Early in 1932 Mendel Osherowitch journeyed to Soviet Ukraine on assignment for Forverts (Forward), a Yiddish-language newspaper in New York City boasting a daily circulation of 275,000 copies. Born in Trostianets before the Great War, and speaking Yiddish, Ukrainian and Russian like a native, Osherowitch astutely recorded life under a Communist system he found markedly dysfunctional, sometimes criminal.
He documented a pervasive fear of the secret police, the GPU, recounting how parents were scared their children might betray them. He watched hordes of peasants clambering onto trains escaping to the cities in an anguished search for bread. He heard stories about rural uprisings brutally suppressed, saw how Western reporters self-sequestered in Moscow were failing to report what was happening and observed growing tensions between the beneficiaries of Bolshevik rule and those for whom it was an enervating nightmare.
What puzzled him most was how his beloved Ukraine, once Europe’s breadbasket, was being reduced to a land without bread:
“… Ukraine was already experiencing an appalling famine. Millions of people had been driven to the greatest desperation, to a life sometimes even worse than death. Plagues circulated in villages and in the towns. People died because they could no longer endure their terrible hunger. On many roads, covered with snow, lay dead horses, withered away from hunger. At the train stations, thousands and thousands of peasants wandered around, covered in bodily filth and dirt, waiting for trains they hoped would take them into the cities, where they could perhaps sell something, maybe get bread. The dreadful misery of these people, this harrowing state of affairs, tore at one’s heart.”
It got worse. In February and March 1932 the excess death rate was between 562 and 631 people a day. About a year later, when the Welsh journalist Gareth Jones got to the Ukrainian countryside, the excess death rate was around 9,000 people per day. More than 4 million Ukrainians starved to death between the autumn of 1932 and late spring of 1933, making the Holodomor one of the greatest genocides of the 20th century.
When Osherowitch’s book was published, in 1933, its reception was mixed, despite its favorable reporting on how many Jews benefitted from the Revolution. Pogroms were of the past. Previously unheard of educational prospects had opened for younger generations, with almost unrestricted social mobility, including opportunities for joining the Communist Party, even serving in the secret police. Yet Osherowitch also deplored the negative consequences of these erstwhile gains. Jewish religious life and cultural institutions were being undermined, the Yiddish press and arts reduced to little more than tools for propagating Soviet ideology. Repeatedly, Osherowitch listened to tales of woe, almost to the point of suffering complete mental exhaustion, as his people repeatedly implored him to alert relatives abroad to their plight, begged for aid. The only exceptions were younger Jews. They spoke mostly of the Revolution’s purported achievements, of how the Soviet Union was overtaking and would soon overpass the U.S.A., of an even-better future to come.
What separated his interlocutors in Soviet Ukraine from left-leaning Jews and fellow travelers in North America, who proved unwilling to credit Osherowitch’s account, was that the former admitted how harsh their present circumstances were – after all, Osherowitch was there among them, could see what their lives were truly like. Yet they swore their sacrifices were necessary offerings, expected from everyone caught up in the messianic chore of “building socialism.”
Portentous omens were appearing. The Jewish minority in rural areas was reduced by outmigration to the big cities. Many who left, including Osherowitch’s brother, Buzi, joined the dreaded GPU. His other brother, Daniel, stayed home, an armed enforcer of collectivization. While everyone in the countryside suffered, it was the Ukrainians who were fated to starve in their millions, the principal victims of the Holodomor. By the early winter of 1932 they had begun questioning whose side their Jewish neighbors were on. Osherowitch heard tell of how, in the town of Haisyn, Ukrainians had called upon local Jews to join them in breaking down the gates of a government granary. Those Jews were warned that their refusal would be remembered as a treachery and, sooner or later, avenged.
Osherowitch’s jeremiad was largely ignored. While Yiddish was not then an obscure language it was not accessible to most North Americans, not even to his fellow Ukrainian immigrants who would have found in his writing an independent confirmation of the intentionality behind this famine. Yet the Ukrainian diaspora never seems to have heard about what Osherowitch saw.
There were also famine deniers. As Malcolm Muggeridge, Rhea Clyman and others attempted to alert the world to what was going on, very powerful forces ranged up against them, stifling their reports by branding them alarmist, nothing but anti-Soviet propaganda. Adroitly, the principal obfuscator, Walter Duranty of The New York Times, buried the truth.
What of Mendel Osherowitch? He returned “a changed person… more politically aware,” published articles in Forverts, then a book, all a matter of record. But his words came out only in Yiddish. Why was his testimony not made available in English, to reach a broader audience? No record exists of him ever trying to reach beyond the borders of his kith and kin, among whom more than a few preferred to stay ignorant, indifferent, or even hostile to his cri de coeur.
Did Osherowitch fall into shocked silence after being denounced by his brothers or a Jewish diaspora still enthralled by Stalinism? Was he hushed after receiving news that family members had been repressed, fearing they would fare worse if he gave public witness? We will never know. All that is certain is that he did not. Though living in New York, and working for a socialist newspaper, Osherowitch remained conspicuously silent, even as Walter Duranty and Gareth Jones contested the truth of the famine on the pages of The New York Times. We do not know why. Nor can we judge him today for doing nothing more then.
Osherowitch left a remarkable chronicle of his journey across Soviet Ukraine. Related to only a chosen few it was a story about the mounting misery facing Jews and Gentiles, non-Ukrainians and Ukrainians, on the eve of a politically engineered famine that would consume millions of lives and whose consequences later overwhelmed many survivors – perpetrators, victims and bystanders alike. While Osherowitch’s words have finally reached a wider audience, we can only lament how they came to us too many decades too late.
Prof. Lubomyr Luciuk teaches at the Royal Military College of Canada and is editor of the first English-language edition of Mendel Osherowitch’s “How People Live in Soviet Russia” (Kashtan Press, 2020), translated from Yiddish by Sharon Power.