May 31, 1987

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


(The Ukrainian Weekly, May 31, 1987, No. 22, Vol. LV)

Following are excerpts of testimony by eyewitnesses to the man-made famine of 1932-33 in Ukraine who appeared at the Phoenix, Ariz., regional hearing of the U.S. Commission on the Ukraine Famine on February 13.

William I. Krewsun, San Diego, Calif.:

I was born in small hamlet of Sai, Lypova-Dolyna district, Poltava region in 1922. I was about 10 and a half years old when this catastrophe happened.

…I remember very, very clearly that foreign people mostly speaking Russian, of course, came to our hamlet, and in the early fall of 1932 they went from room to room and removed all edible food including, of course, poultry and all domestic animals, all grain, all flour, even bread that was still in the oven, absolutely everything was taken away.

…In the early spring of 1933, my grandmother, Evdokia, died of starvation, and in April 1933, my grandfather died of starvation. We survived on tree limbs. It is hard to believe, but some of those tree limbs are very tasty, and grasses. …

Nadia Harmash, San Diego, Calif.:

At the end of 1931 and throughout the year 1932, I resided in the city of Dnipropetrovske. When I got married and my husband worked in the Verkhodniprovske region, I also had to take a steamboat to his place of residence along the river, especially in the summer.

…Since I went to the market frequently, I witnessed the following events. It was early in the morning, and people were coming to the marketplace. Off to one side of the market plaza, there were three open bed trucks onto which three men were throwing some kind of large objects.

When I came close, I saw that these were dead bodies, already frozen, for it was winter, and many of the hands and feet stuck out in opposite directions. There were more bodies near the walls of the market buildings. Some of them lay motionless; others moved a little.

The local people saw this, looked aside and quietly went away. I saw a similar sight somewhat later, several weeks after this. Also, along the streets of the city, I often saw similar trucks filled with uncovered bodies driving away somewhere.

Later in the spring, I had to be at a similar open market in the town. I witnessed how a mother left her children at this market. There was a little boy who looked about 6, and a little girl who seemed younger, about 4. They looked dried out, black and thin with very big eyes. They were crying and looking at their mother.

Their mother spoke rapidly and kept repeating, “Don’t cry, it will be better for you. They’ll take you to the orphanage and give you bread, and at home, you will die soon. If I stay alive, I will find you.”

Saying this very quickly, she ran off and disappeared into the crowd. The children started to cry and scream. People went past them. Some stopped, and some said, she did well leaving them. Maybe they will be taken to the orphanage, and maybe they will even survive. …

Soon after my baby was born, someone came to the door one day. It was a man of peasant stock, and he looked like the other starving peasants.

With him was a girl who seemed to be about ten. He said, I know you just had a baby. This is Haia. She would be a good nurse for you. You must take her, because I will leave her here anyway. I have other children at home, and she will die if she stays there, and he went away.

It soon turned out that Haia really was a wonderful nurse, and that she was actually only three years younger than I was. …

Max Harmash, San Diego, Calif.:

At the time of the great famine, our permanent place of residence was the city of Dnipropetrovske. …

At that time in 1932, my wife was pregnant, and our first baby was born in 1933. Working on a state farm along the river near the regional center, I received some food rations such as a two and a half pounds of bread and one-half quart of milk, and occasionally soup consisting of soybean and water, cooked for the workers in the state farm kitchen which they opened for only two hours each day.

I saw the starving population for the first time in the winter of 1932-33. These were mainly groups of emaciated people moving from agricultural areas in the direction of big cities in search of food.

They looked starved and wore rags. Once a day, the cook in our village prepared soybean soup and salt which was piled in bowls on the table. These people, starving but without the right to get any food, grabbed the salt from the tables and ate it. For many of them, this meal was the last.

Some of them died not very far from the kitchen, and some left red spots of bloody diarrhea around the building. The rest continued to move further. …

A bit later in the spring, the regional government mobilized me, directing me to the village to organize and supervise the seeding and planting campaign in the collective farm, about 25 to 30 kilometers from the state farm.

I received a two-wheeled carriage, some hay for the horse, and two pounds of bread for myself. The head of the village soviet assigned me to stay overnight at the house of a collective farm member and left me at the door.

Inside the half dark house, I saw a very thin man in rags. He did not answer my greeting and sat motionless. I heard groans from atop the hearth and asked what it was. Dying, the man said.

I looked at the top of the hearth and saw a grotesque half-naked swollen body. Rags laid around it, and the stench was atrocious. I broke off a piece of bread for the man, and ran back to the village soviet office.

The watchman was heating the soup, and I shared the rest of my bread with him. He told me there were no feeding or planting supplies in the collective. Only a few members of the farm had meat or reserves of food left. About half of the village population had died of starvation, and all poultry, cats and dogs had been eaten by transients and the local population. …

Tamara Burda, Phoenix, Ariz.:

At the time of the famine I was 3 years old, and I remember crying from hunger. My sister would rock me to sleep and say that I would soon be asleep and not feel the pangs of hunger. This sister died of starvation herself. Her name was Klava.

I also remember a large apple orchard surrounded by a fence, the Ivanitsky orchard near the town of Pomishna where we lived. We would go there and stand outside because they would not allow us to go in. Children were not allowed in the orchard, but in the morning, we would find apples outside our door.

Mykola Petrenko, Phoenix, Ariz.:

…My father was dekulakized and sent to Siberia, and my house and cow were also taken away. This was in 1930. In the 1920s, I had worked loading ballast; in the 1930s, I worked on the machine tractor station repairing machines. After my house was taken, I changed my name and my job.

