Two anniversary events fall on January 27: the final lift of the Siege of Leningrad in 1944 and the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp in 1945.  During the siege of Leningrad, which began on September 8, 1941, a blockade was deliberately imposed by the Nazi high command to wipe out the city and its population while conserving the Wermarcht’s troops and ammunition; an estimated one million civilians perished of starvation and cold. According to estimates of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, the Auschwitz-Birkenau complex of forced labor and mass killing was the site of 1.1 million murdered victims, including 960,000 Jews. These monumental events of more than 70 ago reflect humanity at its darkest hour, yet also attest to the incredible perseverance and dignity of the human spirit in the face of unspeakable horror. On this day we mourn with deep sorrow the millions who suffered and perished, and at the same time celebrate survival, freedom, and the ultimate victory of a brighter future. 

In commemoration of the January 27 anniversaries, we are featuring a selection of testimony excerpts and images that together narrate the inseparable fabric of sorrow and celebration. Our storytellers are all first person witnesses: liberators of Auschwitz-Birkenau, dumbfounded by the ghastly remains of unspeakable atrocities, who brought life and hope to inmates who had miraculously managed to hang on just long enough; survivors of the Leningrad blockade, civilians and veterans alike, who will never erase the soul-wrenching hunger that stomped out their humanity, who endured and became the ultimate victors over a barbaric enemy. The episodes selected will be proceeded by a brief biography of each storyteller to provide greater context of the moment shared.


Daily rations for soldiers during the Siege of Leningrad and acting as bait in an attempt to break through the blockade. 

Leizer Levikovich Selektor was born on April 16, 1921 in village Lekhvitsa, Ukraine. He graduated from a Jewish school and was accepted at the Leningrad Navy Academy. From November 1941 he participated in battles near Leningrad, including attempts to break the blockade in 1942. In June 1942 he was transferred to the 76mm artillery platoon, where he served until 1944, and then returned to marine units. Awarded with the Order of the Red Star, after the war Selektor worked at the Azerbaijan State Marine Academy, head of educational programming. He immigrated to the United States in 1993. 

Leizer Selektor with comrades near Svir River. 1942


On January 27, 1945 the survivors at Auschwitz – Birkenau did not have the strength to rejoice. 


Gennady Borisovich Polubanov was born on February 1, 1925 in Harbin, China. In 1930 his family emigrated to the Soviet Union. His father worked at the newspaper “Pravda” where the editor-in-chief was Nikolai Bukharin.  He was arrested in 1937 and executed in December the same year. Polubanov’s mother was arrested as the wife of an “enemy of the people,” and exiled to Kazakhstan. When war broke out, Polubanov evacuated to Ust-Kamengorsk, Kazakhstan, worked the night shift at a factory, attended school in daytime, and graduated high school. Drafted in 1943, Polubanov was enlisted in artillery school, and as the son of an “enemy of the people” was named a sergeant rather than a ranked officer. Fighting with the 2nd artillery regiment he participated in battles on the 2nd Baltics and 1st Ukrainian Fronts. On January 27, 19445 Polubanov entered the death camp Auschwitz, and then continued moving forward with his unit, capturing Breslau and crossing of the Oder River, and celebrating victory in Czechoslovakia. After the war Polubanov graduated from college, worked as a teacher, yet remained in exile. In 1995 he emigrated to Israel. Interview was recorded in Haifa on March 17, 2008. 


Dangerous hallucinations of the starving, and searching for classmates who stopped coming to school. 

Mark Espthein in the hospital after a serious head injury, with bandage around his head, and wearing a hospital robe. 1943. In total, Mark Epshtein was wounded five times during the war.

Mark Evgenevich Epshtein was born on March 28, 1924 in St. Petersburg. During the blockade, he graduated from high school in 1942 and worked as a mechanic-apprentice in the city’s sanitation department, earning a worker’s daily ration card of 250 g of bread. Drafted in August the same year, he served in sniper units, and was seriously wounded during the January 1943 attempt to break through the blockade. Awarded with the Order of Glory, Order of the Great Patriotic War and Medal of Courage. Wounded five times in total, Epshtein was demobilized in 1945, returned to Leningrad and graduated from the Institute of Cinema Engineering. Interviewed was recorded in St. Petersburg on September 21, 2008.


Entering Auschwitz a few hours after the camp was liberated. Fridner describes the survivors, and the stark remnants of nazi atrocities all around. 

