(The Ukrainian Weekly, March 8, 1987, No. 10, 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.
My name is Anastasia Kh. I was born in Kharkiv Oblast. My recollection of the tragedy of the Ukrainian nation begins at the age of 7. Around the year 1930, I returned from school one day to discover strangers taking away our wagon, horses and cow.
My mother, who survived the famine of 1932-33, only to die of hunger in 1946, was crying out and begging them to leave the cow for the children for a village cow was a second mother to small children, but my mother’s pleas went unheeded.
This happened three times, as I recall. On the third time, they took away our chest of clothes and all the grain. Mother sat us little ones on top of a sack containing about 20 kilograms of grain which was lying on the kitchen stove, but they pulled us down from the stove and removed the grain to the last kernel. That’s how the horrible tragedy began in our village.
First, the villagers were divided into three classes – kulaks, middle peasants and poor peasants. They were considered middle peasants, because the kulaks, as the wealthiest peasants were called, had already been dispossessed of their property in 1929.
My mother worked in the city of Kharkiv which was 65 miles away from our village. Workers at that time were given, or more accurately, permitted to buy 300 grams of bread, while children, as I recall, were allotted 200 grams. But, poor father had to work such long hours that he was unable to come home every evening with our bread. After waiting in line for many long hours, he often missed the last train back to our village, and was forced to transmit the bread to us through village acquaintances.
This was still during the years 1930-31. The following years, 1932-33, were truly a horrible time for our family. The winter was extremely cold. There was no firewood. The house was cold inside. Worst of all, there was nothing for us to eat.
I remember how I and my two youngest brothers, one was 7, the other 5, would crawl up to the loft where some sort of chaff was stored. In it, we found some kidney beans which we proceeded to pick out one by one.
Mother soaked them and made some kind of broth out of them, and we were immeasurably happy that we had discovered such treasure in the loft, but it was impossible to subsist on bean broth forever, since with each passing day, there were fewer and fewer beans to eat, and the day came when we were unable to find any more.
When spring came, we would go to the forest to pick sorrel. In the summer, we would go to the pine forest to pick mushrooms. As time went on, hunger began to torment us more and more. At the time, I was the oldest of four children in our family. One younger brother had died in 1930. I was often forced to miss school, because of trips to Kharkiv to take father’s place in the bread lines.
But, whenever the time came for me to take my bread, I would generally be told either that there was none left or that I was too small to be buying bread. You can imagine how pitiful I felt, having waited long hours for the bread, only to return empty-handed.
The train cars were filled with many swollen children whose parents were either no longer living or who, unable to endure the sight of their dying children, threw them out the window of the train cars.
Those children who were still alive after such treatment were taken away to some kind of shelter. I generally hid under the benches, because I was afraid they would take me away as well. In addition, I was already swollen from hunger, and it was difficult for me to drag my legs which had grown very heavy.
I was not yet 10 years old. In school, as I recall, orphans were given some sort of broth to drink and some bread to eat. I am ashamed to say that I envied them, because they were orphaned and were able to get food.
God forgive me, I was small myself and very hungry. In the beginning, there were 30 children in the first grade. Then 25, 20, 15 and finally only a few remained. I, too, was no longer able to attend school for I no longer had the strength.
Once in the spring of 1933, I was fortunate enough to obtain a kilogram of bread on Zmiyivsky Street in Kharkiv. I hid my bountiful treasure in the lining of my coat. I wanted to eat it so badly, but realized that if I began to nibble it, I would be unable to stop, and there would be nothing left for my brother, sister and mother who was breast-feeding a baby at the time with blood instead of milk, because her breasts had gone dry from hunger.
I often saw how my mother prayed to God to be allowed to die, for she could no longer endure the sight of her child suffering. To this very day, I can see my poor little sister before my very eyes. She was all skin and bones, like the children in Ethiopia.
Once, I managed to obtain two kilograms of bread. This happened in the following way. There were two merchants selling bread in the store. I came up to one of them and he gave me one kilogram. Then I squeezed into another line and got more bread from another merchant.
I was so afraid that my treasures would be taken away from me as I left the store. Walking through the door, I took care to hide the bread under my arm, so that no one would notice that I had any and seize it.
I saw many unfortunate souls who were close to death. I recall walking past a young woman with a baby on her breast. She begged me to give her some bread in the name of Christ, but I refused, because I myself had not eaten any of it yet.
