June 28, 1987

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


(The Ukrainian Weekly, June 28, 1987, No. 26, Vol. LV)

Following are excerpts of testimony by eyewitnesses to the man-made famine of 1932-33 in Ukraine who appeared at the Philadelphia regional hearing of the U.S. Commission on the Ukraine Famine on June 5.

Larysa Donchuk, Philadelphia:

I was born in the region of Poltava on September 18, 1908, and was 24 years old when the famine began in 1932. As the daughter of a Ukrainian Orthodox priest, I belonged to what the Soviet state called the “foreign class element.” As a priest’s daughter, I was denied admission to the Poltava Agricultural Institute after finishing middle school.

My late husband, however, was able to graduate from this institute, took a position in Kharkiv, and I moved there in 1932. In the following year my husband was arrested, but good people helped me to find work as an accountant at a small factory.

My parents lived in Poltava, nearly 100 kilometers from Kharkiv. My father served as a parish priest for the village of Machukha, 8 kilometers from Kharkiv. He often walked there.

In 1933, at the time of the terrible man-made famine, the oldest and weakest people in the village died. The younger ones, who were more energetic, escaped by fleeing all over the “wide” USSR, and the church was closed. My father made a living as a manual worker.

In the factory, we were fat by comparison: we received each day a half-pound of what they called “bread.” For dinner we also got a plate of so-called soy soup – it had very little soy and a great deal of water. Sometimes there was soy kasha, which had more soy meal and less water. We were always hungry, but at least we didn’t starve to death.

Sometimes, walking to the tram stop, I would see villagers who were dying of starvation. But this was not often, because in Kharkiv, which was Ukraine’s so-called capital, trucks drove around at night and picked up those poor people – the dead and the near dead – and took them no one knew where.

I knew from their letters that my parents in Poltava were starving. I began to moonlight nights as a servant to a lady of high rank, who paid me with baked bread. I mailed this bread to my parents in Poltava, and somehow they survived. …

Mr. Danylo, (pseudonym) Philadelphia:

I was born in the city of Romny in the Poltava Region on December 17, 1901.

In our city there were elementary schools and high schools where subjects were taught in Russian, not Ukrainian.

When collectivization started the government took everything from the workers, leaving them with nothing. Many of those who were opposed to collectivization were exiled to Siberia in train cars. There they were given an axe and a saw and told to “build this land up, for this is your fatherland.” People killed their livestock and kept the meat in order to prevent the government from seizing it.

My father, who was a peasant, died in 1933 from hunger. When I returned from a prison sentence in May of 1933, horrible sights greeted me. A woman lay half dead holding a baby. People were sitting or lying on the streets; some were dying and others were already dead. The dead were buried in pits. When I found my parents they were still alive, but already swollen.

While in exile I had gotten a job and earned some money. I went to a store controlled by Communists and bought a 40-pound bag of flour for 500 rubles. When I brought it home my parents rejoiced, but it was too late for my father, for he died a few days later.

The villages were empty – everything had died out. People were selling their houses for 40 pounds of flour. People started dying in 1932-33. By the end of 1933 there were Torgsins (acronym for trade with foreigners) where you could buy anything you wanted if you had foreign currency or precious metals. People took all their valuables – gold crosses, earrings – to those stores. There was no salvation from hunger, people died. They ate what they could, when they could, and people ate other people. Children were eaten, and human flesh was traded at the marketplace. The Communists laughed.

Anna P., Philadelphia:

I was born and lived in the Kirovohrad region of Ukraine. In my village, people began to be arrested in 1931 and many people disappeared. Not long thereafter people began to flee the village. All that were finally left were the aged and the village activists.

After the harvest of 1932, the government took all the grain that had been harvested. They even took the seed for the next crop. They took everything: all the grain, all the livestock, and if you refused to give them all that they demanded, they came and took you to prison. They searched the houses for anything that might be hidden, and they carefully listed even the plants in the gardens. So, the people continued to flee.

By 1933 the people were left without any bread and they suffered from the hunger and cold. Even the horses died, when a horse died, people stripped the carcass where it had fallen, boiled the meat, and ate it. The government tried to stop this by burying the horses. But the people dug them up and ate them.

One man was so sick, he just lay under a bush. He was so swollen that he couldn’t walk. I remember that he crawled to a dead horse that was being chopped up and started to drink the blood. And then he died.

That summer there were major rainstorms, and weeds everywhere. With nothing else to eat, people began to pull up weeds and boil them so that they could eat them. But soon these people began to swell up and die.

All around me people were swollen from hunger. They would get liquid under the skin, and then the skin would burst and ooze a thin, brown, foul smelling liquid. In a few days they would die. And there was no one left who had the strength to bury them.

At harvest time the people were sent out into the fields, and they tried to hide a few ears of grain. But there were mounted guards all around. The guards had whips and would whip anyone trying to hide an ear of grain until the blood ran.

We had nothing, not even a piece of bread. One night we left the village and walked to the train station 35 versts away. We waited to get on a train to join our father in the Donets Basin. We walked by night and hid by day so that the militia would not see us. The militia was arresting everyone it found on the road from the village. God helped us to reach the train station.

