Laurence Rees: On Sunday the 23 August 1943, as the Germans launched a huge bombing raid on Stalingrad, Valentina Krutov was out picking berries with her brother Yuri. Valentina was just 11 years old, her brother three years older.
Words of Valentina Krutova: The bombing started at ten in the morning and we immediately saw a big number of planes flying, and planes were dropping bombs on the centre of the city. Everything was ablaze. There was screaming. While an adult could have been able to understand that there was a war going on, what could we understand, being children? We were only scared that we would be killed.
Laurence Rees: A few days later the Germans fought their way into the district of Stalingrad in which Valentina lived with her brother, younger sister and sick Grandmother.
Words of Valentina Krutova: Germans often came into our house. They would open the door and look in. But as our granny was really rotting alive and the Germans were very much afraid of various diseases, they didn’t come very close. The Germans saw there were blisters on her body and little worms had appeared in her wounds. It smelt terrible.
Germans were holding almost the whole of the city. Maybe round about a 100 metres near the Volga bank was held by the Russians. I remember there was a man, and he was saying, ‘Leave the city in any fashion you can. You can cross the Volga.’ Because the Germans were close. But how could we leave when we had granny on our hands? We couldn’t leave her behind. How could we leave her and go? This is why we stayed, and afterwards we had nowhere to go.
When she died we carried her, we actually pulled her body on some piece of cloth into a trench and put the piece of cloth on her to protect her face from the earth, and then we buried her. We couldn’t find the place afterwards. It was very hard for us because we used to feel some support from her when she was alive. Although she was bedridden, she was with us, she was a living human being. We could talk to her. She would hug us and express her sympathy and this warmed our hearts. We didn’t feel too burdened by fear, although we were living on the territory occupied by the Germans. But when we lost her, it began to be emotionally very difficult for us. We had no one else to support us.
My brother used to go to a grain elevator where a small amount of grain remained, and he gave us a little bit every day and it helped us. He kept the bag between the window panes. One day a German officer and two soldiers – they were either Germans or Rumanians – came in and began demanding food. They wanted eggs and chicken and bread. And we had nothing. They began to search for food, and were clever enough to look between the window panes and they found that little bag with wheat. They wanted to shoot us down. My brother and I went down on our knees and pleaded with them not to kill us. The German officer was young. He began to say something to his soldiers. They took away the grain but they left us alone.
Laurence Rees: Despite the threat from the Germans, Valentina’s brother continued to search for food.
Words of Valentina Krutova: One day he climbed into the attic of one of the houses, where he found some either cowhide or horsehide. He didn’t know what to do with it. It was too hard to be cut with a knife, and he had to use a saw to cut it. I don’t know where he got the saw, but he sawed down this hide and then we made a fire on the piece of iron and we roasted this hide on the fire. We couldn’t chew it but we could suck it. And the salt that was in it somehow satisfied our hunger. This is how we survived. By the end, when we ran out of this food, we thought it was the end. We were just lying in bed without getting up. We had lice. I had lice in my hair– lice were very common, and my brother would comb my sister’s and my hair to remove the lice. My sister was only five. She was very weak and she didn’t get up. My brother was looking after us.
We were sleeping one night and we woke up because of a terrible noise. All three of us came up to the window. We were looking out of the window and we could see so many explosions that we couldn’t tell whose artillery was firing. Then we could hear an explosion in the corridor and fragments wounded the three of us. I was wounded above the knee. My sister was wounded under the knees. And it made life quite impossible for us because we couldn’t even go out any longer. My brother was wounded in a calf and immediately after he was wounded the rubber shoe he was wearing got filled with blood. But he got some bandages and bound his wound, and then he bound my sister’s and my wounds. But several days later, when he wanted to put on a new bandage, he couldn’t remove the old bandage. Then he got and melted some snow, which helped him to remove my bandage, he saw that there were some worms. He brought some more snow and gave it to me and all this snow helped me to cope with this sore, with this inflammation. My brother and I were the worst hit. We had really bad inflammation. My old wounds keep aching.
Laurence Rees: At last, towards the end of January 1943, Red Army soldiers began fighting their way into the streets around them.
Words of Valentina Krutova: My brother was lying on one side of the bed, I was lying on the other side and my young sister was between us. The only thought we had was where to find something to eat. We were so hungry. I can’t imagine now myself what I lived through. We simply stayed in bed and were lying all day silently, clinging to each other. Trying to keep our sister warm. We would turn our faces to her and press ourselves to her body.
And we could hear somebody shouting. ‘Why are you knocking on the door? Don’t knock. Maybe there are Germans inside, they’ll shoot us. Throw the grenade!’ But one soldier did open the door, and to start with they couldn’t make out who was inside. But we began to scream: ‘Don’t kill us! We’re Russians!’ The solder who was first to come in shouted ‘There are children here!’ When they came in and saw us, they burst out crying.