On September 8, 1941, Hitler's party successfully surrounded the city of Leningrad, Russia, after three months of calculated efforts. Their goal was simple: to slowly starve the population of Leningrad into surrender and begin their military occupation of Russia. Third Reich officials originally anticipated the city would eat itself alive within weeks, which, in many cases, it very literally did. Leningrad became rife with instances of cannibalism. However, the citizens of Leningrad endured the siege for close to 900 days, or nearly three years.
To do this, though, people had to resort to desperate measures in order to acquire food, including eating pets, glue, sawdust, and - eventually - the corpses of their families and strangers. By the end of the siege, over a million people perished because they did not have food or because of related diseases, and of those who survived, over 2,000 were suspected of having practiced cannibalism in Leningrad.
For years, the level of desperation endured by citizens of Leningrad during the siege remained a tightly kept secret by Stalin's Russia, and, only after various diaries, letters, and documents describing the events were finally released, did people finally become aware of just how severe the situation had been.
The siege on Leningrad lasted from 1941 to 1943, during which time the German soldiers had successfully cut the city off from all resources and had resorted to daily detonations of the area in an effort to overtake the politically strategic Russian city.
During this time, food rations became drastically smaller, eventually reaching the quantity of only 125 grams of bread per person per day, which is similar to the size of a bar of soap and amounts to a paltry 300 to 400 calories. In their desperation to find any food at all, people had to get creative. At first, people found ways to pull calories out of whatever they had at their disposal. According to The Daily Mail, this included:
"Macaroni" made from flax seed for cattle, "meat jelly" produced from boiling bones and calf skins, "yeast soup" from fermented sawdust, joiners’ glue boiled and jellified, toothpaste, cough mixture and cold cream - anything that contained calories. They even licked the dried paste off the wallpaper.
According to Life and Death in Besieged Leningrad, 1941-1944: "Industrial workers were on the lookout for lubrication oils and greases, oilcake, glues, leather drive belts, spirits, anything edible." Soon, however, this wasn't enough, and a lack of food took more and more lives, people had to use their new-found resourcefulness to take advantage of another food option - each other. Not only were desperately hungry people stealing amputated limbs from hospitals in order to feed their families, but parents sometimes had to slay their youngest children in order to ensure the survival of the older children.
After the first winter alone, people had become so desperate for food that an underground market was booming, and people had begun slaying one another in the streets for meat. In fact, according to the LA Times, many parents even "feared their children would be eaten if allowed out after dark."
Over the nearly three-year-long siege, many people kept detailed records of their experiences, from the daily detonations that occurred across the city to the increasingly frequent number of corpses that were found in the streets. One such record was kept by an 11-year-old girl named Tanya Savicheva who wrote a diary during the time, vigilantly recording the lives of her family members until no one was left except for her: "[E]veryone is dead. Only Tanya is left."
Her diary was recovered, but Tanya eventually passed in July 1944 from intestinal tuberculosis.
By the end of the siege in 1944, when Soviet soldiers had finally managed to liberate the city of Leningrad from the blockade, nearly one-third of the population had already passed with those who had survived a lack of food and resources. Estimates put the number of survivors, or Blokadniki, at around only 400,000 people with 125,000 of them being teenagers and adults, providing further proof of the devastating decisions families were forced to make regarding the survival of their children.
The crippling legacy of this siege could be seen for years after, and it wouldn't be until the 1960s that the population of Leningrad would regain its pre-WWII numbers.