A Girl’s Life in the Siege of Leningrad- The Russian Anne Frank

Russian women emerge from an air-raid shelter during the German blockade of Leningrad from 1941. Photo Alamy

There are too many interesting books that I will probably never have time to read. This is one of them.  So I will settle for a few reviews of the book.  The diary of Russian teenager Lena Mukhina was recently released.  She survived the horrors of the siege of Leningrad during WW2.  Over 700,000 civilians died in the battle. Some have called her the Russian Anne Frank.

Stalin said “a single death is a tragedy, a million deaths is a statistic.”  This statement sadly and accurately reflects how we respond to waves of human suffering expressed in massive statistics.  Its almost like 700,000 isn’t a real number for us.  It is too much to wrap our minds around. We get weary. We yawn. We move on.  As a result, biographies and diaries can help us see beyond the statistics to the depth of human tragedy.  An individual story can make atrocities in the abstract become concrete. 

A few things stood out from the review. The first is the bizarre nature of the propaganda pumped out by the Russians.  Socialism has been a catastrophic failure, but you would never know it from listening to socialists, even when the city is burning.

Lena Muchina [Photo: Ullstein Buchverlage]
Lena Muchina [Photo: Ullstein Buchverlage]
“By the time she returns to Leningrad at the end of August, the city is surrounded. On 8 September, the same day that the last road out of the city was captured, the Germans launched their first raid. Lena’s diary becomes a Blitz-like record of sirens, midnight dashes to a basement shelter and long, frightening hours spent listening to the thunder of explosions and anti-aircraft fire outside. Having earlier uncritically regurgitated Sovinform assurances that the Germans were surrendering en masse, she starts questioning government propaganda, scoffing at a radio report that fires are being ‘quickly extinguished’: ‘Quickly indeed, they were burning for five hours!’ News of the fall of Kiev shocks her into her only direct criticism of the leadership: ‘I’m no longer sure they’re not going to surrender Leningrad … So many loud words and speeches: Kiev and Leningrad are unassailable fortresses! … But now this.’

Also, I am struck by the horrors of the siege and the effect of starvation on the human soul. All of this is so foreign to me. I have a hard time imagining such cruelty and desperation because I have never experienced it. I can’t imagine being so hungry that eating wall paper paste would be a welcome treat.

“In the depths of the siege winter, many households disintegrated emotionally as well as physically. Lena’s held together. Her mother continued to walk to her workplace daily, bringing home and sharing whatever she was given for ‘lunch’. A windfall was sheets of carpenter’s glue, which could be boiled up and turned into edible jelly. Aka [her governess] queued at the bread shops, for hours at a time, in temperatures that dipped into the minus thirties. Both adults turned a blind eye when Lena hid the pathetic quantities of ‘meat jelly’ she brought home from school. By the end of the year, though, Aka was too weak to leave her bed. ‘Aka’, Lena records on 28 December,, ‘is just an extra mouth to feed. I don’t know how I can even bring myself to write such things. But my heart has turned to stone. The thought of it doesn’t upset me at all… If she is going to die I hope it happens after the 1st, so we’ll be able to get her ration card.’ Aka obliges, dying on New Year’s Day. A few weeks later Lena’s mother follows suit: a one-line entry for 8 February reads, ‘Mama died yesterday morning. I am all alone.’ From then on, Lena fights as much against despair as against hunger: ‘When I wake up in the morning, at first I can’t believe that Mama has really died … But then the awful reality sinks in. Mama has gone! Mama is no longer alive! … I feel like howling, screaming, banging my head against the wall and biting myself! How am I going to live without Mama?’


Source: Literary Review – Anna Reid on the Siege of Leningrad

Book Review- First Seals by Patrick O’Donnell


Seals book

The First Seals by Patrick K O’Donnell

I have read a number of books about special operations history, it is a kind of a hobby.  Some of these were personal memoirs and others books about unit histories.  The First Seals certainly ranks as one of my favorites.  It tells a believable story that is still amazing. And it does it without too much machismo or chest pounding.  It gives a broad history, but also focuses enough on specific individuals that you can understand the characters.  After reading this one, I want to dig into the rest of O’Donnell’s works.