Arkady Abramovich Fridner was born on October 25, 1914 in the village Mogilnoye, Kirovohrad oblast, Ukraine. Before the war he completed seven grades of school, graduated from a factory technical vocational school and began working as a welder. The regional Komsomol party office assigned Fridner to contribute to the youth publication, and he was later hired at Odessa’s main regional newspaper “Chernomorskaya Kommuna.” Immediately after the start of war, Fridner became a reporter at the army newspaper “Defender of the Motherland”. Beginning in 1943 Fridner became the assistant editor of the Temeryuk mountain rifle division newspaper. He regularly joined the troops on the front line to gather material for stories featuring individual soldiers and combat missions. Fridner arrived at Auschwitz-Birkenau Concentration Camp several hours after liberation, and wrote the first front-line newspaper article on the death camp, which appeared in “The Call of the Motherland.” Awarded with the Order of the Red Star, the Order of the Great Patriotic War, and with the medal “for Combat Merit,” Fridner celebrated Nazi Germany’s capitulation in Prague. After demobilization Fridner returned to Odessa and worked at “Chernomorskaya Kommuna” until retirement. Interview was recorded in St. Petersburg on October 2, 2008.


A celebration of gun fire in honor of breaking of the Siege of Leningrad on January 27, 1944

Lev Semenovich Kontorovich was born on September 20, 1928 in Nikolaev, Ukraine. His father was drafted and killed near Nevskaya Dubrovka. Lev remained in blockaded Leningrad. At the age of 13 he began working at a hospital, as a plumber apprentice. At the age of 16 he was transferred to a hospital in Poland. Drafted in 1948, Kontorovich cleared mines along the war path of the Volkhov Front, in the Karelian Isthumus, Petrodvorets, and Mga. Konotorivch immigrated to the US in 2002. Interview was recorded in Brighton, MA on August 6, 2008.


Inside Auschwitz-Birkenau on January 27, 1944, encounter with women survivors and administration of aid.

Congratulations on the 25th Anniversary of October (revolution). Your son and brother, Misha. 7/XI/42.

Congratulations on the 25th Anniversary of October (revolution). Your son and brother, Misha. 7/XI/42.

Moisey Solomonovich Malkis was born on July 31, 1924 in Odessa. After the start of war, he evacuated to Alma-Ata region and worked in a collective farm as a combine operator. Drafted in August 1942, Malkis was sent to the Leningrad Front. He joined the regiment reconnaissance unit on missions into enemy territory to capture informers. In January 1943 he participated in the first break of the blockade near Nevsky Dubrovki and in the storming of Shlisselburg. Wounded during a Sivyanovo Offensive reconnaissance mission, Malkis spent the next two months in a hospital and was then directed to special training for junior officers. Assigned to an air force regiment, he participated in the transport of combat supplies to the North Caucasus, Poland, Germany and Czechoslovakia. Immediately after the liberation of Auscwitz-Birkenau, Malkis was in charge of delivering medical supplies and mobile kitchens to the camp. After demobilization, Malkis graduated from medical school and worked as a stomatologist. In 1990 Malkis emigrated to Israel. Interview was recorded in Hadera, Israel on March 2, 2008. 


A workday during the Leningrad blockade.  

Polyak Leonard. photograph. 1941, Leningrad

Polyak Leonard. photograph. 1941, Leningrad

Leonard Simonovich Polyak was born on October 28, 1924 in Leningrad. Before the start of war he completed nine grades of school. In July 1941 Leonard Polyak's father, Simon, left home with the People's Militia to defend Leningrad and disappeared without a trace. Beginning in August 1941 Polyak worked as an electrician in a shipbuilding plant in the surrounded city. Drafted in August 1942, Polyak was sent to military training, radio communications, and was then deployed to serve in the 34th Communications Regiment of the 8th Army, Volkhov Front. Key responsibilities included providing communications between the 8th Army's artillery command battery and units constructing new communications junctures. He celebrated victory in Tallinn, Estonia. After demobilization, Polyak completed evening school at LITMO, the Leningrad Institute of Fine Mechanics and Optics, and worked at a plant in the ship-building industry that manufactured submarine equipment. In 1993 Polyak immigrated to the United States. Interview was recorded in Southfield, MI on April 28, 2009.


Remembering the nightmare of Auschwitz as atrocities continue in modern times.

Lev Borisovich Vilensky was born on May 24, 1926 in Leningrad, Russia. Enemy bombs hit home in blockaded Leningrad, killing his mother, and at the age of 16 he was orphaned. He volunteered for the army. Vilensky was wounded and contused five times, running back to the front lines after each. Fighting with the 60th Army he participated in the liberation of Auschwitz. Promoted to the rank of lieutenant, Vilensky served as machine gun platoon commander, and was awarded two Orders of the Great Patriotic War and an Order of the Red Star. Vilensky demobilized in 1946. Interview recorded in Potsdam, Germany, in 2005.