February 1, 1987

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


(The Ukrainian Weekly, February 1, 1987, No. 5, Vol. LV)

Following is testimony of eyewitnesses to the man-made famine of 1932-33 in Ukraine who appeared at the Warren, Mich., regional hearing of the U.S. Commission on the Ukraine Famine on November 24, 1986.

The Rev. Alexander Bykovets, Detroit:

As a boy of 8 or 9, I remember well the autumn of 1932 and the winter and spring of 1933 in the city of Poltava where my father was a parish priest of the Resurrection Cathedral of the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church.

There was a grave shortage of food. There was no food in the state owned grocery stores, except for coffee made out of acorns from an oak tree. To survive the famine, our family was forced to depend on parishioners who were employed by the railroad, for it was possible for them to bring food from beyond the borders of Ukraine and to share it with us.

We were also acquainted with a very friendly woman, the wife of a Soviet official, who helped us with the food. She often placed some potatoes, both rotten and good, as well as beets and cabbage into a trash container so that I could collect it and bring it to my parents.

My mother would mix all of these ingredients together along with the acorn coffee and bake a sort of pancake using beeswax candles to grease the sauce pan. Once I heard someone shooting, and saw a wounded crow falling to the ground from the church steeple. Before anything else could get it, I pursued it, repeatedly striking it with snowballs until I had finally killed it. That evening, I had enjoyed crow dinner.

In the winter of 1933, my grandfather came to Poltava to get some food for his hungry family in the village. Somehow we managed to collect a few loaves of bread, some buckwheat and potatoes from our parishioners to give him, and he left for home, but at the railroad station, he was robbed and brought home nothing.

On the city streets, I saw many hungry peasants, men, women and children, begging for a piece of bread. Many of them perished from hunger and cold.

Groups of hungry people stood at the entrance to the Torgsin stores which were full of every kind of food, but one had to have gold, silver and foreign currency to purchase any of these foods. The very name of these special stores meant Business or Commerce with Foreigners which was abbreviated to Torgsin, the Russian abbreviation.

Of course, the so-called foreigners were part of the Muscovite regime in Ukraine which was using this famine not only to subdue the Ukrainian people, but also to rob them of all their valuable possessions, because hungry people were bringing to these special stores their wedding rings, earrings, gold and silver crosses and foreign currency, if they had any.

Since my aunt left Ukraine after the collapse of the Ukrainian National Republic in 1920 and then lived in France, my father used to correspond with her in French, and she was kind enough to put a five or 10 franc bill in every letter for us to use in buying food from the Torgsin. This contributed a great deal to our survival during the artificial famine of 1932-33 in Ukraine.

My grandparents were not so lucky. Both of them perished from hunger in the spring of 1933.

Dr. Valentyna Sawchuk, Hamtramck, Mich.:

I was born in Sahaidak, a railroad station in the Poltava region, in 1925. This station had a small population, about a hundred homes. We didn’t have a church or school. The nearest church was five kilometers from us, and I walked three kilometers to the seven-year school in Dmytrivka.

Dmytrivka had a collective farm where the people from Sahaidak belonged. Sahaidak had a water tower, and because of its importance to the railroad, all trains stopped here. We had a village council to which all the surrounding villages belonged.

Along the railroad tracks, not far from the station, stood the grain storage bins. The grain was stored there and transported to the major cities. Sahaidak boasted of a fine marketplace which stood in front of the railroad station. Three days a week, business boomed here – Wednesday, Friday and Sunday.

My father, Mychailo Tehimivich Riznychenko, and my mother, Olena I. Riznychenko, were not natives of the village. Both my parents originated from the Kharkiv region. They came to the Poltava region in 1921 because of the famine in the Kharkiv region. My parents owned no home or land. Selling needles, threads for embroidery, ribbons, babushkas and fabrics was their trade.

Private commerce was allowed during the NEP period. The merchants were required to have a license and pay taxes.

We lived in a rented home that belonged to a well-to-do farmer from Dmytrivka, Mr. Fedoriaka. During the collectivization, he was among the first ones to join the collective farm. In fact, all his buildings and his courtyard became the seat for the collective farm.

The house in Sahaidak, he gave to his oldest son Ivan. Ivan occupied half of this home, and we lived in the other half with a teacher, her young daughter and mother. A teacher’s salary was very meager, so it was difficult for her to make ends meet. My parents helped her, and in return, during the famine, she rationed her school-funded bread with us.

Early in 1932, my father’s business was heavily taxed. He had to liquidate everything in order to pay the huge tax. In one month, he again received the same amount of taxes. He immediately paid a visit to the council to clarify what he thought must be an error.

He soon grimly discovered there was no mistake, and if he didn’t pay the tax, then he must join the collective farm or he will be stripped of his voting privileges.

He refused to join and lost his rights to vote. Having friends in Kiev who could help him, my father learned a new trade, photography. However, he was not allowed to work as a photographer, because you were not allowed to work privately. You had to work for an organization. So the famine of 1932-33 found my parents without jobs and voting rights.

One day a group of people came to look for grain. They knew we could not have any, because we were not farmers. However, they hastily searched the room and found nothing. My mother had wisely hidden 90 kilos of flour that was luckily undiscovered in one of the many empty trunks used for commerce that were piled against the wall.

