The cemetary was huge. Over 60 hectares of yellow forest, leaves drifting to the earth like snow onto graves packed into the undergrowth.
Karen had seen my blog when researching hers (www.herodad.wordpress.com). Her Dad and extended family, Americans, had had to flee St Petersburg (at the time called Leningrad) and the USSR as World War II approached and the bombs fell. Karen is researching and blogging their fascinating stories.
Karen’s Dad travelled the Trans-Siberian railway to Vladivostok (then went via Japan of all places and on to the States). He visited many of the same places I had on this trip, hence Karen’s interest. Her kind comment on my blog coincided with my arrival in St Petersburg so I asked if there was anything special she might like me to photograph. This is how I arrived at little known Serafimovskoje cemetary looking for “Row 31, Grave 11”, Karen’s Uncle Tony.
It was a lovely sunny day and silent. I had Area 31 (which I hoped meant Row 31) to myself, other than a little elderly lady silently scraping and painting a fence around a grave then, it seemed, moving onto the next one. The only sound among the trees and leaves was the crunch of my feet on twigs as I tried in vain to find Tony, twisting myself between grave sites trying to make out a 1940 or an ANTON or… sadly no luck.
My report to Karen and some more photos are in her lovely blog post ‘A Bumblebee Searches for Tony’.
Occasionally a family would pass by on a nearby path to visit their loved ones. This was a living cemetary. I was startled at first to find 2013 graves as well as the older ones, some now no more than mounds covered in twigs and long forgotten, or maybe not forgotten, just belonging to a family far away.
For all the museums I could have visited to learn about the Leningrad Blockade, the priviledge of searching for someone’s actual family member, amidst so many graves, really made the whole thing real for me.
Hitler’s Germany cut off and bombed St Petersburg/Leningrad for 872 days from 8 September 1941 until 27 January 1944 during which over one million people died from the shelling or from starvation. To stay alive, people were eating sawdust bread and, in the end, sometimes each other.
Not to belittle their contribution in anyway, but for comparison, in the whole war USA and UK lost a total of about 700,000 people combined. You can understand why most Russians, taking Stalingrad and other cities into account also, quite adamantly consider that they were the ones that ultimately won WW2.