February 22, 1987

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


(The Ukrainian Weekly, February 22, 1987, No. 8, 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.

Michael Smyk, Detroit:

In 1931, sensing that our lives were in jeopardy, all of us – my father, mother, sister, brother and myself – abandoned our house and everything in it and fled from our native village.

I settled in Dniprodzerzhynske, formerly Kamianske, while my father and the rest of the family went to the iron ore basin of Kryvorizhzhia.

There was a time when I did not know where my parents were, nor did they know where I, the youngest member of the family, was. At the end of 1932, I finally arrived at the iron ore mine which is located near the historical site of Zhovti Vody. My father, who worked as an accountant, found me work in the bookkeeping department of the mining administration.

Near the mine, there was a small town of about 10,000 to 12,000 persons who worked at the mine, and farther away from the town, there were villages where hunger raged during the fall of 1932, and the beginning of 1933.

The hunger was experienced even by the people who worked in the mines, particularly those who did not own their own homes with land where they could grow their own garden. Each of us office workers received about 400 grams of bread, less than one pound daily, which became the staple of our diet.

When one takes into consideration that there was practically nothing else besides the bread, one ceases to wonder why some individuals, my father and myself included, had swollen legs which are the first symptom of starvation. In addition to working all day long, it was also necessary to attend school at night.

Once a day, those who were able to use their ration cards in the cafeteria, were given a very watery soup containing no fat and nothing more. Almost every day while standing in line at the cafeteria, I noticed children between the age of 7 and 10 who were dirty and ragged, and always hungry going through the garbage pail with their hands in an attempt to find some potato peelings or a few groats that had been discarded by the cafeteria cooks.

Quite a few of these children could also be seen near the store where bread was rationed out. They all sat there with outstretched hands and entreating looks begging for charity, but few were the people who could bring themselves to take the precious bread away from their mouths in order to give it to those unfortunate children.

Hunger drove the adults, mostly the men, to the mine, but no one would hire them. Nor were they capable of doing work in their weakened, exhausted condition induced by hunger. The small mining town became a cemetery for the majority of these people.

A dead human being, generally a man, lying on the street of the little town was a common sight at that time. By the way, men were dying first and then women. We men were bigger than women, but I never had the occasion to see who removed the bodies when this was done, although it was probably at night, and where the bodies were buried.

I also never saw the people who took away the children and adolescents. After 1933, I had the occasion to experience hunger resulting from a shortage of food once again while attending an institute in Kharkiv.

In 1939, I was assigned as a high school teacher to my native Kryvorizhzhia. The Department of Education of the town Kryvyi Rih appointed me to teach in the German settlement of Grun Feld or Green Field. There were many such settlements, German colonies, in Southern Ukraine from the time of Catherine II who imported Germans to settle the Ukrainian steppe region.

In Grun Feld, there was a German high school which, like all ethnic schools in Ukraine – Polish, Bulgarian, Greek, Yiddish and others – had been forced to become Russian-speaking a few years prior to my arrival as a result of government directive.

The Ukrainian language was taught only as a subject. I only recall this school, because besides it and a two-year technical school for mechanics, the town had an orphanage that housed children who lost their parents in the tragic years of 1932-33.

Because they had been brought to the orphanage at such an early age that they did not know their own surnames, the children were given new names and surnames, mostly Russian, like Ivanov, Petrov, Anshrov and so on. The nannies in the orphanage were for the most part Russian, and the children spoke only in Russian.

In 1939 and 1940, there were almost no first grades in the majority of village schools, for in 1932-33, there were virtually no children born, which is why there were no 7-year-old candidates for the first grade. But, the school which I am talking about had a first grade. They were taught by an older teacher who was an experienced pedagogue.

