Leningrad (previously and once again known as St. Petersburg) during Hitler’s invasion in 1941 – 42. Furniture, park benches, wooden signs and floorboards of bombed out buildings provide fuel for fires to keep from freezing in the winter. With all its resources devoted to holding the Germans at bay and many supply lines cut, there is little food to go around. Desperation abounds as people are literally dying of hunger, the meager and inadequate rations not nearly sufficient to sustain them. Bread flour is stretched by adding sawdust. Anything remotely edible including pigeons, pets, and worse are consumed to stave off starvation. Crime is rampant and the police and Army are barely containing order. Welcome to The City of Thieves.
These bleak and at times gruesome conditions are the scenery behind which, Lev Beniov recounts one fateful week as a Jewish teenager in Piter (the local’s defiant nick-name for their city). His first person narrative is constructed from a series of interviews with his grandson David, a writer. It is never entirely clear whether this is in fact, the author David Benioff and whether any or all of the book actually happened. But more about that later.
During this week Lev is arrested and thrown in jail for a petty crime. Fearing certain execution (there were no provisions to be wasted on criminals) he and his Cossack cell mate Kolya are released from jail only after agreeing to help an officer in the secret police on a seemingly impossible task: find a dozen fresh eggs for his daughter’s wedding cake. This juxtaposition of desolation and humor are intertwined throughout The City of Thieves. Their search behind enemy lines outside Leningrad leads to adventure including a narrow escape with German soldiers, several altercations with Soviet partisans fighting to liberate their country, a genuine friendship between Lev and Kolya and Lev meeting the love of his life and eventual wife.
But in City of Thieves, Benioff brings us much more than a thrilling page turner. His descriptive narrative is rich, his characters believable. Lev and Kolya are in many ways polar opposites – a naïve shy intellectual vs. an outgoing, confident playboy, respectively. Anti-Semitism in the Soviet Union is only thinly veiled and thrown together by circumstance, they both learn to look beyond society’s stereotypes.
Lev tells David as he begins to recount his story that he doesn’t remember all the details and that David should just make up the rest. He is, after all, a writer. Whether City of Thieves is in fact, a true story, historical fiction, or somewhere in between, is a curiosity but of little concern. It is an exciting and important read.