THE GREAT FAMINE IN UKRAINE 1932-33
The following eyewitness accounts were first published in the second volume of "The Black Deeds of the Kremlin: A White Book," published in 1955 by the Democratic Organization of Ukrainians Formerly Persecuted by the Soviet Regime. The first volume appeared in 1953. In many cases, eyewitnesses used their initials rather than their full names because they feared reprisals against family members still living in Ukraine or Eastern Europe. The acronym NKVD used in many of the accounts refers to the Soviet secret police as it was known before it became the KGB. The acronym GPU refers to the military intelligence service.
Deranged by hunger, mothers eat their children
Andriy Melezhyk recalled this story of a mother eating her child.
Luka Vasylyovich Bondar lived in Bilosivka in the district of Chornoukhy in the region of Poltava. He was 38 years old. He had a wife named Kulina and a 5-year-old daughter named Vaska. Before collectivization he owned five hectares of land, and therefore belonged to the class of poor peasant.
In March of 1933 Luka, although distended with hunger, went away to some distant villages in search of something to eat, and did not return. About a week later his wife Kulina died of starvation and the collective farm brigade removed her body to the cemetery.
After she was interred, the neighbors started wondering what had happened to her daughter Vaska, who was not known to have died. They entered Kulina's house and began to search for the child. In the oven they found a pot containing a boiled liver, heart and lungs. In the warming oven they found a large earthenware bowl filled with fresh salted meat, and in the cellar under a barrel they discovered a small hole in which a child's head, feet and hands were buried. It was the head of Kulina's little daughter, Vaska.
And there is also this horrific story. Nikifor Filimonovich Sviridenko, from the village of Kharkivtsi in the Pereyaslav district was the son of poor people who did not own any land before the revolution. After the revolution Nikifor was given a piece of land, married his Natalka, and set up housekeeping. He had two small children.
During the winter of 1932-33 the government, conducting its grain-garnering operations, relieved them of their last kernel of grain. Nikifor's relatives, like a great many other families, starved for some time and finally perished.
In February 1933, the neighbors noticed that for two or three days there had been no sign of life in Nikifor's dwelling. Accordingly, three women entered the house through the unlocked door. On the mud floor they saw Nikifor's corpse, while the dishevelled, hunger-distended Natalka lay nearby. No children were to be seen.
The neighbors asked Natalka how she was feeling, and she answered, "I'm hungry. There's an iron pot on the porch. Bring it in. It has food in it."
One of the women went out to the porch and saw the little fingers of a child protruding from a small pot standing on the floor. She screamed in fright. The other woman came out, and removed the whole tiny hand from the whitish liquid in the pot.
They began to question the woman, "Where are your children, Natalka?"
"They're on the porch," replied Natalka, whose reason had been unbalanced by hunger.
Nikifor and Natalka had murdered their children and eaten the first one, but had not yet begun on the second. Nikifor was dead, and Natalka was taken to jail after this, but she also died there three days later.
Proof as to how widespread cannibalism had been in Ukraine at that time can be furnished by such facts as these: in the Lukianovka jail in Kiev they had a separate building for "maneaters." Among the prisoners in the Solovky Islands in 1938 there were 325 cannibals of 1932-1933, of whom 75 were men and 250 women.
J.R. Muzyna, an eyewitness, now residing in Detroit, tells of the case mentioned by W.H. Chamberlin. "I witnessed the discovery of a slaughter-house of children in Poltava. It was a small building in the center of the city. Right next to it were: railroad cooperative store No. 1, a railroad first-aid station, a pharmacy and a building for the homeless. A band of criminals lured small children, killed them, salted the meat in a barrel and sold it. Refuse was dumped into an open sewer, whose banks were overgrown with high weeds, and they floated away. One day thousands gathered here to watch the GPU load a lot of children's clothes, shoes, schoolbags and other things on truck. They had been stored in the attic, the criminals probably having no way of getting rid of them. All attempts of the GPU to disperse the mob of unfortunate mothers, who had come to look for their lost children were of no avail. They had to resort to a threat of arms."
Heroic Jewish doctors, risking arrest, treat famine victims
The following was recalled by Natalka Zolotarevich. In 1933 the superintendent of the district clinical hospital in Chornoukhy was a Jew named Moisei Davidovych Fishman. He and his wife, Olga Volkova, who was likewise a physician, never lost the milk of human kindness during these difficult years, and instead of carrying out the orders of the authorities, they courageously ignored them and helped the starving populace.
At that time the authorities had forbidden doctors and hospitals to admit the starving for treatment if the diagnosed illness were "debility from hunger." One could get into a hospital only if one had some other illness. Nevertheless, the hospitals did feed the patients and would not let them die of hunger.
And so Dr. Fishman admitted people distended from hunger to his hospital at every possible opportunity, diagnosed their illness as due to some other cause and slowly restored them to a normal state. For his deeds, Dr. Fishman more than once had unpleasant interviews with the authorities, but being the good, authoritative physician he was, he did what his humane conscience prompted him to do, and defended himself against their attacks.