I recall one faculty meeting during which the director of the school chided the first grade teacher for falling behind in the fulfillment of her classroom curriculum. With a trembling voice and tears in her eyes, the teacher replied, “Don’t you understand? For the pupils in my class, I am not merely a teacher; I am mother. These children grew up without affection. In addition to teaching them reading and writing, I must also read them fairy tales. My failure to fulfill the teaching plan will ultimately be redeemed by the complete education I have given these children,” she said. The chastised director patiently heard her and did not pursue the matter any further.

I don’t know what became of the orphanage after war broke out. In 1940, I was mobilized as a civilian worker in the army. Instead of a rifle, I was given a shovel to construct fortification on the new Soviet-German border in western Byelorussia.

By the way, in this unit, building battalion, were the sons of executed parents, and beside us also were criminals. That’s the same pattern that exists now in the Soviet Union in their prisons. I thank you very much.

Maria N.:

In August of 1931, I was appointed to a teaching position at a school in the village of Ovsiuky, located in Yablunivsky district in Poltava region. The offensive against villagers was at its height. They were being forced to enter collective farms, and “voluntarily” to hand over to the government the harvest from their own fields.

One evening, the party leadership of the village ordered a meeting of party activists and school teachers to take place at the village soviet. An official sent by the district party committee spoke of the necessity of collective farms, and maintained that it was necessary to organize grain search brigades to collect “to the last pound, to the last kernel of grain.”

I witnessed how two party members turned in their party membership cards after being branded “enemies of the people” and were subsequently arrested.

The next day, the village activists were divided into shock brigades which were sent out to every corner of the village. There was a Russian in each brigade. Dark days set in for the village farmers. The shock brigades equipped with sharp metal pikes, the kind utilized by farmers in haying, went from house to house poking the walls, searching the cattle sheds and yards in an attempt to find grain, and seizing everything, including baked bread.

The brigades came to owners of individual homesteads who were labelled Indusy, Indians. The twenty-five-thousanders, [those mobilized as part of a campaign in 1929-1933] so called because of the official campaign to mobilize 25,000 urban workers for permanent work in the countryside, assigned the teachers to the brigades one at a time.

The teachers were forced to enter into ledgers the amount of grain confiscated by the grain search brigade and name of the victim. My turn came. It was impossible for me to refuse to join the brigade, particularly since I was the daughter of dekulakized parents, although no one in the village of Ovsiuky knew my background since I had fled from my native farmstead. At the time, the Bolsheviks came out with the slogan: “He who is not with us is against us.”

I was notified about my assignment with the brigade in the evening, and the next morning had to leave with the brigade. The leader of the brigade handed me a notebook and a pencil, and informed me how the entries concerning the villagers from whom grain had been taken should be made. I was overwhelmed by fear and sadness for my family, and for my husband who had been thrown out of their very own homes in January of 1930, under the strict injunction not to take anything with them, other than the clothes on their back.

We first entered the home of a priest. It was still dark outside. The leader of the brigade ordered the priest, Father Skitsky, to open the door and threatened to break it down if he didn’t comply. The priest, dressed in his night clothes, opened the door. On the floor where the family slept sat his wife, also in night clothes, and their daughter, who had been forbidden to attend school.

The priest’s family was terrified. At first the priest was asked, “Where is the grain, and how much of it is there?” Following the priest’s response in the negative, the brigade commenced its search. I witnessed for the first time how the brigade conducted its searches.

The contents of the house were all turned over. Every corner was scrupulously searched, including the stove. The exterior and interior were examined to the tiniest crevice, including the ashes and the crocks sitting on top of the stove.

The icons were turned over. The floors were poked with metal crooks, as were the ceiling and the thatched roof. The same thing happened in the entrance hall, in the cattle shed and in the yard. Returning to the house, the brigade workers discovered a piece of bread and couple of handfuls of flour hidden away in the bed.

These were confiscated, and the priest was arrested. The brigade went from farmstead to farmstead, and its method of confiscating grain never differed. Each protesting farmer was assaulted with a torrent of verbal abuse entered in Russian.

