DAY OF MEMORY: Citizens of Ukraine share recollections of famines

Following are accounts of famines in Ukraine as given by witnesses who attended the Holodomor commemoration in Kyiv on November 26, officially designated as the Day of Memory for Victims of Famines and Political Repressions. The accounts are edited excerpts prepared by Zenon Zawada of The Ukrainian Weekly's Kyiv Press Bureau with the assistance of Yana Sedova.

Leonida Vovnenko, born in 1930, from Mohyliv Podilskyi, Vinnytsia Oblast, spoke first of the Great Famine of 1932-1933 and then the famine of 1947:

My mother didn't believe that I remembered this conversation. [My parents told me]: stay home and don't open the door. No matter what they say or offer, don't open the door. And I remember how women and men would stand beneath our windows and say, "Girl, open up! We've brought you a doll."

Why? Because there was cannibalism in the Vinnytsia region. I was twice pulled out of the hands of those who hunted children. Why did I stay at home alone? Because my father worked and my mother stood in a line at night to get "maloyem," a sort of bread, and nobody knew in what shop people would get it. My mother spent days waiting on lines to get this maloyem to feed us.

There were two of us: my brother went to school and I stayed home. My father swelled up [from hunger]. He was a self-taught artist. He worked in a government institution, however, we had neither money nor bread to survive.

One relative died in the morning and his wife died in the afternoon. Relatives would come together to attend a funeral. Mother said whoever she looked at, they all were so frightful - blue and green - and their faces were covered with moss. Our father, compared to them, was white and chubby. What saved us was that father got a job in the military and could work for food. Once a week, they let him go home and what he could save, he brought home.

When I was 12 years old, I heard my parents talk about the Famine. This happened during the war. People came together and dared to talk about the events they survived. They said that in Mohyliv market, women sold meat dishes. Our neighbor said: "I know taste of human meat, and it's very tasty." [He knew this because] he used to buy meat at the market from the same woman. And one day he showed up and she wasn't there. He asked, "Where is Kateryna?" And he was told that police took Kateryna away. He asked, "Why?" [They replied that] somebody ate [what she sold] and found half a human finger in the meat slop.

People would speak more about what difficult years they had, but nobody would speak about this aloud. When the war was over, I worked at school for 40 years, but nobody ever raised this subject. This topic was forbidden above all, and we were afraid to speak about it because we didn't know whether we would lose our jobs.

I also survived another famine in 1947. I remember this because I witnessed it; I was 17 years old. You know, people were so emaciated, so hungry and thin, and their faces had a green-gray color. We survived because we went to the Dnister River and gathered snails. Because of these snails, people survived until the summer.

At that time, we were given bread rations. As a schoolgirl, I received 500 grams of bread. Those who worked also got 500 grams of bread. Those who didn't work got 300 grams of bread. There was always a lack of bread. There were four of us; three of us brought 500 grams of bread each - almost two kilograms, yet it was gone all at once. We were very hungry.

I told [my children] about this. However. they were brought up in Soviet times and they perceived this as propaganda. For the history of our people and our nation, the [young generations] must know all its pages, both heroic and tragic. This [experience] formed our independence, the struggle for our state and our nation, because it was an artificial famine to destroy Ukrainians. I stress the word "Ukrainians" because in the town where I grew up, half or even 70 percent [of the population] were Jews and they didn't starve. None of them were begging for bread, none of them were swollen, and none among them in 1947 were so green and gray as Ukrainians. I am not afraid to speak about this. This is a cry from the heart that my parents gave me.

Ivan Fedyk, born 1938, from Pochaiv, Ternopil Oblast, remembered the famine of 1947 and offered his observations on the earlier Holodomor:

We had a family of 12 people. My father was drafted into the army. My mother was alone with us, 10 children. We had to eat something. We ate pigweed; we ate sorrel, nettles. That is how we survived - 10 children. I don't remember 1933, but I remember 1947 well. I was 9 years old, so I remember what I ate.

