740

German troops and treads trampled fields of flowers on the outskirts of Leningrad. Panzer tanks pounded their way within 10km of the Russian city, and not one centimeter further, except for one. Stenciled on the sides of its turret were the numerals 740.

Every day and most nights the Wehrmacht bombarded the city. Its mission, seal off and starve the population of almost three million into surrender. Artillery shells screeched over Leningrad. Shockwaves rattled the refuge of a father, mother and their two young daughters. Big sister, twelve, was slim and straight, stood tall. She wrapped a blanket around little sister, ten, once a chunk, round and short.

The father handed little sister a food package from the United States. Canned goods spilled out on the basement floor, among then a flashlight. Attached to it was a note in a child’s handwriting, ‘Sally Crane, 7. I pray for you.’

Little sister, informed the light was meant for her, hung it on one side of her belt holding a skirt up over a thin body. On the other side of the belt, a coiled leash, to remind her parents she wanted a dog.

Big and little sister did everything together, including saving lives. Not teens as yet, they were assigned to the ration detail, assisting the elderly onto a sled with ropes and pulling them to a ration depot for two loaves of bread. The girls had a list of the needy in their blocks and a schedule for every day except Sunday. It was not like delivering the newspaper, a day missed could mean death.

Their father and mother were on a burial squad, in a makeshift cemetery. 6,000 a day, on average, died, difficult to find space, dig a grave, then the unbelievable, no ceremony, no flowers, no tears. Digging their last grave of the day, father told his wife, ‘I can finish up, why don’t you head home and check on the girls?’

The mother agreed, worried about her daughters. Today they would return through section 740, named after the numbers on a German tank; a marauder, which often broke through Soviet lines to shell inhabitants and rumble back behind its embankment.

Near home, the mother heard grinding and crashing, 740 on the loose. She ran towards the sounds and saw the tank crawling up a narrow street, crushing debris, headed towards a small occupied hotel. She searched the shadows, her children nowhere to be seen.

A point of light blinked at her. There, huddled in a doorway the girls by the sled, little sister with the flashlight. The Tiger tank swung its cannon towards its target while depressing the barrel to fire rounds into the base which could topple the structure, burying the sisters under bricks and mortar.

The mother ran into the street, directly in front of the tank, meters from the cannon. She waved her arms, turned and ran towards her daughters. If the tank fired, the shell would explode on her back. The mothered gathered little sister into one arm, and grasped big sister, who never let go of the sled ropes. The trio trotted directly back towards the tank and its cannon, they stopped. The mother looked up and called to a face under a helmet in an open hatch, “Danke.”

The hatch closed. The tank backed up to German lines. 740 never fired on Russian civilians again. All it took was one word.