March 20, 1983

Eyewitness account. The horror of the famine


The following eyewitness account of the Great Famine was given by Ivan Klymko and recorded by Dmytro Solovey in 1949.

It was published in “The Golgotha of Ukraine,” a 43-page booklet published in 1953 by the Ukrainian Congress Committee of America.

If I were to merely note here that 60 percent of the populace of the Lukashiv Grange starved to death in 1933, the bare figure itself would not give any idea of what truly transpired. Therefore, to give the reader some idea of the horror of those days, I shall by way of example give the case history of the families on our grange. No one among them knew whether he would survive the famine or not. For that matter, neither did I.

VASYL LUCHKO: Back in 1931 he bought half of my house and lived there. He was a member of the kolhosp (collective farm). In 1933 his whole family consisted of five persons: he, his wife, daughter, 11 years old, and two sons, 6 and 4, respectively. His wife, Sanka, was an activist. During the famine she made trips either to Myrhorod or Poltava for food, and sometimes managed to return with some. Vasyl worked in the kolhops, but gradually, from lack of food, grew too weak to keep on working.

One day, it was either late in March or early in April, when the farms were already being plowed, I noticed that soon after Vasyl had gone to work he returned home. His wife and children were not at home then, as they had gone foraging for food. About an hour and a half later, my niece, 4, came running over and said to me:

“Please take me over to Grandfather Vasyl. They say Mikolka had died and I want to take a look.”

Mikolka was the youngest son of Vasyl. Although I had a bad headache, I took her over. Entering the house and opening the door to the room, I was momentarily blinded by the sun shining in from the window opposite us. Holding my niece with my right hand, I reached over with my left hand for the doorpost. Instead I touched something soft. “What’s this?,” flashed through my mind, and opening my eyes, I raised my head to look. What I saw halted me in my tracks. Hanging from the doorpost by a rope was Vasyl’s older boy, 6. His tongue was hanging out, and saliva was dripping down on his chest. In sudden fright at the sight I dashed outside, dragging my niece along with me. The first thought that crossed my mind was that Vasyl had gone crazy and hung his son as a result, and maybe he might murder us also.

Having led the child a safe distance away, I cautiously returned back to the house. Opening the door I called out:

“Vasyl! Are you home? Where are you?”

Vasyl came into the room from the adjoining one. I again retreated outside, not knowing what to expect from him. When he appeared on the stoop, I asked him:

“What are you doing Vasyl?”

He replied simply:

“I hung my boy.”

“And where’s the other one?”

“He’s in the storeroom. I hung him.”

“Why did you do it?”

“Because I have nothing to eat. Everytime Sanka comes with some bread she gives it to the children. Now that the two of them are gone, she will have to give me some…But don’t say a word about this, Ivan! Please don’t say a word about this!…”

I immediately perceived that Vasyl had truly gone insane. What was I to do? Finally I said:

“Listen, Vasyl, don’t you dare eat your children. We’ll be over soon and bury them. So cut the boys down…Be sure you don’t attempt to eat them.”

I realized that the family was already a goner, and therefore did not notify the council. To what avail? It would not change anything. I called my brother over and together we dug a grave. Then I called the neighbors (they consisted of five women), and we buried the boys. Since we had no coffins, we just evened out the walls of this improvised grave, put straw on the bottom, laid out the corpses on it, put a board over them, and then shoveled in the earth. Their father just walked around in silence, watching what we were doing.

About two or three days later his wife, Sanka, returned home with the daughter. Coming over to me she angrily asked:

“By what right did you bury my sons in such a fashion? Who allowed you to do that?”

I became alarmed. After all, she used to be an activist, and could cause trouble. So I replied soothingly:

“I was afraid that Vasyl would eat them. We buried them very properly and the people were witnesses to it. And if you want to see them, I’ll open up the grave.”

I did not tell her, however, that Vasyl had hung the boys. That was his business to tell her, not mine.

Two or three weeks passed by. Warm May days arrived. One morning before dawn, together with Hrytsko Luchka we started out for Reshetilivka. We had in mind going to Kharkiv, in order to buy bread there. None was to be had in Poltava anymore, while in Kharkiv they were selling at staggeringly high prices the so-called “commercial bread.”

We had gone some five kilometers toward the railway station when all of a sudden we heard a desperate cry:

We listened intently. It sounded like the wife of Tupkalo, whose house stood about a kilometer and a half from the station.

We started to run in that direction, shouting so that she would know that help was on the way.

We arrived there. It appeared that there were two women and some small children there. In the stable, built alongside the house, there was a cow. Thieves evidently had been trying to get away with it. The woman, hearing the noise they ere making, had run into the hallway, climbed inside an old chimney that stood there, climbed up through it to the very top and emerging out on the roof began to cry for help.

Her cries and our shouts had evidently scared the robbers away.

That incident held us up for awhile, so that we missed the train, and had to return home. By this time it was already dawn.

Since Vasyl had not been seen for quite some time, we decided to stop in. We knocked on the door, but no one answered. We looked through the window and saw nothing. We then decided to go around the house and look through a small window over the oven. As usual, the oven window was high, so I leaned over and told Hryts Luchko to climb up on my back and take a look. He clambered up and pushed his face against the window pane. Lying on the overtop he saw Vasyl and his little daughter. Sanka was not at home. She had gone out foraging. Hrytsko knocked on the window and shouted, but got no response. Evidently both were dead.

Both of us then went over to the collective farm activist Peter Lukashenko. Returning with him we forced a window open and climbed inside. Both father and daughter had been dead for quite some time as the odor evidenced.

Peter Lukashenko and Hrytsko Luchko proposed that we dig a hole and bury them. Remembering the unpleasantness I had with Sanka about the boys, I refused.

Four or five days later Vasyl’s wife returned. Where she had gone, where she had been, what she had brought back…I do not know. She came hurrying over to him sobbing:

“Come and bury them, Vasyl and my daughter have died.”

To which I replied:

“This time bury them yourself, for there is such a stink there that I could not possibly return there!”

Nonetheless I went to dig a grave. All the neighbors were around. They gave Sanka a blanket, and with it she went inside. I don’t know how she managed to drag the bodies off the oventop and put them on the blanket, but she did it. Then we, tying cloths around our noses and mouths, dashed inside and grabbing the corners of the blanket dashed outside and threw the corpses into the hole. We quickly filled in the hole, for the stench was unendurable.

Soon after Sanka came over to me and asked whether I would mind if she could remove the iron roof of her half of the house, for she wanted to sell it in order to buy bread.

“Do what you want. But after what has happened in that house, neither my wife nor I will go over to live there anymore,” I replied.

I journeyed somewhere then. Sanka ripped the iron roof from her half, with it she bought bread, ate it and died from it… When I had returned there was no one of the Vasyl Luchko family left.

The famine had wiped them all out.