December 14, 1986

For the record: eyewitness testimony before Commission on Famine. Part II


(The Ukrainian Weekly, December 14, 1986, No. 50, Vol. LIV)

Following are excerpts of testimony by eyewitnesses to the man-made famine in 1932-33 in Ukraine who appeared at the Chicago regional hearing of the U.S. Commission on the Ukraine Famine on November 7.

Anna Pylypiuk, Chicago:

In 1932, when I was not yet 12 years old, I witnessed the weary faces of people tortured not only by hunger but also by terror, many of which were buried alive. Those who survived remained emotionally crippled for life. It’s very hard to endure constant humiliation, to feel constantly persecuted, particularly in one’s own native land and one’s own home. Let this memoir of my stolen childhood help you retain the memory of those who are no longer with us.

My apathy for school grew. Everyday men on horses would come to our house to notify us about meetings at the collective farm of the village soviet [council]. My father frequently came back very late from these meetings. A lamp was lit beneath the icons in our house, and we little ones, along with grandfather and grandmother stood on our knees and prayed. We were eventually told to take down our icons and replace them with a sickle and hammer and a portrait of Stalin. People came to our house to check to see if we had done what had been ordered.

One dark autumn night in 1929, as I was celebrating my eighth birthday, a Black Raven (vehicle used to remove prisoners) drove up to our house and took our father away. We cried so much that our lips became dry and our bodies froze. The next day we went to see him to give him some food parcels, but there was a large crowd of people all around the prison, which convinced us that grief had been visited on everyone. Soon our father was taken to a prison in Kiev called Lukianivka. There again, crowds of women and children milled in the streets for weeks on end in order to see their fathers and husbands for the last time.

At that time hooligans gathered along the docks and robbed the women who had come to visit the prisoners. The hooligans lay down completely naked on the straw, raised their legs in the air and shouted “we are fulfilling the five-year-plan.”

Father was taken to Murmansk on a 10-year sentence to level forests in the name of socialism, grandfather gave his entire field to the collective farm, because there was no one left to work it. With time the orchard next to our house was cut down.

In 1930 the schoolchildren were getting ready to celebrate the first of May: the “International” could be heard over the loudspeakers, as well as could be: “Moscow, my most beloved country, vanquished by no one.” On the way to school I dropped by to pick up my girl friend, Tonia, and go with her to the parade, but when I arrived at her house I was astounded to discover that they had been evicted from a brand new house. Tonia’s father had built the house with his very own hands. He was tall and well-built. The neighbors all loved him. Ivan’s family was thrown out because their house was going to be occupied by some sort of exemplary activist. Soon the Black Raven took Tonia’s father away to Siberia. All of his farming equipment turned rusty, and his yard was covered with weeds. The mother and children were placed in a cattle shed. I was late for the parade. The sun caused the blood to rush to my nose, but I endured it. I endured it because I did not want to be an enemy of the people.

Every blessed day a brigade consisting of several sturdy men headed by a Chekist came to our house. He had medals on his chest and was called Comrade Fisher. He ordered his men to pierce all the walls, ceilings and floor with long ramrods. He frightened his helpers by saying that they would be arrested if they didn’t find any grain. Comrade Fisher began to play up to my stepmother and to provoke her with various jokes. We little ones cried. My stepmother grabbed one of father’s joiner instruments and threw it into the front part of the stove. The instrument rebounded and nearly struck him in the head. After this incident my stepmother was repeatedly called before the court. She was forced to sell almost all of her shawls and sheepskin coats in order to bribe the investigator, a Comrade Sedlovych or Sedlovsky (I don’t recall which) who defended her. One time my stepmother was once again called to court where she was accused of propounding religion because she had a shawl embroidered in a pattern resembling crosses. They said it was a provocation of the Antichrist because she had bought the shawl at the marketplace from one Mendel. My stepmother told them they should punish him for selling such a scarf, not her.

