January 4, 1987

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


(The Ukrainian Weekly, January 4, 1987, No. 1, Vol. LV)

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

Stephen C., Chicago:

I was born in the village of Sari, near the city of Hadiach in the Poltava region. I was born on the 13th of August in 1923, the son of a poor peasant. My father had only a single hectare of land. I recall the year 1932 as being one of the most tragic years of my life. Hunger held our entire family captive. Activists came to our village and seized all of the bread and even the kidney beans. In our family, in the immediate household, my father’s father, then my mother’s starved before my very eyes. They buried him in his boots because his feet were too swollen to have them removed. He had four sons and two daughters – one of them is alive to this very day. Another aunt, my mother’s sister, was stabbed to death with a pitchfork for stealing scallions from a neighbor’s yard.

When my grandmother died from hunger, my mother placed a cross made out of wax in her hands, because she wanted a Christian burial. But a neighbor who was walking by our house looked in the window and saw the cross lying on my dead grandmother. He poked out the window pane, crawled in and stole the waxen cross. On the way to the collective farm he ate the cross. When my mother returned and found out that our neighbor had stolen the cross, she ran out after him in order to reprimand him for the theft, but when she reached him on the road he was already dead.

My father’s mother also died of hunger. She ate some false flax which causes a sleep-like state that eventually goes away as the person regains consciousness. My grandmother was already sick, so when she fell into the sleep-like state everyone thought she was dead. When they came to bury her, however, they noticed that she was still breathing, but they buried her anyway, because they said she was going to die anyway. No one was sorry that they buried her alive.

In my mother’s family five people died, including her husband. In our village where were many instances of cannibalism. One woman killed her 3-year-old son. When she fed the cooked meat to her husband, he noticed the bones of little fingers in the-dish. He then turned her over to the police. People ate everything, without bothering to cook it first. They ate grass meant for pigs, weeds. They even caught birds, killed them and ate them raw. People were given long sentences for stealing grain. One woman whose five children had died got 10 years for cutting unripe grain.

Lydia K., Oaklawn, Ill.

I was born in 1920 in the village of Khyzhentsi, Lisensky district, Kiev province, Ukraine. My family had a farm, a garden, two horses and some rabbits. Because we were considered prosperous for our area, the state levied taxes on us that we could not possibly pay. Then in December 1929, about a dozen people came to our house to throw us out. I remember my school teacher among them. Some, like my teacher, had sad faces, and I knew that they did not want to do what they were sent for, but others in the group forced them. They forced us to leave our home.

Fortunately, there was a small vacant house nearby, and a member of the owner’s family allowed us to move in. My father joined the collective farm, and this one-room house became home to my parents, three brothers and me. My father’s work on the collective farm never provided enough for the whole family, but we were still able to get by with the aid of what we could grow in our own garden.

In the summer of 1932, things became very difficult. Almost all the bread was taken away right after the harvest, and we knew that there would soon be nothing left to eat. My mother gave me a little bag and sent me with other young people in the village to glean the harvested fields, to pick up the ears of wheat that had been left after the harvest.

Gleaning was against the law, but we did it many times. The state sent horsemen to chase the gleaners out of the field, so the teenage boys of our group would keep watch. Sometimes the boys would play a joke and signal us when there were no horsemen, so one time I thought they were playing a joke when they were not. I ignored the warning when the others had run away and hidden in a nearby patch of woods. When I looked up, I saw two horsemen riding straight at me. It looked like they would run me down and that their horses would trample me. I was so frightened. There was no time to run. But I would not let them have the grain in my little bag and spilled it on the ground. The horsemen rode right up to me, but they pulled back hard on the reins and reared the horses up and stopped. I thought they would kill me, but they just took my empty bag and left.

I also remember in 1932 that they made the students in my school go ’round to various houses in the village and smear over whitewashed walls the following words in tar: Zlisni nezdatchyky khliba; identifying the occupants as having maliciously failed to give bread to the state. My family had been driven out of our house because we could not give the state what we did not have, and you can imagine how I felt. But we had to do it. They made us.

People would come to our little house with long pointed sticks. They would stick them in the ground, the walls and everywhere. They said they looking for concealed grain, but they took any food they could find. In December 1932, everything was taken except for what little we were still able to hide.

In January 1933 my parents sent me to stay with my uncle who worked as a doctor in a small town about 50 kilometers away. My brother took me there and we walked for nearly three days. We stopped at night, knocked on a door, and people would give us what food they could spare and let us stay the night. My uncle took me in and helped my two older brothers to get work in a nearby state farm, while my younger brother stayed with my parents.

By springtime many people were dying of hunger. I lived with my uncle in the hospital, and we saw many bodies dumped into a building which served as a morgue. I heard that sometimes bodies were stolen and especially the brains would be taken by people to eat. I remember seeing the bodies taken out and dumped into pits. There were too many to be buried individually

My uncle told me that doctors could never list starvation as a cause of death. You could list anything else as a cause of death, but never hunger.

One afternoon, I decided to visit my brothers in the state farm. They offered me some of their food, which was only tasteless dumplings in water. And then my brother told me it was time to go. Soon after I left, I found myself alone in a field as the sun was setting, and a boy called out at me and ran toward me. I was afraid that he wanted to eat me, and I ran away. By the time I reached the town it was getting dark. Soon I saw a woman lying down in the street too weak to move. She could only stretch out her hand and beg me for food, but I had nothing to give her. I knew she would soon be dead, because she was already too weak to stand.