The village where I lived was near Odessa. I lived in a small broken-down house and had a son, but he died. He was always asking me if he could eat the leaves. My oldest daughter also died. I dug the graves for both my children myself in a place where relatives of mine who died earlier of starvation were also buried. …

Leonid Petrenko, Phoenix, Ariz.:

I was born in April 1928, and was five years old during the famine. I remember when our cow was taken from the cattle shed. In order to take the cow out, the shed had to be unlocked with the key. My sister and I hid the key, and the people who came to take the cow away were unable to do so.

I also remember a time when my mother picked up some kernels of grain from the ground and was sentenced to two weeks in jail by the village soviets.

I remember my oldest brother died of starvation. I also remember picking flowers and eating them. Some children fell ill from the plants they had eaten.

Ustyna Petrenko, Phoenix, Ariz.:

…During the famine I was in Donbas, where my father worked as a guard in a mine. He was given three hundred grams of bread a day. This was not enough to live on, so he left the family behind in the village when he left for the Donbas in 1931.

When my father died, I was in the Donbas working in a kitchen in the Number Nine Mine. There was a nearby garden where tomatoes and other vegetables were grown for sale in the mine. The miners were able to buy the vegetables with their salary, but those who worked in the garden received 600 grams of bread per day, which was not enough for them to eat.

I remember how these women would stand in line in the cafeteria with their small bowls and cry for more. I was given 400 grams of bread a day and sometimes a glass of groats. When the garden produce ripened, some of the girls would bring me some. During the potato harvest they did receive more food than otherwise, but at other times it was very bad. I did not bring home any of the garden vegetables, because stealing them was punished severely. Those who could get food hid it.

I saw plenty of hungry people on the street. They would come to the city to try to sell their clothes for food. People of all ages came to the cafeteria where I worked to beg for food. We gave them potato peels which they would take home to eat. I did not see any dead bodies in the mine because here a little bit of food was given out. I heard rumors of cannibalism, but did not know of any specific instances.

During the famine I did not receive any letters from my village. When I returned there, I saw the empty houses of those who had been exiled and those who had died of starvation. Many said they had survived by gleaning kernels of wheat from the fields, but this was dangerous because the authorities punished this severely. The villagers had also eaten the acacia flowers when they blossomed.

My cousin, who stayed in the village, had three children, of which only the eldest survived the famine. He was taken in by his grandfather because both his parents had also starved to death. …

Palashka Olefirenko, Phoenix, Ariz.:

My family lived in the village of Andriyivka, Oleksandrivsky district, Donetsk region. My father was one of Ukraine’s hard-working villagers, but his work came to naught, because in 1931, the village soviet ordered the villagers to hand over their grain. There were several campaigns of grain seizures.

My father was arrested during the final grain seizure campaign because he could not fulfill his quota. In jail, they made him hand over the last crumbs of bread remaining after the rest had been torn from the mouths of his children. But the Communist government was still not satisfied, and soon his entire family, including six little children, was thrown out of the house. They let us take neither food nor clothing, neither for the youngest children nor our grandfather who was over 80 years old.

We were taken 30 miles away to a small village near a railroad station where dekulakized people were gathered from eight nearby villages. We were kept there a long time. They fed us little, and no one bothered with us. Each had to get food any way he could. After a short while, my grandfather and two of my siblings died. The children who survived walked around swollen and weak. Then my father died, leaving my mother to look after his two small remaining children. By then, I already had two children of my own.

My family was not deported like so many, but were simply taken to a dilapidated house. Sometimes at night, I would go visit my mother, little brother and sister, who were swollen and feeble from hunger. They waited for me with the hope that I would bring them something to eat, but I could not help them enough because my own children and I were starving too.

I was sent to the fields to work, and for this, was given a small bowl of soup. For the children, we cooked tree bark mixed with grass.

My husband discovered that he might be able to find work in the Donbas and went to the town of Alchebsk near Luhansk. Very soon thereafter, my husband’s brother was arrested, because he was unable to hand over the quota of grain assigned him. After he was taken to prison, his wife also was left alone with four small children who were swollen from hunger.

A month later, the wife’s brother was arrested, and exiled to Siberia, not for anything he himself had done, but because his four-year-old son had picked up some grain from the field, leaving four small children to fend for themselves. The eldest of them was only 8 years old.

Not long after that, my eldest little girl who was an 8-year-old died of starvation followed soon after by my six-month-old infant who starved because my milk had dried up. At the collective farm they gave us food which lacked essential nutrients.

One day, my little girl came up to me in the field. She was in tears, and I immediately guessed that my baby had died. When my daughter confirmed my fears, I begged the brigade leader to let me go home to bury my baby. The brigade leader, who was on a horse and had a loud angry voice, refused. I didn’t understand him and started to leave the field.

He called after me in that loud and angry voice saying that if I took one more step he would run me down and squash me like a frog. He even tried to do it, but the horse wouldn’t answer to his reins.

I don’t remember what he said, because my thoughts remained on my little baby daughter. I did manage to get home. I wrapped my baby in a white blanket, took her in my arms and went to the cemetery.

The coffin was very small, but I had difficulty digging the grave because I had no strength left. Several days later, the two youngest children of my brother-in-law died and were buried, without their mother and father being present. The graves were very shallow, because the diggers themselves were very weak from hunger.

The young sister and brother of the deceased children helped cover the coffin with earth thrown by their own little hands. …