The brigade entered the house of a dekulakized peasant. The owner had already been exiled to Siberia. His wife who was in the last stages of tuberculosis of the lungs was confined to her bed, and their 9-year-old daughter had her face and entire body swollen from hunger. It was very difficult for me to describe the horrible spectacle which I witnessed, and difficult for those who were not witnesses to it to believe what I saw.

The house was filthy after the dekulakization. The window panes had been poked out and the holes stopped up with hay. The emaciated women with deep sunken eyes lay silent in a filthy bed. Yellow skin covered her bones, and she coughed up blood. The little girl did not attend school, because she lacked clothing, shoes and proper social origins.

The methods of grain seizure were again the same. They found half a loaf of baked bread. Questions began, phrased in Russian and sprinkled with verbal abuse. “If there is bread in the house, where is the flour?”

The little girl explained that someone had brought the bread to the house the night before, and that she, not having had anything to eat for three days, had eaten half the loaf with water, leaving the rest for later. The bread was taken away, despite the little girl’s importuning to leave some for her sick mother.

The leader of the brigade threatened to send the little girl to Siberia, and when she approached him, he pushed her away so hard that she fell to the floor.

On rare occasions, the brigade actually did find a small amount of grain. In the evening, the brigades returned to the village soviet, and my brigade which had seized the most grain received a red cloth which was called “a victory flag,” which was taken on the brigades next expedition to rob industrious peasants the next day, this time without me.

The baked bread, groats and the millet were all given to the members of the Komsomol, Communist Youth League, and to the Komnezam, Committee of Non-Wealthy Peasants, really loafers, as a reward for a job well done. The harvest arrived and the twenty-five-thousanders ordered all of the grain to be taken straight from the reaping machines “to the last pound, to last kernel of grain.”

Hungry farmers, and particularly their children, tried to gather sheaves of wheat from their own fields, but these were seized by the members of the Komsomol and the Komnezam, because eating grain from your own field was called robbing socialism.

In August of 1932, I was transferred from the village of Ovsiukiv to the village of Krupoderentsi located in the Orzhytsky district in the Poltava region. Krupoderentsi was a wealthy Cossack village where there were only a few Komsomol members since only the children of poor peasants tended to join the Komsomol.

It would seem that in such a large and wealthy village consisting of patriotic Cossacks, the twenty-five-thousanders would have a hard time vanquishing the farmers whose farmsteads were still untouched by collectivization.

At the first meeting of party activists at the village of Krupoderentsi which all the teachers had to attend, I encountered young boys who spoke Russian. I found out that these boys were sent by the authorities to help with the grain confiscation, for the authorities did not trust the local party activists to do the job.

The same instructions were given to seize the grain “to the last pound, to the last kernel,” as well as the potatoes which are second only to grain as a major food source in the Soviet Union.

The fall of 1932 and the spring of 1933 saw the harshest offensive against the Ukrainian farmer, because only through hunger could the resistance of the farmers against the hated collectivization be broken.

In Krupoderentsi, there was already a collective farm. All of the grist mills in the villages and towns either passed into the hands of the local authorities or were closed down. Villagers who still held on to some grain either crushed it with mortars or with rolling pins and added to the flour derived in this way bits of pumpkin, beets, cabbage. The resulting mixture, when baked, resembled bread.

Domestic animals and birds were slaughtered the winter before in the absence of produce and meat which also had to be handed over to the government. In the new year of 1933, people were slowly starving. The village was dying. Its inhabitants slowly succumbing to the circumstances around them.

In the spring of 1933, a massive famine struck Ukrainian villages. Women, men and children swollen from hunger were starving to death while the brigades continued to go from house to house, destroying the ovens, fireplaces, breaking up the thatched roofs in their quest for grain. The mortality caused by the famine increased daily.

Parents who still had the strength to carry their small children drove them on the roofs of the train cars to cities, and abandoned them on city streets. The militia picked up the abandoned children and placed them on the hay in cattle cars. Wards were appointed for the abandoned children.