If you like books about military history, read this book. 

If you like books about World War II, you will love the the back story. There are aspects of the war told in this book that I haven’t read anywhere else. Who knew that the Italians were the best in underwater demolition?

If you like books about sabotage, espionage, and partisan warfare, read this book.

If you like books about entrepreneurship, and people creating new things… If you like the books about people solving problems and taking risks, read this book.  Not all creative people work in business.

If you’re one of those people who likes fiction, but thinks that truth is often better than fiction,  you will enjoy this book.

Toward the end of the book when Lt. Taylor (one of the central figures in the story) is rescued from the Mauthausen concentration camp, I teared up. If I hand’t been driving, I would have cried. It is a great story not only of the units and tactics that would become the US Navy Seals, but a great example of American Heroism in the fight against fascism. What is amazing is that so many of the other prisoners sacrificed their lives to keep O’Donnell alive because they knew that the world would be more likely to believe an American officer.  Taylor would later serve a key role in the investigation and prosecution of Nazi war criminals.

I sound like a fan… I know.  But this was a truly great read. I consumed it on Audible.com and the reader was terrific as well. You can find it here 

You can watch original footage of Jack Taylor’s interview the the US forces liberated the Mauthausen Concentration Camp. He begins talking at 50 seconds into the video.

I first heard of the book in an article by O’Donnell in National Review that you can read here.  “Christmas with America’s First Seal in A Gestapo Prison.”


Seeing the Beauty of Christ Through Brokeness: Book Review

Beauty Brokenness

This is a short book (I read it in one day, a little more than an hour- I guess that makes it a booklet) and for only .99 on Kindle you can’t beat it. I would recommend the book to add to your perspective on pride, humility and suffering.

It is full of some golden observations on the need for humility in the Christian life, and especially in ministry. It speaks a note that is frequently missing, and one we would rather not face.  We would all like success without the pain of failure, suffering, and self-denial. But God uses these important teaching lessons to bring us the greatest joy and greatest usefulness. I love the emphasis in this book on the importance of character and humility over the value of personal skills and gifts.  The book is full of practical stories that flesh out his ideas, and these are helpful. He is also honest about his own pride and struggles and reveals how the Lord has humbled him. That is a rare trait as a leader. It makes me want to meet him!

I am a little at a loss about the title. The book isn’t really about the beauty of Christ. It is more like the value of brokenness as a prerequisite to usefulness in ministry. At least that was my perception.  I think this is important, because one of the most valuable things that happens in suffering is that the Lord is stripping away all of our false trusts in order to show us why Jesus Christ is better than those trusts.  There are hints of this in the book, but not as much about the beauty of Christ as I expected. It is possible to be stripped down and not be strengthened in Christ, and that is not at all a valuable thing. I am pretty sure the author would agree with me on this.

At a number of points he makes some statements that I disagree with, and those may reflect his theological perspective. I am not sure what his background is, so I can’t comment. But his emphasis on free will and talk about what God “cannot” do made me pause at several points. Also, the way he suggests that Jesus needed to be broken seems strange to me,  Jesus submitted to the cross because of our sin not because of any lack in himself.  His death is an example and a patter for us, but our need to be broken is because of our sin and self sufficiency.  His need to be broken was because we aren’t what we ought to be.

There is also an emphasis on our need to choose to be broken that seems to leave out an the miraculous movement of God to change the heart through the Holy Spirit apart from our permission.  Or perhaps I should say, that we come to the point of giving our permission because his grace has changed us, and only because of that miracle.  Of course he uses suffering as one of his tools, but he also uses the Holy Spirit blessing the word of God. There are many people that suffer and are still never broken. Others suffer and become humble and teachable. The difference is more than the will of man, it is the miraculous grace of God. Otherwise I could say that I am humble because of my choice and he is proud because he failed to make the choice that I made.

In spite of my reservations theologically, the book still has a lot of value. Thank you to the author  for writing and sharing your experience.