who could work were issued a ration of less than five ounces of bread a day. The coveted morsels were made largely of sawdust. Those unfit for labour went without. (Image source: Darwin College)
“Tanya. Alone.” An 11-year-old girl named Tanya Savicheva kept a journal of the siege. In it, she writes of the death of her siblings and her mother. Although she herself succumbed to complications from malnutrition after the city was liberated, her journal was used as evidence at the Nuremburg Trials. (Image source: Darwin College)
Wood-burning stoves heat the interior of the Leningrad art college, the only school to remain open in the city. The invaders cut off the city’s water, electricity and heat, plunging the residents into an almost Medieval-like existence. (Image source: Darwin College)
A young munitions worker in one of the city’s impromptu armaments factories. (Image source: Darwin College)
“Crossing Ladoga” An ice-road over the frozen lake remained a vital supply route to the besieged defenders. (Image source: Darwin College)
Mikhail Lapshin, pictured here, was a friend of the artist. He was killed in action in 1943. (Image source: Darwin College)