The children were fed a so-called soup made of water with a little millet thrown in and 100 grams of soggy bread daily. Many of these children died, while others were placed in orphanages where they were taught to love Father Stalin and the beloved party which has murdered their parents through hunger.

The parents of the abandoned children and other villagers went to garbage dumps where the urban housewives threw away their refuse, ate the decaying matter which was covered with flies, and consequently died of food poisoning.

The children who were still alive looked like skeletons. Filthy and torn, they cried out, “Bread, bread, give me a little piece of bread. Mama, I’m hungry, bread.”

Two churches in the village of Krupoderentsi had been filled with grain and potatoes. The church was surrounded with barbed wire, and armed Russian guards stood watch over the plundered grain day and night.

Struggling to survive, the people ate leaves, nettles, pigweed, sorrel, honeysuckle, bulrushes. They made tea out of the branches of cherry trees. The leaves of the linden trees were the tastiest. People gleaned the remnants of rotten siftings and potato and beet peelings. To these were added strained linden leaves and the baked mixture was called shchodennyky or everyday patties.

Whoever had a poppyseed cake divided it among the members of his family leaving some for the following days. People died of hunger in the houses, the fields, in the yards, streets, railroad stations, on the roofs of train cars.

In the year 1933, until the harvest of that year, the mortality increased with each day. Every day a vehicle from the collective farm drove up to houses, and the driver called out, “Are there any dead people in there.” Bodies were collected everywhere. They were usually rolled in sack cloth, piled onto wagons like logs of wood, driven to a single large hole, piled into the hole and sprinkled with lime.

When one hole was completely filled with bodies, another one was dug. Bells did not toll for the dead. No one wept for the dead or accompanied the bodies to their final rest. Only flies swarmed around the dead bodies which were already in the process of decomposing. The people who collected the bodies received recompense for their day’s work which was a bit of corn or some barley.

One spring day on my way to school, I heard the cries of a child. Going up to the yard where the cries were coming from, I saw a young mother sitting on a bank of earth against the house. There was an infant on her breast which was frantically trying to suck its mother’s breasts which were as dry as empty bags.

It seemed at first that she was asleep, but when I touched her shoulder, she fell like a blade of grass. She was dead. Her child rolled off her, hit its head against he ground and also died.

Some people travelled to Russia and were able to acquire flour, millet and other items through illegal barter, but such good fortune was rare. My mother mustered up the courage to make a trip into Russia. My sister and I gathered all that was best for trading and gave my mother some money for teachers received regular monthly wages, and she departed for Russia to seek her fortune.

She was able to obtain some flour, millet and a bottle of oil, but her happiness was short-lived and ended in tears. At the border, everything was taken away from her, and her name and address were recorded. She was given a severe reprimand never to travel to Russia in search of food or to tell Ukrainians about how the Russians lived.

People were very much interested in the life of their so-called “elder brothers,” [beginning in the 1930s, Soviet ideology began to refer to the Ukrainian nation as the “younger brother” of the Russian nation in order to emphasize the latter’s ideological, cultural and political seniority] but mother was so frightened that she told people she had never reached Russia because of the illness that befell her on her journey.

My mother visited several Russian villages where people had bread, potatoes, different kinds of grain, bacon, oil, milk, eggs and other foodstuffs, yet were afraid to sell them to Ukrainians or to trade with Ukrainians.

Some Russians did engage in these activities discreetly. Mother said that Russia seemed like another kingdom. And she saw it, the people were cheerful, lived a normal existence, went to work, were pleased with everything.

The village loudspeakers blared the message, “Zhyt stalo luchshe; zhyt stalo veselei,” life has gotten easier, life has become more fun. During her stay in Russia, mother spent the nights in different villages, at the homes of families where she was treated to an unlimited quantity of bread, cabbage soup, milk, porridge with milk and other kinds of food. I found out that her Russian hosts knew nothing of the situation in Ukraine, and mother told them nothing of what was happening there.