A terrible stench permeated Stalingrad in the spring of 1943. The city streets were littered with corpses. The dead bodies were counted later – 150,000 humans and 16,000 animals. Sanitary conditions in the city were appalling and dangerous, but those who survived the hell of Stalingrad did not notice the awful smell or the ruins around them – they were just happy to be alive.
Pavlov’s House – the first restored building in Stalingrad
People who had become used to living in trenches, basements, dugouts and bombed out streetcars built makeshift shelters and tried to rebuild the destroyed housing themselves. The defense of Stalingrad lasted for six months, during which the Nazis destroyed 91% of the housing stock. The Cherkasov movement, named after its leader Alexandra Cherkasova, was started in Stalingrad. A simple woman, Alexandra worked at a meat factory before the war. During the war she carried wounded soldiers from the battlefield. After the war she headed a team of street cleaners. She encouraged her girlfriends to volunteer to help rebuild the city. Pavlov’s House was the first building that her team restored. It took them 58 days – exactly as long as the defense of this famous stronghold lasted.
Born in the basement of Pavlov’s House
The first German bombs fell on Stalingrad on July 17, 1942. On that day a pregnant woman took cover in the basement of the building that came to be known later as Pavlov’s House. On the fourth day of the bombing, she gave birth to a girl named Zina.
Two months later, when the entire city had become a battlefield, a group of reconnaissance officers led by Sergeant Pavlov turned the building into a stronghold. A direct road to the Volga and crossings started at this house. Its defenders had to prevent the enemy from getting to the river. The Germans were doing all they could to drive our troops to the riverbank.
The defense of the house lasted for 58 days and nights. Zina Andreyeva spent this entire time with her mother and grandparents in the basement. Her father, infantryman Pyotr Seleznyov, was killed in action in the first days of the Battle of Stalingrad. Zina herself barely survived in the basement.
“I was weak and on the verge of dying. Soldiers even started digging a grave,” Zina recalls. “When they were digging the grave for me, they found a Holy Virgin medallion and gave it to my mother. She put it on me that evening and I survived.”
Soldiers would bring burnt flour mixed with sand from Gerhard’s Mill for Zina’s mother. Like other buildings the mill was turned into a stronghold. It was left standing after the war without repairs, and has since become part of the Battle of Stalingrad Memorial.
In 1993 Zina headed the association “Children of Wartime Stalingrad”, which has 12,000 members. During the war they saw their parents die and their city turned to ruins.
Asphalt flowed like a river
On August 23, 1942 the Nazis launched a massive air assault on Stalingrad.
During the attacks Luftwaffe aircraft dropped one-ton high-explosive bombs on the city. The crater of one bomb was as big as a two-storey building. During the first week of bombing alone the Nazis dropped 12,500 high-explosive bombs on the city.
Many buildings started to burn. Neftegorodok, the Oil Town, was one of the first to be destroyed. Oil spilled into the Volga and caught fire. The flames rose 200 meters above the river and could be seen from Saratov. In the city itself asphalt flowed like a river. People burned and clothes burst into flames due to the heat.
According to Tatyana Prikazchikova, a senior research fellow of the Memorial, “About 43,000 people were killed during the first days of the bombings. Just try to imagine what this figure means. There were maternity homes with expectant mothers and infants. People rushed out of their homes in whatever they were wearing, not knowing where their children were, whether they were alive or not.”
Vera Tyugayeva, a resident of Volgograd, recalls: “The city was ablaze; the sound falling bombs shrieked in our ears. We covered them with our hands to keep our ear drums from bursting.”
Vera was five when the bombings started. A shell destroyed their building, and her family was moved to a school together with other homeless families.
“A truck came; we climbed in and were driven to the river bank. We were waiting a ferry to take us to the other side,” Vera recalls. “When the first ferry came, there was a stampede – people were crawling over each other’s heads. We didn’t go. The ferry made it to the middle of the river and was destroyed by a shell. Everyone aboard drowned.”
A second ferry brought Vera and her family over to the other side of the river. A bomb exploded on the bank when they unloaded. Vera and her sister were covered by sand. It took their mother a long time to find her daughters. She had to dig through pile after pile of sand, and found them right before they suffocated.
Vera’s family was incredibly lucky – they were evacuated and all survived.
Party officials fled
During the city’s defense, the military, economic and administrative power was concentrated in the City Defense Committee headed by Alexei Chuyanov, first secretary of the Stalingrad City Party Committee.
Prikazchikova recalls: “He was supposed to make a decision on evacuating civilians but he didn’t. Anyone could cross to the river’s left bank in advance and without any risk. Hostilities started as early as in July – 150 km to the southwest of Stalingrad.”
