Many Leningraders, Reid tells us, believed for a while that a German victory would bring liberation; some Russians in the city served the Germans by radio as spies and informers. But because the Germans never entered Leningrad, the history of the city is one of hunger and triumph rather than hunger and disgrace. This was not, however, typical. In starving areas that were under complete German control, where Germans could enter and recruit, collaboration could mean food and therefore life. Most of the Soviet citizens who were starved by the Germans were captured Red Army soldiers, held in camps where the Germans could recruit. In occupied Lithuania alone, according to Dieckmann, 170,000 prisoners of war were killed in these camps, a figure slightly lower than the number of Lithuanian Jewish victims of the Holocaust. All in all the Germans killed about 3.1 million Soviet citizens held in camps, four times as many as the dead in Leningrad. Some 363,000 German soldiers perished in Soviet captivity.5
For the starving prisoners of war, as for the besieged of Leningrad, early 1942 was a turning point. Lake Ladoga, east of Leningrad, froze to sufficient thickness to allow the Soviets to deliver food and supplies. The Germans, desperate for labor in a long war, recruited in earnest from the POW camps. They made their own selections among captured Soviet citizens by ethnicity: ethnic Germans first, then Ukrainians because Ukrainians were known to have suffered from Soviet starvation policies. In practice the Germans had difficulty making these distinctions, and they recruited people from most major Soviet nationalities, including of course Russians. (The Germans did their best not to recruit Jews, although a few slipped by; the policy for captured Soviet Jewish soldiers was that they be shot after a “medical examination.”) As these Soviet citizens entered the service of the Germans in early 1942, some were put to work at the sites of the new technology of the Final Solution, the gas chambers of Bełżec, Sobibór, and Treblinka.
Early 1942 was a turning point for Jews as well, a turn for the worse. The Holocaust spread from the occupied Baltic states and the occupied Soviet Union to occupied Poland. Hungry Warsaw Jews were sent to Treblinka to die in its gas chambers in the summer of 1942. About half of the victims of the Holocaust were gassed.
When it became clear that the Red Army would liberate Treblinka, the Germans ordered that it be transformed into a farm, with the Jews’ ashes and bones as the fertilizer. When the Red Army liberated Treblinka, the Soviet writer Vasily Grossman was there to record what he saw. His report “The Hell of Treblinka,” written in 1944, is extraordinarily moving and accurate (and, where necessary, annotated in The Road). But there were things he knew but could not say because of Soviet censorship: local Poles had dug the fields of Treblinka looking for Jewish wealth; guards at Treblinka had been Soviet citizens. Grossman wrote of the theoretical possibility that gas chambers could extinguish every human being on earth. But he also must have known that, in the contest between Berlin and Moscow for the lands between them, from Leningrad to Ukraine, more people were killed by starvation than by any other method.
5 Rüdiger Overmans, Deutsche militärische Verluste im Zweiten Weltkrieg (Munich: Oldenbourg, 1999), p. 286. ↩
Rüdiger Overmans, Deutsche militärische Verluste im Zweiten Weltkrieg (Munich: Oldenbourg, 1999), p. 286. ↩