The memory of these two noble individuals, Dr. Fishman and Volkova, will long be cherished in the hearts of those people of the district whom they rescued from the famine.
Homeless, starving orphans jam cities in search of food
The plight of children during the famine was particularly pathetic. A foreign observer writes: "It was beyond my comprehension... at Kharkiv I saw a boy, wasted to a skeleton, lying in the middle of the street. A second boy was sitting near a keg of garbage picking egg-shells out of it. They were looking for edible remnants of food or fruit. They perished like wild beasts... When the famine began to mount, the parents in the villages used to take their children into the towns, where they left them in the hope that someone would have pity on them."
Prof. M.M. emphasizes that the "NKVD set up a huge concentration camp for children, ("barracks of death" it was called in whispers among the peasants) where about 10,000 children rounded up in the city of Kharkiv were placed. The mortality rate among them reached 40 percent."
Thousands of children came to the cities alone, without parents or adults, and various stages of nervous and psychic disorders were noticeable among them. Dr. M.M. quotes typical answers given by children put under observation in the psychiatric clinic during the famine. In reply to the question as to what had brought him to the city, a 7-year-old boy said: "Father died, mother swelled up and could not get out of bed. She said to me 'Go and look for bread yourself,' so I came to the city." An 8-year-old boy said: "Father and mother died, some brothers were left, but there was nothing to eat and I ran away from home." A boy, 9 years old, said: "Mother said, 'Save yourself, run to town.' I turned back twice; I could not bear to leave my mother, but she begged and cried, and I finally went for good." Another 8-year-old boy said: "Father and mother were lying all swollen, so I ran away from home." Children were often left lying on sheets near police stations.
Special trains secretly transport thousands of bodies
This is described by M.D. an engineer who worked on the railroads in the Northern Caucasus.
Early in 1933 from Kavkaz station in the Northern Caucasus, every morning at a fixed hour before dawn two mysterious trains would leave in the direction of Mineralni Vody and Rostov. The trains were empty and consisted of five to 10 freight cars each. Between two and four hours later the trains would return, stop for a certain time at a small way station, and then proceed on a dead-end spur towards a former ballast quarry. While the trains stopped in Kavkaz, or on a side track, all cars were locked, appeared loaded and were closely guarded by the NKVD.
Nobody paid any attention to the mysterious trains at first; I did not either. I worked there temporarily, being still a student of the Moscow Institute of Transportation. But one day, conductor Kh., who was a Communist called me quietly and took me to the trains, saying: "I want to show you what is in the cars." He opened the door of one car slightly, I looked in and almost swooned at the sight I saw. It was full of corpses, piled at random. The conductor later told me this story: "The station master had secret orders from his superiors to comply with the request of the local and railroad NKVD and to have ready every dawn two trains of empty freight cars. The crew of the trains was guarded by the NKVD. The trains went out to collect the corpses of peasants who had died from famine, and had been brought to railroad stations from nearby villages. Among the corpses were many persons still alive, who eventually died in the cars. The corpses were buried in the remote section beyond the quarries.
Compassion on a train: passengers collect food to feed hungry
The people themselves assumed an entirely different attitude towards those who suffered from hunger. This is what R.B., an agronomist who traveled through Ukraine from Kiev to Donbas in March of 1933, says on the subject.
Two peasant women boarded our car at the Hrebinka station. They looked frightened, but they got in with their children and stood in the corridor. This was an express train from Shepetivka to Baku, which made only the major stops. For that reason, and also because it had already been filled in Kiev, so far no starving peasants had boarded our car.
Although it was quite crowded, people in our compartment squeezed a little tighter and made room for the new passengers. They came in and sat down, holding their children's hands. They had no baggage, except a very small bundle in the hands of each woman. In reply to our questions they told us with some hesitation that they were going to the Donbas, where there were some people from their village, and they expected to get bread and possibly work with their aid, but they feared for the fate of their children.
A little boy, about 4 years old, who had been sitting in his mother's lap, now said "Mother, I want something to eat." The woman looked at him with pity and started untying her small bundle, from which she pulled out a piece of something black, resembling bread. She broke it up and divided it among the children.
The passengers now got busy, each pulled something out of his bag and gave it to them.
"Mother, look, real bread," cried the little girl, when she had a piece of standard rationed Soviet bread from one of the passengers. The children scrambled all over each other, as if each wanted the other's piece of bread. Their eyes were glowing, like those of hungry animals.
Somebody remarked that it was not good for them to eat a lot at first. The mothers then held the collected goods in their laps. Tears streamed down their faces; then the children cried, too, and all of the other women in the compartment. Many men turned their faces away, unable to conceal their tears. Some spell had been broken. That which hitherto people could only imagine now confronted them as grim reality.
Copyright © The Ukrainian Weekly, March 20, 1983, No. 12, Vol. LI
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