Stalingrad: Letters from the Volga

Written by Antonio Gil Daniel Ortega
Review by Pamela Schoenewaldt

This (very) graphic novel immerses the reader in the horrific seven months’ siege of Stalingrad, from August 1942 to February 1943, a bloodbath that claimed two million lives, including 40,000 civilians. The attacking German Wehrmacht and defending Soviet armies endured constant bombardment, savage combat, brutal cold, starvation, rampant disease, and unending terror. Soldiers lived like rats, were hunted like rats, and ultimately eaten by rats. Gil and Ortega show both sides’ desperate strategies, with Soviet dialogue in Russian with translations. Interspersed are German soldiers’ heart-rending letters home as they realize Hitler’s manic folly. “One last hug and a silent kiss to you,” writes a dying Josef to his wife.

A detailed, never academic chronology, vivid, visceral images, and often crude dialogue create a wrenching, finely researched replication of the soldiers’ experience.

While Gil and Ortega do not strongly develop personalities on either side, sympathies are with the German troops, the Soviets generally characterized as pitiless, cruel, and vicious. (One could note that the Soviets were defending their homeland and the atrocities were equally distributed.) The unimaginable suffering of civilians besieged in a city of rubble is covered as a sideline.

Readers will want to consult a large-scale map (the book doesn’t have one) for orientation, and to see why the 1,300-mile supply line failed the German Wehrmacht, with rations ultimately reduced to 100 grams of bread a day.

Gil and Ortega declare their intention to make this book “an instrument of reflection” so the horror of Stalingrad “will never fall into the abyss of the forgotten.” They have succeeded. Readers will not leave this graphic novel unshaken. For young readers, especially, Stalingrad: Letters from the Volga is a powerful antidote to the glorification of war.