Spring of 1932 arrived. There was no one to plant the garden at home. My stepmother and we children were able to get by on money [we earned]; we plowed gardens for our neighbors, but later our horse was stolen and they had to do the planting without a horse. The neighbors said they had seen our horse at the home of one of the activists.

In the summer of 1932 I went to the butter factory in an attempt to make some money to buy bread. At that time peasants took milk away from their own children in the name of building socialism.

Butter made at the factory was exported to Moscow and Leningrad. Cheese was made from the milk, dried to the hardness of a rock and used by the aviation industry to make some sort of buttons. In the evening only those who had met their milk quota were able to buy one liter of buttermilk for 2 kopecks. I was hungry and bought some of that cheese, but it was hot. I nearly choked because the inspector came and fired me from the job. I recall a little ditty we used to sing “the sickle and hammer hang on the wall, and nothing to eat for us all.”

The memories of year 1933-34 are particularly vivid in my mind. Every morning at 3:00 I took the cow to pasture, I walked barefoot along the cold wet grass. Part of the milk I took to the butter factory and the remainder sold in order to buy bread. Later I went to a field to gather frozen potatoes to make potato pancakes and all sorts of pigweed for soup, and looked after my younger brothers because my stepmother was forced to work at the collective farm. She was also forced to help gather bodies from the streets and the houses. The bodies had to be gathered quickly. Once I found some millet chaff. Not knowing any better I greedily ate them, and immediately experienced severe stomach cramps. My stomach swelled and bloody diarrhea set in. My brother was frightened that I would die and helped me to get to the doctor. Then an old nurse yelled at me in Russian to stop my diarrhea with my hand. Calling me by the derogatory name “khokhliushka,” she chased me out the door. My brother ran to get another nurse who spoke Ukrainian and immediately eased my suffering with medication. When we returned home our stepmother was already there. She noticed the blood on the floor and immediately thought that someone had attacked us and eaten us, for rumors of such things were widespread at the time. There was a mad woman who killed her children one by one and fed them to the others. And so our stepmother left my brother with grandmother and took me with her because she was afraid for me.

Bodies lay along the fences near where we lived. Women piled them into wagons and drove them to the cemeteries. Those who refused to join a collective farm were forced to dig holes for the bodies. Once an old woman approached me and quietly asked for water to quench her thirst. I ran and got her some water in a bottle. An activist took note of this and pushed me into the hole that was being dug. My stepmother had to promise him a bottle of liquor in order to get him to allow me to be pulled out of the hole. After that time my stepmother never again took me with her. I was so frightened by what had happened that I stopped talking for several days. I saw dead bodies in my dreams and screamed in terror. I ran a fever but did not tell my grandfather about what had happened.

My grandfather fell sick with malaria and I had to tend to his needs. One time I ran over to the sugar beet factory. Not far from the factory was a wide field. Piles of beets lay covered with straw and sand. I wanted to see if I could find something in the field for dinner. But a guard stood on an elevated platform and shot anyone who came near. Nearby lay the bloody bodies of people who had just been shot trying to get the beets. I returned home with empty hands. Behind the house was a huge cellar and I hid there. There I found a large bottle of cod-liver oil which my parents had once used to soften shoe leather. Drinking that cod-liver oil saved me from starving to death. I mixed the oil with salt and some weeds and ate it. On the street everyone fled from me because I smelled of fish.

One day grandfather Nikifor, the brother of my grandfather, came to visit us. He was all swollen and tired because he had walked a great distance. He told our grandfather that he didn’t want anything from him. All he wanted was for us children to take him to the cemetery so that he could die there. On the way to the cemetery he fell because he couldn’t stand on his swollen legs, and gave up his soul. Flies covered his entire face and legs. The side of the road was strewn with bodies. We ran home. Our stepmother buried him the following day with the help of friends. Father’s cousin informed us that grandfather’s cousin had also died.

