January 5, 2018

A first in California: symposium commemorates the Holodomor


Ven Saranin

Participants of the symposium on the Holodomor at California State University, Fresno.

FRESNO, Calif. – Quoting the Book of Matthew, the Rev. Gregory Zubacz of the Ukrainian Catholic Mission Church in Fresno, Calif., read the following beatitude: “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be satisfied.”

First in Ukrainian, then in English, the Rev. Zubacz stated, “Our hunger and thirst for the truth is why we have come together today, to demonstrate that the truth can never remain hidden, and to tell our story to the world. And by gathering here and doing so, we are plowing a field of justice in the world so that the seeds of true peace may grow for future generations to be nourished with. Where once was sown a bitter harvest may we now sow the seeds of hope so that those who hunger and thirst for righteousness may be satisfied.”

With his homily on the importance of truth the Rev. Zubacz set the tone for the first symposium on the Holodomor to be held in California.

Ukrainians as a community share a common fate – the historical trauma of the Holodomor – the genocidal Famine of 1932-1933. To heal this trauma, they sing songs and tell stories. At the symposium opening, Ola Herasymenko-Oliynyk sang two epic songs “Duma about the Year 1933” and “Oh, Sorrow, Sorrow throughout Ukraine,” accompanying herself on the bandura. George Wyhinny gave a dramatic reading in English and Ukrainian of a poem by Dmytro Pavlychko, which Mr. Wyhinny himself translated, “Requiem for Those Who Died of Hunger in 1921-1922, 1932-1933, 1946-1947.” Some of the listeners could not restrain their tears.

Laysa Soriano, a freshman, majoring in mass communication and journalism at California State University, Fresno, admitted that she was not prepared to witness such powerful poetry. “Just like with the Ukrainian songs, it was both beautiful and powerful. I felt chills go down my spine as he recited the poem. I was able to fully grasp the famine not just from a scholarly, educational perspective, but on a more personal level,” said Ms. Soriano.

The book exhibit about the Holodomor at the Henry Madden Library at Fresno State. 

The book exhibit about the Holodomor at the Henry Madden Library at Fresno State. 

For over 80 years the genocidal famine was hardly spoken or written about inside or outside Ukraine. The daughter of Holodomor survivors, Luda Wussek, president of Branch 111 of the Ukrainian National Women’s League of America, has made it her life’s mission to keep the memory of the tragedy alive and to pass it on to succeeding generations. Thus, the UNWLA partnered with the Department of History at California State University, Fresno, to organize the symposium under the theme “Hunger for Truth: Illuminating the Hidden History of the Holodomor, 1932-1933.”

On Thursday, October 5, 2017, 70 participants gathered for an opening ceremony; half of them were students from two universities, Fresno State and Fresno Pacific, and two colleges, Fresno City College and Clovis Community College.

The next day, the screening of the first English-language motion picture “Bitter Harvest” and discussion with the film director and producer George Mendeluk attracted nearly 300 members of the community. Prior to the film screening, the film director also met with a class of students majoring in mass communication and journalism at Fresno State. Among the audience were members of the Ukrainian communities from Sacramento, San Francisco and Los Angeles.

Ukraine’s consul in San Francisco, Oleksander Krotenko, welcomed everyone to the symposium and relayed the Ukrainian government’s best wishes. Dr. Oleh Weres spoke about his work with the U.S. Commission on the Ukraine Famine of which Dr. James E. Mace was executive director. Luba Poniatyszyn Keske, in her opening remarks brought to the attention of the audience the fact that the symposium was the first of its kind in the state of California. She spoke about the role of the UNWLA in fighting the “conspiracy of silence” surrounding the man-made famine in Ukraine. Dr. Lubow Jowa added her mother’s story of surviving the Famine to the eyewitness testimonies collected by Ms. Keske.

The lecturers were dynamic and the material fascinating, if tragic, and the Q&A sessions were exhaustive. Dr. Lubomyr Luciuk of the Royal Military College of Canada started out the first session with his passionate “Reflections on the Great Famine of 1932-1933 in Soviet Ukraine.” He spoke of the major truth tellers and deniers.

Then, Dr. Oleh Wolowyna of the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill presented his talk on “Regional Dynamics of Holodomor Losses in Ukraine and Comparative Analysis with 1932-1934 Famine Losses in Russia.” Using data from censuses, his team of demographers put the number of victims at 3.9 million direct deaths due to starvation.

His sharpest critic, Prof. Volodymyr Serhiychuk, a historian from Taras Shevchenko National University of Kyiv, who flew all the way from Ukraine to join the debate with his North American colleagues, questioned the validity of the data from the two Soviet censuses. In his lecture, “Holodomor of 1932-1933 as Ukrainian Genocide: Legal Definition, the Number of Victims,” Prof. Serhiychuk said that the number of victims could be at least 7 million, if not more, based on newly unearthed archival documents. The debates were quite heated and continued even after the closing of the sessions.

The highlight of the symposium was a keynote address, “Remembering the Holodomor: Lemkin’s Words and Other Lessons for Peace,” by Dr. Douglas Irvin-Erickson of the George Mason University, transmitted via Skype. He examined in fine detail Raphael Lemkin’s theory of genocide, and the case of genocide against the Ukrainians in particular. He explained that, although the Ukrainian case represents the highest stage of genocide, it does not fall under the legal definition of the term. He reminded the audience about important lessons for how to proceed if we want our commemoration and memorialization of the atrocity to become a monument for peace.

Dr. Gennadi Poberezny of the Harvard Ukrainian Research Institute introduced the Great Famine Project, a core part of the MAPA: Digital Atlas of Ukraine developed at Harvard. He demonstrated major interactive features of the Holodomor Atlas, focusing on the new findings that came to light in the process of its making.