When one of my brothers caught typhus, my uncle put him in a special room for fear that he would say something negative about the system. We all knew what kind of system we had, and we all knew the penalty for saying so, even in delirium. He survived, but another brother died of dysentery.

My father and younger brother back in the village became swollen from hunger, and my mother walked the 50 kilometers to my uncle to get some food, and that is how she save them. It was thanks to my uncle that, except for my one brother, our family survived. Had it not been for his goodness, we would all have perished.

Leonid A., Chicago:

I am a U.S. citizen, living in Chicago. I was born on November 10, 1910, in Kiev. My father served in the Russian Imperial Army as a lieutenant colonel. He was called to active duty in 1917 and never returned home.

In 1921 my mother married for the second time and moved to the village of Blahovishchenka, Harnostiaivka raion, Kherson province, near Kakhnovky. My second father ran his own farm until 1928.

That year, 1928, at the age of 18, I was hired to work on a farm. There were already collective farms. I worked one summer. Afterwards they dekulakized this farmer.

I got a job in the reserves in Askannia Nova. I worked in a zoological park. For about a half a year I looked after the animals. Afterward I was a shepherd in Askannia Nova. There were approximately 170,000 sheep. They were grazing in the steppes. I grazed the sheep for a year and a half. Afterwards I went to work in a state farm as a truck driver. After two years I became a combine operator. In 1931 I married Ahafiya who lived on the state farm. Afterwards I became a driver of a dump truck.

In 1932, shortly before winter, they sent the people to weed the grain. The crop of 1932 was very good. The yield was 37 centners to the hectare. The grain was taken by the government. They left nothing for the people. In the villages in the winter of 1932 to 1933, the committee of unwealthy peasants walked through the houses. They were commanded by Communists sent from the district center. They had long pikes and looked for hidden grain. They searched the home, and under the rooftops. They took every last bit from the people. Cows, horses, sheep, goats – they took these from the people and gave it to the collective farms. There was no one to work on these collective farms because people were starving. The horses, cows also were dying from starvation.

The collective farms were guarded by armed men. If someone wanted to take something, they were shot. In the spring of 1933 people already were eating pigweed, tree bark and grass.

From the state farm they sent tractors to till the soil and plant the wheat. Throughout the collective farms, people who could still walk were sent to work. For the workers there was a kitchen, a so-called field kitchen. They ate in the fields. They were not permitted to take any food home.

During the 1932 harvest the Great Famine started. The grain grew, the harvest was good, but you were not permitted to take one ear of wheat. The guards rode armed through the fields. They arrested everyone who took an ear and took them to the police. No one in the village knew where they took them.

Then, in early 1933, the Great Famine really took hold in the villages. To leave was forbidden. The bravest went into town and tried to get food. Upon their return, the police took everything back from them. People started dying along the side of the roads or lay swollen in their houses and died there.

There were cases where dead children were eaten by their parents. This was in the village of Haimany. People spoke of this. Those parents were arrested. In the village of Kosovka, Serhosk raion, they also had cooked meat from their children. They, too, were arrested.

I personally saw those who died of starvation in the villages of Ochaimany (Ivanivka raion), Petrivka (Serhosk raion), Kasivka (Serhosk raion) and in the village of Zadynivka (Serhosk raion) and in the village of Verkhnie Serhoske.

I saw the bodies of those who died from hunger. They were swollen and also very emaciated. I was sent with some people from the state farm by truck to pick up the dead bodies. When we entered the houses we had to cover our faces because there was such a putrid smell. Some of us had masks.

These bodies were thrown onto the trucks, like sheaves of wheat. We drove them to the fields, dug pits, dumped the bodies, poured lime on them and covered them up. There were several layers, one on top of the other. I drove the dump truck five times from the village to the fields where the pits had already been dug and the people were buried. There were 15 to 20 bodies thrown on each load. There were also those who rode horses and picked up people throughout the villages and buried them.

In the villages, there were people that survived, because they were able to work and could eat in the field kitchens. These were like army kitchens.

In the village of Yanivka, I did not see a single person alive.

The village of Kayira suffered because it was near the Dnipro (Dnieper). People near the Dnipro did not suffer as much because people caught the fish with their feet, and therefore survived. Such villages were: Hapatykha, Somova, Kakhovka, Nova Kakhovka, Kopani and Bereslav. In these towns there were fewer deaths.

Further away from the Dnipro there were more fatalities.

People were dying from Melitopil to Dnipropetrovske and from Piatykhatky to Kiev. So it was said.

In the areas were I stayed I heard of no incidents of the starving resisting the Communist regime. Whoever spoke up was arrested. There were informers everywhere. People whispered of the millions that starved. Savchuk, the director of the state farm, spoke of this also. He was an educated person, and continuously helped people. Also, agronomist Yakiv Mykhailovych Yaromen helped the starving. The head of the political section in the Doremburg state farm, now called Chkalove, were I worked was Jew, Moisei Fylypovych Portir. He also helped the Ukrainians and the workers.

My wife’s brother, Ivan Fomovych Cherkas, died of starvation in the village of Torhayivka Nyzhnia. His wife and two children died also.

In all the neighboring state farms there was no starvation because those who worked there were considered state employees and the state was obliged to pay them for their work. But the collective farms were considered the property of the collective farmers and the state owed those who worked there nothing. So there was massive death on them after the state seized everything, regardless of the terrible consequences.