Now and Then - Dom Byta

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dom byta razhyezzhaya bolshaya moskovskaya siege leningrad
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Corner of Bolshaya Moskovskaya and Razyezzhaya streets, Leningrad. January 1942 / Corner of Bolshaya Moskovskaya and Razyezzhaya streets, St. Petersburg. November 2021

Leningraders walking to the train station in order to start their evacuation across the frozen Lake Ladoga.


I took this picture about 3 weeks ago, and by the time I got myself to translate the poem it suddenly acquired a new meaning in an eerie and serendipitous way. About 3 years ago I bought a crowdfunding certificate for a children's book about the siege of Leningrad which entitled me to have my name and contact details printed in the list of its sponsors. I didn't pay much attention to this as I predominantly worked with English-speaking tourists and I didn't care much about the hype, so I was just happy enough I could contribute to a good cause. The publishers convinced me to at least mention my phone number, I got my copy and then forgot about it. A few days ago an elderly lady called me and said she was a Siege of Leningrad survivor as a child and she wanted to thank me for the book. I felt a bit awkward cause I wasn't the main contributor by far but I took the chance to talk to her about her experience during the Siege and asked her where she lived during that time. Now here's where the seredipity plays in: she lived in this very small two-storey house you can see on the photo. She was evacuated across the Road of Life in May 1942 and half an year later this house was destroyed by a bomb. She told me she even went to the tailor shop on the second floor of the new 1960's building an year ago or so in an attempt to get the same view she could see every day when she was a child. And then she said to me she wondered how this place looked like today. "Well, lady, I've got exactly what you're asking for", I said. Unfortunately, she doesn't have email or even a modern phone with messenger apps, and she stays at home cause she is 84 now and doctors don't let her leave the house because of the Covid pandemic. I promised her I would print this picture out and leave it by her door, and I'll also arrange a phone interview with her to ask her about her experiences during the war. I also read her this poem by the poet Anatoly Molchanov, who was 11 when the war started and lived just 2 houses away from her. He wrote a number of poems about the Siege, the block he lived in and the destruction he witnessed.

 

"Corner of Bolshaya Moskovskaya and Razyezhaya streets" by Anatoly Molchanov.


These days will never be forgotten
Yet it is painful to recall
That here, in the place of Dom Byta*
Once stood a small house with yellow walls

The cherished bakery in its basement
Where at dawn, under the sooty light of lamps
They handed me that piece of bread
One hundred and twenty five grams.**

Here we learnt of rations' rising
And we could barely fantasize
That the bread morsel we pressed so closely
To our hearts would get twice the size.

Then in September an artillery gun
Fired its shell so close to us,
Fire burst out and sprinkled over
The yellow house with red blood.

Pieces of words glared blue through it,
Like a verdict thrown in one's face
Like screams of death
"Durin the shelling
This side... mos... danger is... arti..."***

I see this wall ever so often,
It enters troubled dreams of mine.
I wish it was part of an anti-war Temple
Like War's inhuman deadly sign

I wish it blazed with eldritch blood and letters
A warning of the things to come
"No place on Earth can be our shelter
Today, if nuclear bombs go down!"


* - Dom Byta is a Soviet concept for a commercial real estate building meant for offices which provide household services: shoe and clothes repair, dry cleaning and laundry, watch repair, locksmith, etc.
** - The lowest food rationing norm set in Leningrad during the siege was 125 grams of bread (180 calories) per day for white collar workers, dependents and children, effective from November 20, 1941. The first increase was announced on December 25, 1941 when these categories started receiving 200 grams (290 calories) per day. Either way, it was from 8 to 10 less than the minimum daily calorie intake required to sustain life in a human body. For the sake of perspective, the rationing in Nazi concentration camps was, on the average, from 700 to 1300 calories per day.
*** - Reference to stenciled blue signs which were painted on all streets which faced south, the direction from which German heavy siege guns fired their shells at the city: "Citizens! This side of the street is the most dangerous during artillery shelling!"

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