Valentina Kuryliw of the Holodomor Research and Education Consortium at the University of Alberta’s Canadian Institute of Ukrainian Studies conducted a master class for college and university faculty titled “Teaching the Holodomor in the 21st Century: Teaching Critical and Historical Thinking Skills.” She has been developing this innovative methodology for teaching the Holodomor for more than a decade in Canada, where the topic is mandatory in school curricula in five provinces.

The climax of the symposium was the screening of “Bitter Harvest,” presented to the audience by its director and producer, Mr. Mendeluk. The auditorium was filled to capacity. The director reached everyone with his description of growing up listening to his family’s stories of how they survived the Holodomor and the terrible pain of those times. After the film, there was an endless stream of questions which the director answered with ease, intelligence and humor. Dr. Mary Husain, director of the CineCulture Film Series, fought many dragons to bring Mr. Mendeluk to campus to meet with students and Fresno community, most of whom had never heard of this tragedy in Ukraine.

The Organizing Committee members, Ms. Wussek, Olenka Krupa, Ms. Keske, Olga Starow and Victoria Malko of the Ukrainian National Women’s League of America Branch 111 and the Steel Film LLC team of Iryna Korotun, Andriy Korotun and Ven Saranin all donated their time and effort to make the symposium a success.

The symposium was made possible with the support of the dean of the College of Social Sciences, Michelle DenBeste, who recognized the importance of public discussions about the Holodomor. Generous community sponsors included the headquarters of the Ukrainian National Women’s League of America in New York (President Marianna Zajac), the Ukrainian Culture Center of Los Angeles (President Paul Budilo), the Ukrainian Genocide Famine Foundation-U.S.A. (President Nicholas Kotcherha), the Ukrainian Heritage Club of Northern California (Dr. Jowa, president), the Ukrainian American Coordinating Council (Vice-President Maria Tscherepenko), the Millstones of History (Ms. Malko, executive director) and Steel Film LLC (Ms. Korotun, producer). Charitable contributions were also provided by the House of Ukraine in San Diego, the Kniazicky family and the Rev. Alexander Limonchenko, whose family also was a victim of the Holodomor, the family of Irko Prokopovich, Lucy Holzel, Ms. Keske, Lubomyr Soluk and Adrian Kuzich, as well as the members of the Ukrainian Art Center of Los Angeles (President Daria Chaikovsky).

Director/producer George Mendeluk with organizers and audience members after the screening of “Bitter Harvest” at Fresno State.

Ven Saranin

Director/producer George Mendeluk with organizers and audience members after the screening of “Bitter Harvest” at Fresno State.

Ukrainian community organizations from California pulled their resources together to acquaint the American public not only with history but also with some of the elements of Ukrainian culture. Opera singer Ms. Tscherepenko sang “The Candle” after the screening of the documentary “Genocide Revealed,” and Ivanna Taratula-Filipenko added the final touch by singing “The Spring of 1933” after the screening of the motion picture “Bitter Harvest.”

In addition, there was a display of posters graciously loaned by Ms. Keske, chronicling the Holodomor. The posters were designed by the International Foundation Ukraine 3000, chaired by Kateryna Yushchenko. There was also a display of books about the Holodomor from the Fresno State’s Henry Madden Library collection and a private exhibit of rare first editions collected by Dr. Jowa. Both exhibits adorned the lecture auditorium, richly decorated with embroidered ritual cloths (rushnyky) in red and black, the symbols of love and sorrow.

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Have the organizers of the symposium accomplished their goals?

First of all, the symposium helped to clarify the concept of genocide and its application to the Ukrainian case and reopened a scholarly debate on validity of different methodological approaches to determining the number of victims of the Holodomor.

Second, the symposium has acquainted college and university faculty with an innovative methodology for teaching this subject as part of the curriculum.

Finally, the symposium has raised awareness among the public about the terrible tragedy of the Ukrainian people and the consequences of this tragedy.

Ms. Soriano, a journalism student at Fresno State, noted that “terrible events should not just be remembered with a couple of sentences in a thick history textbook. We need to remember things with stories, we have to record accounts from many perspectives, we need to preserve the cultural significance of all events. This is why I enjoyed attending the symposium, it was not purely educational, but also personally moving.”

“That I had never heard about the Holodomor in my entire life just goes to show how far people have gone to cover it up,” noted Anayeli Hernandez Rojas. She had heard only about the Holocaust and the Armenian genocide. “I can recall learning something about Joseph Stalin taking food from his people, but that is it,” added Ms. Rojas.

Jordan Cordova, a freshman in the Department of Criminology, was shocked about the amount of evidence countries knew about the genocide but tried to hide it, “Countries, such as Britain and the United States, knew about the famine, but hid it because they didn’t want to hurt relations with the Soviet Union. There was no recognition, and it was simply covered up. It is sad that countries care more about their political relations rather than 4 million people dying. It is also sad to see countries call what happened not a genocide but just a tragedy… The Ukraine genocide needs to be talked about and not covered up anymore in the 21st century.”

To Justine Sasia, a business major, hearing about the Holodomor for the first time was “absolutely mind-blowing.” “How could someone induce a famine to starve their own people? Even worse than that, how come none of this is taught in our education system?… These questions can be pondered for hours; however, one thing that definitely needs to be changed is that the Ukrainian Genocide should be incorporated into the standard United States kindergarten through 12th grade curriculum.” The student expressed hope that in the future people will learn about this genocide and recognize it as such. “The knowledge of this past event will help future generations recognize the early signs and prevent something this horrible from happening again.”

Dr. Victoria Malko is coordinator of the Holodomor Education Program, Department of History, California State University, Fresno (vmalko@csufresno.edu).