Famine commission's work will bear witness

David Roth, national ethnic liaison, American Jewish Committee.

Mr. Chairman, my name is David G. Roth, and I am the national ethnic liaison for the American Jewish Committee (AJC), this country's pioneer human-relations organization. Founded in 1906, the AJC combats bigotry, protects the civil and religious rights of Jews at home and abroad, and advances the cause of improved human relations for all people everywhere.

I am also representing the Illinois Consultation on Ethnicity in Education, of which I am staff coordinator. Organized in 1971, the Illinois Consultation is a coalition of human-service professionals and leaders of ethnic, minority and language groups. The consultation seeks to place ethnicity and pluralism in the mainstream of American life, and to promote expertise in coalition-building.

I will address the Illinois Consultation's interest and experience with the issue of the Ukrainian famine later in my testimony, but first I want to explain why the American Jewish Committee is urging support for House bill 4459.

In a recent letter to Rep. Dante B. Fascell, American Jewish Committee National President Howard I. Friedman called upon the Committee on Foreign Affairs to support the commission on the Ukraine famine act. "The work of the commission will call attention to a terrible tragedy in which 5 to 7 million Ukrainian people were systematically starved to death," noted Mr. Friedman. "This tragedy was compounded by the callous indifference of the free world to the fate of famine victims and the plight of the nation which suffered the loss of so many people."

Mr. Friedman then went on to offer three additional reasons for the American Jewish Committee's support of the famine act: first, while the primary obligation to keep alive the story of the famine rests with the Ukrainian American community, a tragedy of this magnitude has implications that go beyond the time in which it occurred and the people who were its primary victims. This is especially true where, as in this case, the United States and other free nations are dealing with the same government that committed the atrocities in Ukraine; that government refuses to be accountable for its behavior; and today, wherever that government encounters opposition to its authoritarian rule it behaves in much the same manner as it did in 1932-33.

Second, the story of the Nazi Holocaust is now being told by a federal council precisely because others were willing to join with the American Jewish community in a consensus around the need never to forget man's infinite ability to harm his fellow man.

And third, only a properly constituted public commission, with subpoena powers and access to U.S. records, can do a credible job of documenting the facts of Stalin's ruthless campaign against Ukraine and of the attendant cover-up of this crime.

As national ethnic liaison for the American Jewish Committee. I want to add the following comments to Mr. Friedman's points.

The famine act addresses a tragedy that occurred more than 50 years ago. At this time we still have access to famine survivors, but obviously their number is dwindling. If we don't act soon by giving them a chance to tell their stories on the record, we will compound the famine tragedy by handing the Soviets a second victory in the form of our silence. The survivors have authentic stories to tell, but those who follow will engage in folklore. While the survivors are factual and credible, folklore will prompt observers to quarrel about what actually happened. And when it is no longer possible to be confronted by credible witnesses to the crime, such fundamental questions as "What did the rest of the world know about the Soviet plans for Ukraine, and what was their reaction to this knowledge?" are not likely to be asked.

The documentation of the Soviets' ruthlessness may reside in diplomatic records stored in Washington and elsewhere, but the urgency to obtain and examine this information will perish with the survivors. So long as they are alive, the survivors remind us that we were once bystanders, and they challenge us not to be bystanders again.

There is a second challenge here. We are not dealing with a defeated government, as we were with Nazi Germany after World War II. The Soviet system survives to this day, and we do not have the same access to records that government officials, scholars and community leaders had after the defeat of Nazi Germany. Under these circumstances, the Ukrainian American community cannot (as any other ethnic American community could not) be expected to carry out an investigation on its own.

Even if it could conduct such an investigation, its report would be suspect. It is unreasonable to expect a people so beset by misfortune to be objective about the circumstances of their adversity as well as its implications for society. And therein lies a third challenge. The famine was both a crime against a particular people and a crime against humanity. Free and compassionate people have an obligation to close ranks, and to overcome narrow ethnocentrism and questions of convenience such as whether or not a formal inquiry into the famine will hamper our diplomats in conducting American foreign policy.

