Tuesday's Tales - "Only Tanya is Left" - a true-life tale of the Second World War

Last Friday, 23 January, would have been the 85th birthday of Tanya Savicheva … had she lived.   Instead she died near Leningrad at the age of 14, another young victim of the Second World War.  Outside of Russia, she is virtually unknown … there is no mention of her in history lessons, no book has been written about her.  But, like the other, more recognisable, young victim of the war – Anne Frank – she also left behind a diary, a small, almost inconsequential diary, a diary that contained only 9 entries.

Tanya, aged 6

Tatyana Nikolayevna Savicheva was born on January 23 1930, the youngest of 5; her father, Nikolay Rodionovich Savichev, was a baker, and her mother, Mariya Ignatievna Savicheva, a seamstress.  She had 2 sisters, Nina and Zhenya (Yevgenia), and 2 brothers, Mikhail and Leka (Leonid).  The family were gifted musically; the 2 brothers played the guitar, mandolin and banjo, while the girls sang.

When Tanya was 6, her father died, leaving her mother to raise 5 children on her own.  But her job as a seamstress in a Leningrad house of fashion paid well.

The family had planned to spend the summer of 1941 in the countryside, but the German invasion disrupted their plans.  The oldest boy, Mikhail, had already left the city, but the rest of the family decided to stay in Leningrad.  In September 1941, the German army began their bombardment of the city, cutting off supplies in an attempt to ‘wipe it off the map’.  So began the Siege of Leningrad that would last for 900 days; the family, like all the other inhabitants, were trapped, unable to leave.

On 12 September 1941, the largest food warehouse was bombed and destroyed.  3,000 tonnes of flour, thousands of tons of grain, meat, butter, sugar burned.  “The streets that night ran with melted chocolate,” said one witness, “and the air was rich and sticky with the smell of burning sugar.”  What had been a severe situation was quickly becoming a critical one.

Winter approached, temperatures plummeted … To the east of the city, Lake Ladoga froze, and became an unlikely ‘Road of Life’.  Drivers braved thin ice and enemy bombardment to bring in supplies of food, fuel and medicine in convoys of trucks.  As crucial as these supplies were, they were only a fraction of what was desperately needed.

As winter progressed, hunger stalked the city.  Whatever could be eaten was consumed – livestock, pets, birds, vermin … Whatever could be burnt was used for firewood, and that included Tanya’s thick diary.  Along with every other book in the house, it was used for fuel.

The people of Leningrad, young and old, worked to help bolster the city’s defences.  All the Savichevs, except for the grandmother, worked – Mariya sewed uniforms; Nina helped with the construction of city defences; Zhenya worked at the munitions factory; Leka, unable to join the army because of his bad eyesight, worked at the Admiralty Plant; and 2 uncles – Vasya and Lesha – served in the anti-aircraft defence.  Tanya, 11 years old, dug trenches and helped put out firebombs.

One day, 24-year-old Nina failed to return home.  The family believed she had succumbed to the cold and hunger and died, like so many had already done.  Mariya gave Tanya a small notebook that had belonged to Nina, one that had been saved from the fire, so she would have something of her older sister’s. 

The first entry was dated December 28, and was about Zhenya.  Having worked 2 shifts in a row, she went to donate blood, but her body wasn’t strong enough.  She died at midday … Tanya wrote: ‘Zhenya died on 28th Dec. at 12.00 PM 1941’

Almost a month later, Tanya’s grandmother, Yevdokiya Grigorievna, died: ‘Grandma died on 25th Jan. 3 PM 1942’

The rest of the entries are equally spare, adding to their poignancy:

‘Leka died on 17th March at 5 AM 1942’

‘Uncle Vasya died on 13th Apr. at 2 o’clock after midnight 1942’

‘Uncle Lesha on 10th May at 4 PM 1942’

‘Mum on 13th May at 7.30 AM 1942’

‘Savichevs died.’

‘Everyone died.’

‘Only Tanya is left.’

In August 1942, special nursing brigades searching the city rescued about 140 children, including Tanya, and took them to the village of Krasny Bor.  Most, if not all, of the children survived.  But Tanya was too ill and weak, and she was taken to Shatkovsky Hospital.  She hung on for 2 years until she finally succumbed and died of tuberculosis on 1 July 1944, aged 14.

Tanya died wrongly believing she was the last Savichev left, for her brother and sister had both survived.  Though severely wounded, Mikhail was still alive.  Nina, unbeknownst to her family, had been whisked away to Lake Ladoga and hurriedly evacuated out of the city, with no chance to inform her family that she was being taken to safety.  After the war, she returned to Leningrad, to the family home.  There, amongst the rubble, she found the notebook, Tanya’s little diary.  She gave it to a journalist.  Today, it is on display in St. Petersburg, in the Museum of Leningrad History.

I don’t think it should matter that Tanya’s diary was not a carefully kept journal, or that it was not published.  I think it should be more widely known.  For me, those few stark entries speak volumes in conveying the horrors of war suffered by one family, and the civilian population as a whole.  As interested in history as I am, I have to admit that I am not as familiar with the way the war played out in Russia.  I was not aware just how long the Siege of Leningrad was, the suffering endured by the people still 'living' there … what it must have been like for a child growing up in such a place.

I cannot begin to imagine how Nina must have felt, finding the diary, and discovering the fate of her family, conveyed in the hand of her little sister.  As a mother, my heart goes out to that little girl, watching each member of her family die, watching her mother die … Tanya was alone, without her family, for almost 3 months before she was rescued.  I wonder if she lost the will to live, believing that “only Tanya is left.”