Gregory is an eighty-two-year-old Russian Jewish man who works across the aisle from me at a nonprofit community center in Palo Alto. I’d always been curious about why he was still working. When I asked him for an interview, he said he wasn’t very interesting.
We eventually sat down to talk, and our conversation led to the Leningrad Blockade during World War II. This is an excerpt of a longer conversation. Thanks to my colleague Luba for translation assistance.
Gregory: At the time the fascists started to bomb Leningrad, someone from the Russian military came to our school and asked for a group of very active people. They chose me to organize a special team of kids to monitor the roofs of buildings. We sat there all night. They gave us a special tool to pick up the firebombs that were dropped and a sand box where we would cover them with sand to put the fire out.
Rumpus: Did you ever see one explode?
Gregory: No, they were not explosives. They were firebombs that would cause a fire on the rooftops.
Rumpus: How old were you?
Gregory: Thirteen years old. There were around twelve children on my team, boys and girls. We had to sit very close to each other on the roof, and I liked to sit especially close to the girls.
The winter came very early, in the beginning of October. It started to snow. A military commander asked my team to help with the next project—delivering ammunition to the canons they had set up inside Leningrad. We used sleds to transport the cannonballs. It took two boys to move each sled. We would spend half the day moving ammunition to the canons.
All the people in Leningrad at this time were given a quarter pound of bread each day, but my team received half a pound of bread each because we were working. The Russian military named us “Sons of the Brigade.”
Our next project after ammunition delivery was to help find corpses. We knew the houses better than the military, so we showed them where people were living. We knocked on the door, and if no one answered, we went inside to look for corpses. When we found them, the military sent us away. They took the bodies away on sleds.
Rumpus: How long did you work for the Russian military?
Gregory: For 700 days. I think my childhood ended when the Blockade started.