I thought that if I gave the bread to all the hungry people I met, there wouldn’t be any left for me. No sooner had I walked away than the unfortunate woman keeled over and died. Fear gripped my heart, for it seemed that her wide open eyes were accusing me of denying her bread. They came and took her baby away which in death, she continued to hold in a tight grip.
The vision of this dead woman haunted me for a long time afterwards. I was unable to sleep at night, because I kept seeing her before me. When I related my experience to my mother, she tried to cheer me up by saying that I would not have been able to save the woman even if I had given her an entire loaf of bread, for her system had already been undermined by hunger.
At the time, bread was the most vital form of sustenance. I recall how father on several occasions took us to Kharkiv to a so-called cafeteria. The cafeteria must have been only for party workers, because father was unable to buy anything for us to eat, although we saw others eating and even leaving scraps on their plates which we ate after the people had left.
Once when we were at the restaurant, a well-dressed man came to father and began screaming at him. They threw us out of the restaurant, and we never again returned.
The summer of 1933 brought with it a good harvest. We children would go in twos and threes with bags and scissors to cut down sheaves of wheat for which one could be severely punished, if caught.
I went to an area near another village, Novo-Andriyivka and Petrovske, to collect the sheaves. At the village, I heard that a mother had killed her own child near the shocks of wheat. The little girl’s name was Halya. The mother stabbed her with scissors, and took the meat home to feed her sons. The little boys said the cooked meat was so good that some went mad. She ran out of the house and began screaming that she had eaten her own child.
Returning home with the sheaves we had cut, we met three young men who were members of the Komsomol Youth League. They took away our sheaves and beat us so severely that there were bruises on my shoulders and lower legs long afterwards.
It was generally so difficult to reach the train that people would climb on tops of the train cars. The conductor who sold tickets would chase the people out of one side of the train, only to have them crawl back through the other side. I was so terrified of the conductor that for a long time afterwards, I kept hearing his cry, “Show your tickets.” And so, swollen though we were, we still went to the forest to pick mushrooms and other plants, such as nettles and sorrel, and anything else we could find which would soothe the pain in our stomachs.
Thanks be to God who saved us from death during the famine of l932-33.
In 1932, I lived in Kharkiv. Suddenly, rumors began to circulate throughout the city that there was a famine in the Ukrainian countryside. There were no official confirmations of the rumors nor was there any newspaper reporting on the subject. Very soon thereafter, peasants began filtering into the city. They came one by one, not in groups or families.
They were mostly young mothers with babies or small children. Occasionally one would see teenage boys. A typical picture I observed many times was of a mother with a baby coming into town and looking for a busy street. She would spread her kerchief on the sidewalk, place her baby on it and leave. Sometimes she would go only as far as the street corner, stop there and watch if anybody would pick up her child. No one would.
After a while, she would return, pick up the baby and proceed to another street corner and try again. Never did I see anyone stop and pick up the babies. At first, for about the first two or three months, these were sporadic instances, but gradually they increased until there was a steady stream of starving peasants coming to the city.
The children and the mothers began to die first. The dead and the dying were being picked up by special trucks which regularly patrolled the city streets. The trucks drove them out of town to special barns set up as collection points.
Those who were still breathing were simply left there to die. There was no medical service or food provided at these centers. The city folk knew about it, but the peasants did not. They assumed the trucks were provided by the authorities to take care of them, and many mothers gladly put their children on those trucks and climbed there themselves thinking they would be fed.
The brutal truth about the fate of those being taken away soon became known to the peasants, and many a time one could hear a piercing cry of a mother who upon her return to the street corner where she left her baby discovered the baby was gone. In vain, the passers-by tried to comfort her saying that perhaps someone had taken in her child out of compassion.
After a while, the peasants arriving in the city could barely walk. I remember one scene in which a young boy, emaciated to the point where he had to be supported on each side by adults, probably his parents, who themselves were barely able to walk, was coming towards me.
From afar, it appeared as if the boy were grinning. I was chilled with horror at the sight. When the group came near, I realized that the grimace on the boy’s face was caused by the taut skin pulled up and baring his teeth.
I remember leaving a drama theater and finding starving children, barely five years of age, curled up in the niches near the entrance slowly dying. Every time I went out in the street, I took bread and other soft food with me and gave it to the mothers, but soon their children were so starved they could no longer consume any food.