For food supplied, my mother traded everything we owned from the business – materials, fabrics, babushkas, ribbons, etc. When that ran out, she traded all her heirloom jewelry in Torgsin in Poltava. 70 silver rubles, my gift from grandma, she traded for potatoes.

She was afraid to trade openly with gold money, because of the risk of being tortured and persecuted for it. However, our landlord, Mr. Fedoriaka, took our gold money and trade a goat for us. This goat helped us to survive.

Every day, we had less and less to eat. I would ask, “Mom, how come you give Dad the largest piece of bread, for me smaller, and you take the smallest,” and she would answer, “I’m not hungry.”

In spite of the fact that my dad had no job and voting privileges, they appointed him a deputy carrier. Every morning, he had to report to the village council and deliver messages to assigned people.

One morning he abruptly came home, took my mom along, and they locked me in the house. I saw how upset they were, and sat anxiously on the window sill awaiting their return. I saw many people running towards the railroad station from the village of Pivni.

They ran past my window through our courtyard, most of them being women. In a few hours, some of them were running back, dragging sacks of grain behind them. They were too weak to carry them.

My father later told me that a large number of people from surrounding villages came to the grain bins and in a fury looted the bursting bins. The guards could not contain them. However, additional troops were brought in from Poltava. People were trampled by horses, beaten, and many wounded. The grain was taken from them, and the mass was pushed to the marketplace.

In self defense, the people were bundled together. They were forcibly separated, beaten, arrested and taken to Poltava prison. Some were lucky and escaped with some grain, but on the whole, most were left with nothing.

The following day, by someone’s command, they passed out a few pounds of peas per person, the irony being the grain bins bursting with wheat and other grain. In fact, wheat and grain were burning from spontaneous combustion, for if grain is not rotated and aired, it will burn.

This event was recorded in Pidhaynyi’s book and also in Dr. Conquest’s book, and I am a living witness to this event.

Motria S.:

My name is Motria S. I was born in 1918 in the village of Pisky Radkivski near Kharkiv. I can’t tell you the precise date when collectivization, dekulakization, or the famine began in our village. My parents had six children, and you could say they were poor, although they were considered to be middle peasants. But, when they refused to join the collective farm, they were renamed kulak sympathizers. That was the beginning of everything.

They took away our oxen and horse and eventually our cow, put father in prison and threw us out permitting us to take only the clothes on our backs, but nothing of the food.

Mother, at first, took us to her sister’s house which had a kitchen and one bedroom. My mother’s sister had eight children, and when mother realized there was no room, she went to the village soviet (council) to beg for a place for us to live until we were exiled to Siberia or until we had died of cold and hunger, for it was winter.

They gave us an old dilapidated hut in which to live. My elder brother went away to escape hunger. My aunt took me to live with her in the village of Vysoka Ivanivka, which was near the town of Slavianske.

She was employed at tending the vegetable gardens, and although I was still small, they hired me to do the same. There I got a bowl of soup twice a day and 200 grams of bread. Knowing that my mother and the smaller children were cold and hungry, I ate the soup, but kept the hard, dry bread for them.

Although my legs begs began to swell from hunger, I decided to return to our village with the dried bread. I finally worked up the courage to take the train the 40 kilometers back to our village. There were a lot of people on the train. Some were swollen.

The children were very thin and looked as if they were close to death. After I got out of the train, I had to walk seven kilometers through the forest where I saw many bodies of dead people who had been unable to reach the railroad station.

Others were sitting along the road, lacking the strength to go farther. Some were people from our village. When I reached the village, I saw wagons loaded with bodies which were piled high like logs. I went to see my mother and my little sister who was a year and a half.

She was sitting down and kept asking for bread, but mother told me not to give her any, because she would die if she ate anything in her famished state. She died anyway. Mother’s sister and her husband died also, and their children were taken to orphanages. The neighbors also died, and their children were taken by living friends and relatives.

I left my native village forever after a very short visit. During the winter, I was given the job of helping with the feeding of the pigs. I slept where the food for the pigs was prepared, and eventually learned to cull some of the grain used to feed the pigs which I used to bake flat cakes.

One day, as we were baking the cakes, an activist walked by and caught a whiff of the smell. As he entered the room, we threw the flat cakes behind the cauldron, but he crawled after them and retrieved them. The following day, the people were called together to witness how we were reprimanded for eating the pigs’ food. Both I and the girl who was helping me bake the flat cakes were fired from our jobs.

I was given the job of feeding horses while she was fined 200 rubles. I thought that feeding those horses would spell the end of me. I survived until spring, but fell ill with malaria. I was able to get a ride to the polyclinic in town, but the seven kilometers back home, I walked on my own two feet, stopping many times from frequent shaking fits.

I saw many hungry people in town. Those who had gold went to the store which was called a Torgsin where they could buy flour, sugar, bread, bacon and so forth. But, I didn’t have any gold. I didn’t even know what it looked like. But, thank God, one happy day I met Halyna who worked as a servant for a Jewish family. She asked me if I wanted a job like hers.

After leaving the polyclinic, I went with her to the home of two doctors who had a six-month-old child. They were kind to me, and I was happy to have survived everything.