The summer of 1933 I could no longer take the cow to pasture. My legs were swollen and covered with sores. I was unable to walk. My stepmother had to place me on the chamber pot because I could no longer get on by myself. She took the cow to the collective farm. She was able to bring home as much as she could, which was not much, because the milk had to be handed over to authorities. Meat, eggs – everything had to be handed over to the authorities. My stepmother cut firewood in the nearby forest and sold it to the authorities. This is how we survived till autumn.

I reached my 12th year, and continued to lie in bed. My eyes were covered with sores. Grandfather died in 1934 on Christmas Eve.

It was a severe winter. The ground was frozen. My mother turned to the collective farm and to the village soviet. She told them that insofar as they now controlled her private property, they had the means to bury him, because she certainly lacked the resources to bury him herself. When they refused, she turned to the neighbors and told them they could each cut down a tree from her property they wanted if only they would help with the burial. They agreed because they all needed the wood to burn. Now my stepmother was summoned to court because she had destroyed government property. She fought them every way she could. She said grandfather had owned his own property years before the Soviets came into property that wasn’t theirs. If your house is cold I’ll let you have one tree apiece to heat your homes.

Anna Portnov, Chicago:

I was asked to write my reminiscences of the years 1932-33 in Ukraine. To make it brief, it was one long and most terrible nightmare. (All the American thrillers seem to me quite childish in comparison.) I was born in Kiev, but lived at that time with my grandparents 90 kilometers from the capital in a small town of Bila Tserkva. … I was in high school and was often sent to surrounding villages to help with collectivization, particularly to organize children in pioneer organizations and through them to influence the elders to enter a kolkhoz (collective farm). The population of the villages was extremely hostile to all of us – old and young. Why? Several years before I remember having come to one of the villages when I was quite a little pre-school child. My mother’s aunts and grandmother used to live there. It was a remote village and though the revolution had already had its toll (as it was explained to me) but the people were still composed and even cheerful. …

…When as a schoolgirl I came there again in the early 30s I could see grey swollen faces or hollow cheeks and dimmed eyes of women, men, children. It was famine in the rich lands of Ukraine. We also saw angry glares. We wanted to speak to the children but they were not allowed to contact us. There was one boy, Petrus by name, who followed us, though. He told us his parents had died from hunger. We shared with him the meager food we had, and he told us in whispers that the party people who came from the city had taken absolutely everything from the households. They ransacked all hiding places where some corn or wheat for the children was preserved and took all that, too. He confided that those who offered resistance were shot or sent to Siberia. We, kids, were shocked and told the adults we came with all we heard, asking too many questions. The questions remained unanswered, and we were ordered to keep quiet and the adults decided to take us home. I remember a pitch black night in the forest through which we made our retreat home in a cart harnessed by a horse. Every now and then we heard shots quite close. I still don’t know whether they came from the new bosses or from the peasants.

In the town I remember a woman peasant who used to sit on a porch all swollen, her face, her legs, her hands, wrapped in a big grey cheekered shawl. I always brought her something to eat (though hungry myself) and I will never forget the haunted look of her red eyes. I remember feeling a certain feeling of guilt because I had more, than she had – she, a breadmaker.

I saw many swollen people, but that woman’s image is carved in my memory as if telling me: never forgive and never forget the murderers who killed thousands upon thousands of innocent people. …

Valentin Kochno, Chicago:

…My father was pastor in the village of Horodets. It’s a large village, five kilometers from Uman, and already in 1931 the famine started in the area of Uman. I am a witness of what took place in that area, near the village of Horodets, and the region of Uman.

