Thursday, April 26, 2012

Review of The Ordeal of the Hermitage: The Siege of Leningrad 1941-1944

It took a long time to find a copy of The Ordeal of the Hermitage: The Siege of Leningrad 1941-1944 (text by Sergie Varshavsky and Boris Rest) at a reasonable price, but the search was well worth it, even if I had to give it away as a Christmas gift.  I have visited the Hermitage before, so the history of his magnificent museum holds great interest for me, especially the era of Catherine the Great, who procured many pieces of art still on display there (so I borrowed this book back from the giftee as soon as possible).   It focuses on the period during World War II when the Nazi army surrounded St. Petersburg (then Leningrad) and laid siege to the city.

The museum curators and staff had just days to pack up and ship millions of items to safety at a secure location deep inside the USSR.  Citizens turned out to help in droves to help preserve their precious legacy.  In one case, the workers from a pottery factor lent their expertise in handling fragile items by packing priceless artifacts such as China dishes, porcelain plates and glass figurines.

The book follows the staff as they remained holed up in the mostly empty museum, with a couple thousand refuges from the city.  The curator gave his staff the opportunity to leave as the Nazi army approached but most opted to stay.  With the stranglehold by the German forces, food rations were cut several times as Leningrad citizens starved but held out for three winters.  The head of the museum continued his daily rounds, checking constantly to see if enemy shells had caused any damage. 

The advancing army did extensive damage but nature did a number on the museum herself.  One unseasonably wet spring endangered artifacts such as cushions and furniture with mold.  Shelling had opened several holes in the roofs and walls that although didn’t do much harm to the building, but allowed rain, snow and pervading humidity to invade.

The book contains a wealth of pictures mainly of the exhibits but the most poignant are those taken of the Hermitage during the siege.  Black and white photos show the stark realization of the toll the Nazis took, not only on the Hermitage but of the city itself.  One horrid photo shows the beautiful manor house at Peterhof, with golden spires, reduced to a blackened, burnt out shell, courtesy of Hitler.

Translated into English from the original Russian, the translators may have taken some creative liberties with the vivid descriptors, but they convey without language barriers the excitement and joy of the Hermitage staff and the citizens of Leningrad when their beloved treasures come home after several years in exile.

I wish I had read this book before visiting the Hermitage but even after the fact, it’s still a great read. 

For WWII history buffs, it’s a must read.

No comments: