May 24, 1987

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


(The Ukrainian Weekly, May 24, 1987, No. 21, Vol. LV)

Following are excerpts of testimony by eyewitnesses to the man-made famine of 1932-33 in Ukraine who appeared at the San Francisco regional hearing of the U.S. Commission on the Ukraine Famine on February 10.

Mykola Kostyrko, Sacramento:

…When the famine started – that is, when they took away all the meager reserves from the Ukrainian peasants, whoever had some clothing or other articles came to the city, to the market, to sell it and buy bread. But bread was sold by ration cards. A black market emerged and the high prices did nothing to resolve the hunger problem. Starving, ragged peasants staggered through the city. On the streets, especially on the outskirts of town, lay the bodies of those who died of starvation.

The government did all it could to make sure no one saw this, because many foreign vessels came to Odessa’s ports to take the “surplus” Ukrainian grain and other merchandise abroad. They exported everything, in order to get foreign capital for the “needs of the state” – to buy tractors, and for propaganda abroad, among other things. The city “cleaned up” the corpses every morning. A special club was created for foreign sailors to prevent them from going into the city and seeing what they could not have missed. At the club, they were entertained and distracted, even with girls.

I also had the opportunity to witness the “show of prosperity” staged to pull the wool over the eyes of the French minister Herriot, who was invited to Ukraine to convince him that there was no famine. (He was undoubtedly convinced when he received a number of rare paintings from museums.) As proof that life was absolutely normal, they escorted him along streets that had been specially prepared for him. Police were stationed around these streets and did not admit people who were poorly dressed or had shabby-looking vehicles. I walked along the main street and was amazed to see that the storefront windows were full of all sorts of merchandise. In those days, all the stores were empty, and one could buy only poor quality cheesecakes and tooth powder. I went into one store where I knew the sales clerk, and asked if I could buy something. He told me that nothing was for sale. For what, then? Maybe they were filming a movie.

At that time, there were only a few personal cars in the city. They belonged to the government and were used by big party bosses. These automobiles were cruising back and forth, to create the impression that our streets were as busy as any abroad. A few weeks later, I learned that this had been a sham, a stage play of “the good life,” specially arranged for a few hours for Mr. Herriot’s visit. This spectacle has a historical precedent, the “Potemkin village” of Catherine the Great’s time.

…I witnessed yet another tragic phenomenon. Starving mothers brought their children into the city and left them on the streets, hoping that they would be saved if someone picked them up. There was a pediatric clinic not far from the place where I lived. On my way to work, I passed by this clinic. During the famine, I saw small children at the gate of the clinic. When the famine first started, there were five or six children there each day, but with each day, more children appeared. They looked horrible. They sat on the ground, emaciated, with strained, suffering faces. Many of them were bleeding from their intestines. Heartsick women from the local area knocked at the gate, shouting at the clinic to take these children. But the medical personnel were in no hurry to do this. All the same, when I returned home from work, these children would be gone. They took them in after all. On subsequent days, the scene was the same, and the number of abandoned children increased.

Ivan Kasiianenko, Los Angeles:

…In 1932 the harvest (in Kovalivka, Hrebinka raion, Kiev province) was a normal one. It was brought in before anyone suspected what was to happen. It was winter when they came in to take the grain that had already been ground into flour and was stored in bags. They came and seized all of this grain, not only from us but from all the villagers. And ours was a large village – 6,000 people lived there.

The sound of crying was everywhere. Those who seized the grain carried out their orders without mercy. I remember as if it were yesterday how a man ran away, leaving behind a wife and three children. They took absolutely everything: cows, pigs, everything. There was nothing left for the wife to do. She sent her children away to fend for themselves, set fire to the house and hanged herself.

Things were a little different in my family. My father was always on the run during the day and would only come at night. We had nothing; they had taken everything from us. They came with their pikes, poked around, asked questions and grabbed my mother by the hair. They tore off my mother’s earrings and her cross. We children cried, but nothing helped. No one paid any attention to our tears.

They locked our mother in the basement. So there we were, five of us children with me the oldest, and our father nowhere to be found. They came back to see if they had missed anything and found one egg that had not been taken. They took it away.

Father would sometimes be able to bring us a little flour, sometimes a little grain, anything that had not been seized. But protecting the food was impossible because our house was under constant surveillance, and he could not get to us every night. They took everything, even our clothes. We did not even have a blanket. We were poor as church mice. We huddled together at night to keep warm.

After two weeks they let mother out of the basement. But what could she do when there was nothing to eat? In March or April 1933 they took our cow. The first to die was my youngest sister, then another sister. Then my brother and a third sister died at the same time. Father died and was buried on Holy Thursday. Mother died two days later, and they threw her in a hole on Easter Sunday. I remember how a neighbor came and comforted me, saying that although my parents had gone, they had died on holy days, Holy Thursday and Easter. It was a terrible time for me. I was starving myself, to such an extent that I could not walk.

Before he died, my father had asked one of the teachers to take me under his wing. I was only in the first grade at the time, and it was only thanks to this teacher that I survived. He took me to a hospital. I don’t remember who the doctor was or anything about the place. I only remember that my skin was shiny and transparent like glass. The doctor cut me open in several places and let the liquid under my skin run out. It smelled like dead flesh. When I left the hospital, I had no strength to walk and sat in the sun. The teacher picked me up and saved my life.

…A horrifying silence settled over the village. I can still remember going to my neighbors’ houses to see if anyone was alive. I remember going into one house and seeing the blind son sitting in one corner. His skin was grey. He had been dead perhaps a week or two. And he wasn’t the only one. Starving people on the verge of death, sometimes even mothers, sometimes lost their sanity and turned into animals who smothered their own children and ate them. It happened, for example, to one of my acquaintances. His name was Ivan Ostapenko. His mother put a noose around his neck and tried to strangle him, but he was stronger than she was and managed to break her hold. But he kept the marks the ropes left on his throat for a long time.

I went to another neighbor’s house. They were young people. I looked in the window and saw the mother and father lying dead on the floor. Their infant son was lying in the middle, still alive, and sucking it’s mother’s dry breast. I took him to a retention place for such children, and he was saved. As long as I stayed in the village, he was like a brother to me, and I watched over him. When they took us to the orphanage, we went together. Children whose parents had died of starvation were not treated well. They were not allowed to light the stove to keep warm or to wear warm clothing. We were told that we were parasites, capitalists, vestiges of the kulaks and exploiting classes.

These weren’t orphanages; they were houses of torture. The children had nothing to eat. It was impossible to keep clean. We were literally eaten by lice. But nobody cared. We were the progeny of the defeated class enemy. …

Oleksander Merkelo, San Francisco:

…Sometime in 1929, special agents, the so-called “twenty-five-thousanders,” came to the village (Kolodiazna) from Moscow. The twenty-five-thousanders were urban workers who, beginning in 1929, were recruited for permanent work in the countryside. The goal was to recruit 25,000 such individuals. A middle-aged man, who looked very well-fed and well-dressed, with his family (a wile and young son), rented the best house in the village. He received packages regularly from Moscow, with food, salmon cakes and all he needed to live comfortable life.

He set up a local activist group, comprised of semiliterate and sometimes criminal elements. If there weren’t enough of them, he mobilized other collective farmers, local teachers and the like, and faithfully fulfilled his tacitly understood plan.

Incidentally, this agent lived next door to us.

From the harvest of 1930, we were still unable to fulfill the excessive grain quotas, and the grain procurement brigade came and confiscated all the grain they could find. We survived the winter of 1930-31 with great hardship.

The village seemed dead. You could hear neither the barking of dogs, nor the cock’s crow, nor singing or dancing. As for the dekulakized peasants, some died, and the stronger ones abandoned the village and moved to the industrial centers and new developments, where labor was needed. …

…Already in the fall of 1932, famine raged. People began to mix flour with chaff and tree bark. They fed themselves mainly with vegetables. Swollen persons began to appear along the roads, wandering aimlessly. Railroad stations became crowded with people in search of food. Whole families died, and there were instances of cannibalism.

…Schools became empty; the children, feeble and sometimes swollen, couldn’t walk to school. In a few schools, they fed them soup, and this was the motivation for them to go to school.

…In the spring of 1933, the fertile Ukrainian soil was covered with human corpses. Corpses could be seen everywhere – on the roads, in the fields, at the railroad stations. Sometimes I went to visit my village (for I still had family there) and I saw how special brigades gathered the corpses from the streets and the houses and carted them to common graves, or simply threw them in ravines. Even these “undertakers” themselves were half-dead.

It was frightening to look at people – I couldn’t even recognize some of my own friends. …

Oleksiy Keis, San Feancisco:

…The terrible famine began in the fall of 1932. My family was living in the town of Enakievo in the Donbas area. Frequently, we witnessed how hungry people from collective farms gathered along the railroad lines Zverovo-Kiev and Zverovo-Muellerovo, thinking that travelers on the trains would throw them a piece of bread. All along the railroad you could see the corpses of people who had died begging for food, corpses that lay on the ground like sheaves.

…In 1933, when the people in the collective farms had already died from hunger, factory workers like myself were mobilized to work the soil. Four hundred young men and women, myself included, were drafted from Enakievo for this purpose. We were joined by 70 other individuals from the mining towns of Zverovka and Sofiyivka. We were taken to the village of Korsunovo, which was 12 miles away from Enakievo. There were three collective farms in Korsunovo. One was called Prometey. The others were the Shevchenko Collective Farm. In Korsunovo there were only 10 families. In all of the collective farms the people had either died or fled. The 470 persons who had been mobilized to work on the collective farms were divided into three working brigades of 150 each.

Twice daily we were given cabbage with a little oil sprinkled over it, which was brought to where we were working in large metal containers.

…The collective farm to which I was assigned was 12 kilometers from the place where my parents lived. After an entire day of sowing seed, I spent my evenings filling a sack with young tender stalks of plants called “loputsky,” bitter grass called “shcharytsia,” pigweed (loboda), and nettle (kropyva) which I then took to my parents at night. All of the grass surrounding the town where my parents were had been picked by starving villagers who had wandered into the town looking for food. My weekly delivery of two bags of weed sustained my family through the famine. My mother would sometimes make a trip to Druzhkovo, where my sister lived. She would return with a basketful of potatoes and beets. But even the food obtained this way could not prevent my sisters and brother from swelling up a little. In fact, my brother was so weak from a lack of food that he was unable to walk without falling. Once Ivan and I were coming home through the cemetery when he fell to the ground unconscious. I was forced to take him under the shoulders and pull him home like a piece of wood. My entire family was very, very weak. I was the only one who had any strength left.

Once in Enakievo my brother and I were walking along Turtina Street, or it may have been Trutina Street, I have forgotten which. We saw the corpse of a young woman propped up against a plank fence. As we approached we saw there was a child on her breast who sucked the breast without realizing there was no milk left. A sanitary truck, whose job it was to collect the dead bodies from the streets, pulled up as we watched. Two men jumped out of the truck, grabbed the body by the leg and dragged it up on top of the pile of bodies in the truck. Then they took the living child and threw it up with the dead bodies. My brother and I wept in pity for the child, but we realized that there was little that we or anyone else could do to help it, for we were all hungry.

…I saw thousands of homeless children during this time, particularly little waifs, who had been around since the period of dekulakization. Abandoned by their parents, these children had survived, many of them subsisting on weeds. They wandered around in gangs, stealing from people at the market places. There were so many hungry children not only where I lived, but also in the city of Kharkiv, where I traveled once in a while.

…The Soviet government told officials on the oblast’ and raion level that they must never write on a death certificate that someone had died of starvation. Since the authorities had to account for every single death, even the people who died on the roads and streets, they would make up all sorts of illnesses – intestinal disorders, heart attacks – as causes of death. …

A. Butkovska (pseudonym), San Francisco:

…Left without bread, the villages at first subsisted on the remnants of garden vegetables. Then they ate the bark off the trees or sunflower stems, which they cut into tiny pieces, or they ate corncobs. Those who lived near a pond or a stream ate whatever they could catch. All dogs and cats were eaten, and the villages fell silent, doomed to extinction from hunger.

Those who survived the spring of 1933 did so by subsisting on broth made from nettles, dandelions or sorrel mixed with pigweed. They looked for such food everywhere, and those who lacked the strength to do so died quietly in their houses. Themselves starving, the villagers had nothing to bring to town.

…I once happened to see the police take away two large baskets containing newborn infants, which they had picked up on the streets. The starving mothers who had given them birth were unable to sustain their lives and had abandoned them, thinking perhaps that some stroke of luck would save their babies’ lives.

The number of rural refugees in Kharkiv grew with each spring day. Emaciated, with ashen faces, swollen limbs, and blisters all over their bodies, these creatures sat on each side of the bread line, staring expressionlessly at the ground or into space. They had neither the money with which to buy bread nor the strength to stand in line for hours. Once in a while, someone who had been lucky enough to buy bread gave a little to one of these unfortunates. There were cases where they died on the spot, having eaten too large a piece of bread. Some were afraid even to ask the townspeople for bread and begged only for water with outstretched tin cans.

The mothers with babies in their arms made the strongest impression. They seldom mingled with the others. I remember seeing one such mother who looked more like a shadow than a human being. She was standing by the side of the road, and her little skeleton of a child, instead of suckling her mother’s empty breast, sucked it’s own small knuckles thinly covered with translucent skin.

I have no idea how many of the unfortunates I saw managed to survive. Every morning on my way to work, I saw bodies on the pavements, in ditches, under a bush or a tree, which were later carried away. They died in the streets which bore the ever-present slogan, “Life has become easier; life has become more fun.” Now and then, someone risked his life to add “for Stalin.” …

Anna S., San Francisco:

Kiev: Spring of 1933. In the early spring of 1933, in the city of Kiev, I was a sixth-grade student at Seven-year School No. 27 on Lukianivsky Street.

My school and other schools in Kiev were closed (that spring). The classrooms were stripped of school desks. Hay and straw were strewn on the floors of the rooms, where adults and children lay, swollen and dying. Those who died were hauled away in freight trucks to a place beyond the outskirts of the city where they were buried in common graves and covered with dirt.

By some miracle, groups of villagers made their way to the city. The police were stationed along the roads leading to Kiev, and they sent everyone back to the village who didn’t have official documents permitting them to enter the city. In the same way, they checked all passengers on trains or other conveyances. These unfortunate people, chiefly women and children, would stop first at the bazaars to try to trade in vegetables, seed grain and old rags, of which there was very little.

I personally saw many swollen, starving people, including children, who sat on the still frozen ground at the bazaar, on dirty sacks and rags, bagging for something to eat.

Sometimes I would see wretched villagers with their children lying dead beside them. Most of the mothers were very swollen and just barely alive. The police tried to drive them away by force, but they weren’t even able to pick themselves up off the ground; and so there they died. Then they loaded them up on freight trucks and hauled them off to common graves outside the city. At the cemetery near our home it was already forbidden to bury these dead.

…The hungry and the swollen wandered from house to house, from place to place, begging for bread. Very often, when somebody rang at our door, we would open it only to find the person already dead, with their hand outstretched for help. …