I returned to my village in 1944. My cousins had managed to survive, but 90 percent of the village’s population were new settlers who had been brought in from Byelorussia to replace those who had died…

Jury I., Philadelphia:

At the end of the summer of 1930 I was 6 1/2 years old. We lived in the city of Donetske (formerly Stalino). My father decided to visit his family in the village of Hiunevtsi, which was part of the Bulgarian colony in the south of Ukraine in Tavrychesky Province near the Sea of Azov, 40 miles from Berdiansk (now the city of Osipenko). Of my grandfather Ivan’s four sons (he himself was no longer living at the time), only the youngest, Fedir, remained to care for the family farm. The others left their native village for the big town when they were young. Energetic and industrious Fedir with his wife, Evdokia, worked hard, made good profit selling their produce. They had three small children, and my grandmother, Maria, also lived with them and helped them out.

I was immediately impressed at how much land they possessed in addition to their house. There were a lot of buildings, a horse stable, a cow shed, two threshing barns and some other kind of building housing farm equipment. I saw a huge number of chickens and ducks which walked about freely, hiding in the shadows of the trees in the large yard.

Uncle Fedir had a rather large farm, 60 desiatins of land, four horses, two cows and 60 sheep in the common pasture. We would go to the fields in the steppe where the sheep were grazing. Uncle Fedir and his family were well off and the majority of the villagers in his village were very well off.

Collectivization began in Tavrychshyna in 1931, followed by the devastation of the famine.

Some farmers were sent to Siberia while others chose escape to parts unknown. All of the horses, cows, sheep, pigs, chickens and ducks were taken to the collective farms. All of the farming equipment was also taken – carts, and wagons, which were the pride and joy of the villagers. Finally, all of the grain was taken.

In the beginning of 1932 hunger set in the once prosperous village of Hiunevtsi.

Grandmother came to visit us in town and remained. Shortly thereafter Uncle Fedir and his family abandoned their native village and moved to the city of Berdiansk where the middle brother, Stepan, got him a job as a factory worker, although he was a villager and had no credentials.

In the beginning of 1933 grandmother went to the village to take a look at the abandoned house and surrounding farm area. Five days later she returned home in tears to tell us of the horrible things she had seen.

The village was practically empty, half the villagers had died from the terrible famine. A number of them had succeeded in escaping to towns and saving themselves in this way. Those who had remained were either all skin and bones or all swollen from hunger, bedraggled, and bore no resemblance to human beings. It was impossible to recognize even close acquaintances. There were no dogs or cats in the village because the people had already eaten them.

Grandmother told father that she had sold all their possessions to some speculator and when father asked for how much she pulled out a pair of rubber galoshes from a small sack and said: “This is all that I could buy at the bazaar with the money I got for the property.”

This is what had become of the farm products and the possessions of the farmer, which had once been valued so highly.

Nicholas Chymych, Philadelphia:

At the time of the famine I was living in town, but had a sister who still lived in my native village of Verhuny. From her I discovered there was a famine in the villages, but it was impossible to either send food or take food to the starving villagers. On the way to visit my sister, I got off at the train station at Romadan, and was accosted by civilians dressed as policemen. “Who are you?” they asked. These were ordinary villagers who were forced to serve as guards to prevent people from entering the villages from the towns. The guards asked me to show my luggage and upon discovering that I was carrying bread and some canned food, told me that I could keep the bread, because it was obviously meant for me, while the canned goods were not. “You do not need the canned goods,” they said. When I protested that I was taking them for my sister, they took the canned goods away.

You could see starving people everywhere; they came up to the trains begging for food. When I arrived at the village I was told that my sister had gone somewhere, so I went to the neighboring houses. In some villages everything was taken away from the people. The local authorities from the Committees of Poor Peasants, which consisted of the village scum, seized even the kidney beans from the pot.

Grain, barley, buckwheat – everything was taken. Sometimes they would leave the greens growing in the garden, like potatoes. In the neighboring town of Klepachi, they did not take everything. People were at first unaware that the hunger had been artificially created, or they would have hidden something away.

The more farsighted villagers fled to towns; whereas the sedentary ones were left behind.

People ate everything – dogs, cats, rooks. There was a huge oak tree forest near our village. People collected the acorns and made an ersatz coffee from them.

The village activists seized implements used in food preparation, mortar and pestles, for example, as well as kitchen utensils and dishes.

People began dying in January and no one buried them. There was a burial brigade which received chunks of bread for its work, but after the famine, its members were taken away and never heard from again, because the government didn’t want anyone to testify about the events that transpired.

In the village where my sister lived there were no people on the streets. None of the normal sounds associated with village life were audible – no barking dogs, no horses neighing. Many of the houses were empty while in others all the people were swollen. I went to the nearest neighbor and asked if I could spend the night. They asked me if I had the proper documents. “You can, stay,” they replied, “but someone may attack you,” they told me, implying cannibalism. The neighbors told me that many children had died – this one, that one.

In the spring of 1933 I went to another village to see my distant relatives. My 7-year-old third cousin was begging for something to eat. There was no bread in the house and she, taking the pillow, ripped it open and began eating the feathers. Fifty years have passed and I still recall this incident with pain.