If we concede that other matters take precedence over systematic and deliberate efforts to destroy a people, then none of us has a future.

Perhaps Elie Wiesel, chairman of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council, put it best when he wrote that "We must listen to the voices of the survivors. What they have to say about their past constitutes the basis of our future: fanaticism Ieads to racism, racism to hate, hate to murder, and murder to the death of the species.

"The danger lies in forgetting. Forgetting, however, will not affect only the dead. Should it triumph, the ashes of yesterday will cover our hopes for tomorrow."

The story of the Ukraine famine must be told, and we must listen. In the Jewish tradition, true forgiveness must he earned by the sinner who, finding himself in the same or similar circumstances, changes his/her behavior by acting to protect or preserve life.

The free world continues to treat the Soviets as though they were children whose transgressions will either cease in the normal course of events, or must be tolerated in the pursuit of other, larger goals.

Free people have a responsibility to record and explain past events, which we call history. It is about time for the people of the United States to test the Soviets by confronting them with our awareness of their crimes in Ukraine. If we can't wage a war on their system, we can at least record their transgressions and challenge them to earn forgiveness.

At this point, let me change hats and address you now in my role as staff coordinator of the Illinois Consultation on Ethnicity in Education. The consultation is a coalition of national white ethnic, Black, Hispanic and Asian ethnic organizations.

I understand your concern that other ethnic, minority or religious groups may press Congress for special commissions to investigate the misfortunes that punctuate their histories. It is of course their right to do so, but tragedies like the Ukraine famine and the Jewish Holocaust stand apart from all but a few other events. If a standard is to be set by the famine act, it is certainly one that few groups, thank God, will be able to meet.

The famine and the Holocaust contain elements of absolute evil, courageous acts by individuals at great risk to their own lives, and the indifference of free and normally compassionate people. At the core of such calamities lies a war, waged by an overwhelmingly superior force, against a distinctive culture. Such a war is either an act of genocide or borders on genocide in a way that sets the story of these people apart from the general landscape of disaster.

If reasonable people examine these elements, they would see the outlines of a vast tragedy - not only for a particular group, but for the entire species.

In February 1982, the Illinois Consultation on Ethnicity in Education assembled a diverse group of 70 ethnic and minority leaders to commemorate the Ukraine famine.

This gathering constituted the largest meeting of community leaders in the consultation's 12-year history. Participants included business and civic leaders, government officials, artists, scholars, educators, communicators, lawyers and other professionals from Illinois' Assyrian, Black, Chinese, Greek, Estonian, Haitian, Italian, Japanese, Jewish, Korean, Latvian, Lithuanian, Mexican, Polish, Swedish, Puerto Rican and Ukrainian American communities. For many, it was their first encounter with the facts of the famine.

"This is the first time that Ukrainian Americans have reached out to other ethnic leaders to tell what it meant to have this terrible event happen to us," said Dr. Myron Kuropas, vice-president of the Ukrainian National Association.

After introducing his fellow Ukrainian Americans, Kuropas explained Stalin's efforts to crush Ukrainian resistance to his forced collectivization.

"In 1932, Stalin moved to collectivize the farms of Ukraine in order to finance the industrialization of the Soviet Union. Ukrainian farmers resisted, because they didn't want to give up their grain. To break the back of their resistance, Stalin exported much of the food produced in the region, causing 5 to 7 million Ukrainians to starve to death."

The world knew little of this famine at the time and knows even less of it today, noted Kuropas.

The American press corps in the Soviet Union during the 1930s must share part of the blame for this, Kuropas explained.

During the 1930s, many American writers and entertainers supported Stalin's regime. Because they were so taken with its ideology, they were able to overlook its grim realities, Kuropas argued. Under the sway of this misconception, some American journalists conspired with Soviet censors to cover up the horrors of the famine, rather than besmirch the reputation of the "great Soviet experiment."