…Moscow sent two representatives, one a Russian and the other of a different nationality, and they started to organize the so-called Committee of non-wealthy peasants. Komnezamy were at the beginning, and when it appeared that the famine began, the number of Komnezamy was increased in the village. These Komnezamy were composed of the worst criminal elements of the local population. These were either the lazy loiterers or the criminals that did not want to do anything and only stole and were the best-known criminals of the entire village. So at first, there was a small number of them, but already from 1931 to the end, I remember that my father and mother said, that there were more than 10. One thing that I can underline, that at the beginning of the famine the leading class of the village was arrested and destroyed, for instance, the Ukrainian teachers, the church choir director, and all of the village intelligentsia. And there were big attacks on the church, the priest was arrested, and my father was arrested seven times. He was kept in cold water in the (basement), cellar so that he would denounce and leave – because he had great authority; and they wanted to get rid of him from the village of Horodets. But it is clear that my father was suffering, and I can testify that this was through covert activity.

In the evening they surrounded the entire village; first they robbed from the kurkuls, and they were removed. Then when only the “middle class” was left they starred taking away their grain and foodstuffs. And later, what I can never forget as long as I live, when through the town drove two vehicles (“pidvody”) each carrying eight to 12 men. They were sitting with their legs hung over the sides, with rifles, and they started from yard to yard to kill all dogs. After this, when they destroyed all the dogs, then they started gathering all foodstuffs. They started taking all grain, livestock and everything that was left. They went from house to house, and barn to barn. They even had special gadgets to check the yards to see if people buried any grain or other food products.

After this came the winter, and in my class there were approximately 30 students. The famine started. It was winter, people started dying – and the worst tragedy occurred in the spring. I witnessed that friends from my class (when it got warm, by the end of April and beginning of May) – when we came out on the street or pasture to play – I saw with my eyes, I witnessed, that they who were skinny in winter, swelled up now so that the water went through their bodies, so that it was hard to recognize anyone. Then their skin started ripping in their lower legs, so the water pressure burst the feet, just in the same place where Jesus Christ was nailed to the cross, and flowed out with blood, and within 30 minutes to 45 minutes, he fell down dead.

I would like to return to these criminals. When my father was brought into the village of Horodets, it was hard to find living quarters. One poor family took us into their house, which consisted of two rooms with a hallway. We lived in one room. That family had a son, he was known in the village as a thief. He did not work at all. He drank, he slept during the day and went out at night. There were such occurrences: when my father was in church and my mother was directing the choir, once when I came home from school I saw him coming out of our room, carrying food and other articles. First, he ran into his room. I bring this up to show what elements the bolshevik government used to carry out its programs. Further, I witnessed when the majority of the kurkuls were thrown out and removed to Siberia. They started going after the “middle class.” I saw this Levko. There was a pasture near the church. I saw a procession of Komnezamy, and this Levko, with his pistol – unholstered – leading a man who had a cow’s head tied to his neck. They gathered the whole village and said that this is a kurkul, an enemy of the people, and other accusations. That he killed a cow from the collective, and thus they were serving the people.

In the spring of 1931, almost two-thirds of the villagers died from starvation. … by the spring of 1932, we were all swollen – my brother, sister and father. My mother was in better shape through working in the garden. They decided to take their wedding rings and an ancestral 300-year-old watch; and my mother traveled to Moscow. She traded these for grain, margarine. If my mother had not returned, my brother would have died within a day or two – and thus we were saved from starvation.

Then they took my father to the Kiev, St. Sophia Sobor, by direction of Archbishop Constantine Malushkevych. So father left and we remained in the village of Horodets. We waited for the authorities to give us permission to travel. But father did not stay long. In Kharkiv, in the Cathedral of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, the pastor died. So Metropolitan Ivan Pavlovsky, who was the metropolitan of Kharkiv and the whole of Ukraine, ordained my father. And they were great friends. He saw that my father – as pastor of St. Sophia Sobor, a young man with three children – would not last very long there. It was that at St. Sophia a pastor could last six to eight months. It was a long time because the authorities arrested the priests and sent them to Siberia. So he was sent to Kharkiv in 1932. It was the same in Kharkiv. The famine had already started, and we witnessed how many corpses were brought in front of the church every morning. My father helped – every morning there were tens of corpses by the church; there was a part, and vehicles would come to pick up those people, and drove them outside the city. …