The city folk began to feel the squeeze, too. There was scarcity of food everywhere. My husband, Serhii Pylypenko, along with other prominent writers and members of the Communist Party, was issued a book of special coupons or meal tickets for the privileged dining room at the Sovnarkom, Council of People’s Commissars. When we went to eat there for the first time, we discovered that it was permissible to take out the meals.
The next time we came equipped with bowls, filled them with food, soup, meat, vegetable, and stepping outside where a large crowd of hungry children was waiting, began to distribute it. The children had no dishes, so we just sat down among them and fed them from our bowls.
There were also some mothers there who helped us. Some of my husband’s colleagues, seeing what we were doing, began feeding the children also. I must say that very few writers were privileged enough to obtain food coupons for the Sovnarkom dining room, and out of those, even fewer decided to share their food with the hungry.
I also must add that the food we gave away was not our only food. We all received additional special distribution package, Paiki, so that we were not going hungry.
In the summer of 1932, the Union of Writers of Ukraine, organized for its members and their families a trip to Skadovske, a resort on the Black Sea, near the city of Dnipropetrovske, I was also a member of that union.
The sea shore near the resort was barren, sandy and overgrown with low brush wood. There were no buildings there of any sort. The whole area looked rather desolate.
Further up the shore at the mouth of the River Dnieper, we saw hundreds of dug-outs made by the peasants who fled from the famine. They dug those holes in the ground and lived there with their families, perhaps hundreds of them. They survived by catching fish. Many of them came from far away. It was late summer, and the peasants wanted to find out how the crops which they planted earlier were doing.
They sent their scouts to their native villages. The scouts returned with the news that the crops were excellent, but that there was no one left to harvest them. However, the authorities have brought the factory workers from cities, and had imported Russians to do the harvesting for them. So far as I know, those dug-out dwellers were not discovered by the authorities and were saved.
One day that summer, my husband was returning from work. He worked as the editor-in-chief at the State Publishing House. We lived in the cooperative apartment building called Slovo, The Word, [The Slovo building was reserved for the most prominent Communist writers in the Ukrainian SSR. – Famine Commission staff.] on the outskirts of town. There was a small marketplace nearby.
Passing through it, my husband noticed a young woman wandering aimlessly and looking lost. She had nothing on but a long peasant skirt and was barefoot. He asked her what she was looking for, and she answered that everyone in her village was starving to death, that she had no one and nowhere to go.
She looked so pitiful that my husband told her to follow him. He brought her to our apartment where our cook took her to the kitchen and offered her some food. The young woman burst out crying and confessed that she had not had any food for four days. We washed and scrubbed her, gave her some clothes and let her stay with us.
The poor woman was beside herself with joy and tried to show her appreciation in every way she could, doing all kinds of chores around the house. She literally worshipped my husband. She stayed with us for six months, and then my husband found her work in some factory.
This woman was not the only person my husband managed to save. There were many others. Being the head and founder of the Peasant Writers Association called Pluh, The Plough, he was aware that most members of his organization tried to help their starving relatives in the villages, and he gave them assistance in every possible way, especially by finding jobs for those peasants.
As a party member, my husband had firsthand knowledge of the open protest against the man-made famine by the communist writer Mykola Khvyliovy. Khvyliovy had asked the party to dispatch him to the country to help confiscate the grain, believing that the grain was being withheld by the stubborn wealthy kulak peasants.
Upon his arrival in the country, he found the entire village starving to death. In horror, he immediately wired the Central Committee saying, “The village is starving. We must send food there, not confiscate it from the peasants.”
In response, the party officials ordered Khvyliovy to return from his assignment. When he arrived in Kharkiv, he was told that everything proceeded according to the party directive. Within a short time, thereafter, Khvyliovy committed suicide. [Mykola Khvyliovy, the most popular Soviet Ukrainian writer of the 1920s, committed suicide to protest the artificially-created famine in May 1933. – Famine Commission staff.]
In 1933, my husband was arrested and our family was exiled from Ukraine. We settled in Kalinin, a city north of Moscow. There the local people were astonished to hear my story about the famine in Ukraine. “How could that be,” they said, “when we see Ukrainian bread and sugar being sold in our stores?”
Equally amazed were my friends in Moscow. “So that’s why we saw all those Ukrainian peasants wandering in the streets of Moscow. We were all puzzled by what was going on,” they told me.
I never thought I would live to hear that anyone could claim that the so-called famine never took place in Ukraine in 1932.