"There is no actual starvation or death from starvation, but there is widespread mortality due to disease caused by malnutrition," wrote The New York Times on March 30, 1933. The Times reported this even though Moscow's foreign press corps had received photographs and sketches of the stacked bodies of Ukrainians who had starved to death, and had heard reports of Ukrainians reduced to eating dogs, the bark of trees and each other, Kuropas said.

In sharing this story with ethnic leaders, Chicago's Ukrainian Americans took an important step toward bringing this tragedy to the attention of society.

Edwin Cudecki, chairperson of the Illinois Consultation, urged his fellow leaders to write letters to John Flis, president of the Ukrainian National Association, indicating that they share in the sense of loss that Ukrainians feel on the 50th anniversary of the famine, and pledging to join with Ukrainian Americans and others to make the world aware of the great human tragedy that befell Ukraine.

Cudecki seemed to reflect the sentiment of the other ethnic leaders when he wrote, in his own letter to Flis, that, "by confronting all Americans with the knowledge of Stalin's man-made famine, Ukrainian Americans are committing an act of faith in themselves and in us. We recognize our obligation to join with you and your people in sharing this tragic aspect of your history, so that events like the famine never happen again. This is the lesson that we must teach each other from your history. I assure you that the Illinois Consultation will cooperate with Ukrainian Americans in telling the story of the famine."

In a special issue on the famine in March 1983, The Ukrainian Weekly printed two full pages of letters from ethnic and civic leaders in response to Cudecki's appeal.

In my view, these letters demonstrate the willingness of diverse groups to set aside sectarian differences and to meet the challenge that the famine presents to Americans and to other free people.

House bill 4459 is a response to that challenge. The work of the famine commission will unite diverse groups at home and abroad; and if the experience of the Holocaust Memorial Council is any barometer, the modest sums appropriated for the work of the commission will be exceeded by donations of time, money and material from private citizens and civic organizations.

And we can expect much more to come from the work of the commission. In 1976, President Gerald R. Ford issued a proclamation titled "An American Promise." It had the effect of rescinding or terminating President Roosevelt's infamous Executive Order 9066, which removed Japanese Americans from the West Coast in 1942 and placed them in internment camps euphemistically called "relocation centers."

President Ford's initiative, regarded by some as a bicentennial "gesture," but regarded by Japanese Americans as a measure of their identity and security as American citizens, resulted in a new awareness of the tragedy that the United States had inflicted on Japanese Americans.

Media coverage of Ford's act led to the production of television documentaries and dramas, commercial movies and books telling the story of a great national mistake.

Ethnic, religious, labor and civil liberties organizations, mostly silent in 1942, have reached out to Japanese Americans through their testimony at hearings convened throughout the country by the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians, and again through their support of the redress bill now before Congress. Schools now include a unit on the Japanese American tragedy in their courses, and drama groups perform plays on the internment.

In a similar fashion, the Holocaust Memorial Council offers the hope that succeeding generations of Americans will know the true story of how the Nazis set out to destroy every Jew in Europe and of the millions of other precious lives that were lost. Before the council began its work, a generation of young people had been weaned on television sit-com stereotypes of Nazis as simple-minded, even lovable buffoons; now, thanks to the rippling effects of the council's work, a new generation knows the truth - that the Nazis were barbarians whom we cannot forgive nor afford to forget.

The work of the Ukraine famine commission will do more than set the record straight. It will bear witness to a monumental crime and give victims a chance to tell their stories; it will give the rest of us a final chance to remember and an opportunity to act, where once we were bystanders to history; it will heal wounds and lower barriers between cultural groups by helping us all to focus on our obligation to the Ukrainian people, and to humanity; and finally, it will deny the Soviets the ultimate victory of our silence.

Copyright © The Ukrainian Weekly, October 14, 1984, No. 42, Vol. LII

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