The Communists forbade everything. There was no literature, we didn't know our history, the real one that is. Now during these last 15 years, we started to learn our real history.

[As regards the Famine-Genocide], there was a harvest in Ukraine that year [1932] and, if you read history, [you know] the harvest was rich. People could have fed themselves with it. But bread was taken away from all people, even beans - everything that they had.

The world doesn't know that a father killed his son, a daughter killed her mother and [people] ate each other. This is what people were reduced to. And the U.N. doesn't want to acknowledge this. It was a real genocide. It was done wittingly so as to destroy the Ukrainian people.

Nadia Lebedieva, born in 1938, from Pidhirtsi, Kyiv Oblast, recalled what she had heard about the Famine-Genocide of 1932-1933:

I don't remember the Famine, but I never knew my grandfathers or grandmothers. We had a neighbor, and she had five children and a husband. Only Hrysha survived, and Baba Dunia. My father's brothers all died. And this is only in our family. Mother said there was a rich harvest. If somebody says that people didn't want to sow seeds, that's a lie.

My mother said that grandfather died on Easter Day, 1934. My grandfather lived until spring. There were green plants already, but it looked like he died from appendicitis.

[The Soviet authorities] took grain from a pile in a storage chamber. And in spring they burnt it - they poured kerosene and lit it on fire. People climbed that pile and began grasping at this grain because they were hungry, and they died at this pile.

That's what my mother, Halyna Ostapenko, told me.

When she told us these things, we didn't understand them and couldn't imagine them. And what did our schools offer? Devotion to communism, devotion to the Komsomol, and the [Communist] Party and so on. It was an absolute education devised for people not to remember their history.

Mother used to tell us this, but we never listened. Later, when people started to talk about it, I remembered. The Ukrainian people have this fear of famine that's reached a genetic level. People to this day say: "Whatever it is, let it never be worse, let it never be a famine."

Hanna Tarasenko, born in 1942, from Stovpiahy, Kyiv Oblast, spoke about what she knew of the Holodomor of 1932-1933:

My mother told me that her sister's family died - all five members. She died 15 years ago. When I started to understand everything, she told me. My sister, Hanna Bova, also died. My mother was given a piece of bread and they cooked a soup with one potato. She ate this soup and brought a piece of bread home for her mother to eat because my grandmother's feet swelled from starvation.

[The Communists] walked on the plots with iron pikes and drove them into the ground where the ground was smooth. There were potatoes there and they took them out.

It was genocide perpetrated against the Ukrainian people so as to destroy them. First of all, they didn't want people to live in the villages. There was private property there. People had their own land and they used to farm the land.

In 1932 or 1933, as my mother told me, people were forced to go to collective farms when they didn't want to go there of their own accord. The confrontation with people was so fierce that [the authorities] decided it would be better to exterminate them. All knew about this, but were afraid to tell. It was only about 10 or 15 years ago that people started to talk about this openly.

Tetiana Prykhodko, born in 1947, from Davydky, Zhytomyr Oblast, recalled what her mother had told her about the Famine-Genocide of 1932-1933:

My mother told me she was very small during the Famine. She spoke of how neighbors took everything from them and how people starved. Their neighbors had many children and they had food, but she had nothing to eat. Once the neighbor came into their house and there was something cooked in the oven. And he ate this food and didn't even give it to his children because he was so hungry. They didn't die from starvation, but it was very difficult during those times.

My mother and her siblings were orphans. There were three of them; they were in poor health. When they were children, they needed proper nutrition. Mother said they were sick for a long time; maybe that affected them so much that they died at a young age - less than 50 years old.

[People should remember] because if a man doesn't remember what was, he doesn't have a future. We must learn from our mistakes. History was my favorite subject, but there was nothing about famine. Even if it was mentioned, it was one sentence and it was attributed to a bad harvest. As we later found out, there was a harvest. All the history textbooks should be rewritten.

Copyright © The Ukrainian Weekly, December 11, 2005, No. 50, Vol. LXXIII

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