She said the bureau of the Regional Party Committee was in session several times in the fall of 1942 with one and the same agenda: “Ways of countering defeatist attitudes among the city’s residents.”
The local authorities did not receive an order to evacuate civilians from their superiors. Perhaps this is why they were afraid to make the decision on their own.
Prikazchikova recalls: “Nikita Khrushchev, a member of the Stalingrad Front Military Council, wrote in his memoirs that Stalin called him after the first massive bombings and asked whether people were fleeing the city. Khrushchev reported cheerfully: ‘No, Comrade Stalin, people remain in the city.’”
Meanwhile, the command of the Stalingrad Front had already crossed to the left bank by that time. Families of party officials had been moved there as early as in July. According to eyewitness reports, they were leaving the city with figs, dogs and all their other belongings.
It was only in October of 1942 that Andrei Yeremenko, commander of the Stalingrad Front, signed an order to evacuate civilians to the 25 km zone from the theatre of operations. But at that time seasoned soldiers were saying it was better to go into battle a dozen times than to cross the Volga once. As a result, only about 20,000 people were evacuated in October. What was life like for those who stayed in the city?
Scout Orlov, Grandma Manya and the gabardine shirt
Both adults and children had to endure famine, cold and the death of relatives. They dug trenches and anti-tank ditches together. They converted schools into hospitals, cared for the wounded and extinguished fire bombs before they exploded. Childhood came to an abrupt end for hundreds of thousands of children in Stalingrad during the siege. They fought, went to the frontlines, and acted as scouts.
Nikolai Orlov had just turned 16 in 1942 but had already been awarded the Order of the Patriotic War and the medal For Bravery. Vasily Chukov, the legendary commander of the 62nd Army, conferred these awards on him. He also ordered that Orlov be given a gabardine shirt for his courage, which he held onto for many years after the war.
Nikolai was one of the teenagers trained for reconnaissance missions by NKVD task units.
These teenagers knew the city inside out and often acted as guides. They collected information about places where Nazis troops and military hardware were concentrated.
During the war Orlov carried sensitive reports across the frontlines 71 times.
Orlov, a retired colonel, is now almost 85. He remembers very well his first long-distance reconnaissance mission. It could have easily been his last.
The Nazis had a secret airfield near the village of Marinovka, 80 km from Stalingrad. Aircraft that took off from this airfield bombed river crossings and dropped mines in the river.
Civilians who were sent to Germany for work were first marched to Marinovka. Nikolai entered the village in one such column of civilians. He then slipped away in order to get near the airfield, which was meticulously guarded all along the perimeter.
Orlov saw an old woman not far from the airfield. She was dozing, and goats were eating grass nearby. Nikolai took them with him.
“I thought I could act like I was a shepherd if I was caught,” Orlov recalls. “I managed to reach the airfield and count all the aircraft before the Germans noticed me. They had a Ukrainian interpreter with them.” Nikolai told them that he was allowing his goats to graze and fell asleep; the goats wandered off toward the airfield and he had to follow them.
“The German officer was ready to believe me – I could see it on his face. Maybe he had children himself. But the interpreter kept telling the officer not to let me go. They argued for a long time. I don’t know what would have happened if that old woman who owned the goats hadn’t woken up,” Orlov says.
She approached him and started yelling: “What an idiot you are! I told you to always listen to Grandma Manya. I told you never to walk so far away!” To make it more convincing she thrashed him with her whip. The Germans believed in her “shepherd story” and let the young scout go.
By the evening of the same day, the airfield was destroyed by our troops. Orlov never saw Grandma Manya again, but he is still grateful to her for saving his life.
“She was ready to die for me even though I was a total stranger to her. If the Germans hadn’t believed her they would have detained and shot both of us and that would be it,” Orlov concludes.
Seven survivors in central Stalingrad
Prikazchikova recalls: “When the Battle of Stalingrad exhibition was opened in 1985, the life of civilians during the battle was not even discussed. I remember how a young guide told his audience in 1990 how the city’s authorities sought to root out defeatist attitudes – they inspected courtyards and blocked carts from leaving. After this tour he was asked to quit.”
It was only in 1993 that the association Children of Wartime Stalingrad was formed, and the lives of civilians started being discussed at rallies and other events devoted to the city’s defense. Members of the association began bringing personal belongings from the war and the museum eventually hosted an exhibit on this subject.
“Now I mention these appalling figures during tours. There were 525,000 people in our city in 1941 compared to only 23,000 on February 4, 1943, that is, two days after the end of the battle. Just think – a mere seven people lived in the city’s central district – Stalinsky – at that time,” Prikazchikova said.