July 5, 1987

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


(The Ukrainian Weekly, July 5, 1987, No. 27, 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.

Margarita Borzakivska, Philadelphia:

…In 1929 the forced collectivization of agriculture began in the villages of Podillia, where I lived and studied to be a designer of ceramics and glass. Almost 800 people studied in the institute which I attended in the town of Kamianets-Podilsky. The town also had an Institute of People’s Education for teachers and other institutions of higher or middle schooling.

Most of the students lived in dormitories, and ate at the dining halls attached to the institutions, where they were given three meals daily.

But, unexpectedly for the students, at the beginning of 1932 the dining hall was closed because of the lack of food. Agricultural produce also disappeared from the stores and also from the marketplaces, where the peasants had come to sell their surpluses.

In the villages, dekulakization had taken place, and those peasants who did not want to join the collective farms had been arrested and sent to Siberia, from which few ever returned alive.

Of course, the students became so hungry that they could no longer study, and more and more of them failed to attend classes. The students got only 100 grams of so-called “bread” made from millet, and to get even this they had to stand in line for hours every day.

Not long after this, the dining hall reopened, and the students were given daily one bowl of soup (slop really) which was really just water in which a few pieces of sugar beet swam around here and there. We didn’t even get salt, because there wasn’t any salt.

I became sick with scurvy because of lack of nourishment; my gums bled and my teeth were all loose. The disease was already in its third stage, which brings a person close to death. Every day the dentist painted my gums with iodine and told me to eat a lot of garlic and lemons. Only this saved me from death.

The students had to find some sort of work to keep from starving to death. I had to walk six kilometers to the state farm to weed the watermelon patch, for which I received a bowl of hominy with milk and a piece of bread each day. Each evening I walked six kilometers back home. I ate the hominy, but saved the piece of bread for hungry relatives.

As for the rest of the urban population, people stood in huge lines to wait for bread, which was given to the stores in small quantities. Whenever bread arrived at a store the shoving was terrible, because everyone was hungry. Not a day passed without someone suffering a heart attack, being wounded, or simply being smothered. Many of the hungry went home with broken hands and no bread. It even came to the point that people ate dogs and cats to save themselves from starving to death.

In the village all the livestock was taken from the individual peasants by the Communist administration of the collective farm. All the harvest and all the food was also taken from the peasants. Unable to withstand such pressure from the administration, the peasants joined the collective farms. There they were allowed to keep a cow, a few chickens and were given a little grain for their labor days. All this was necessary because the peasants did not want to join the collective farms. …

Lydia A. of Cheltenham, Pa.:

It was the autumn of 1932 in Kharkiv. There was an uneasy mood in the city. There was no food. There were long lines, and there was much noise in the newspapers about the grain procurements, about the way the anti-Soviet element, the so-called “kurkuls” or kulaks, was supposedly hiding grain from the government. Actually, the “kurkuls” – this was a Soviet term for wealthy peasants – had not existed for years because they had been exiled to Siberia. The government was organizing “shock brigades,” whose membership was made up of the Communist Party and the Komsomol based in manufacturing plants, institutes, social clubs, and who were sent to the villages for the purpose of “pumping out” the grain, which was the term used at that time. When grain was found, it was taken away, and those responsible for hiding it were punished and sometimes even killed; these were the rumors we heard.

The peasants, tired and exhausted, fled to the cities, but they got no help there. The urban population was half-starving itself; bread which could be obtained with ration cards was sold only irregularly, and lines began to form at night but were often dispersed by the militia. In order to mask the situation, bread was issued not in shops but out in the open. The amount of bread issued to individuals depended on who they were. Children, unemployed women, and the elderly received 200 grams; workers received 400 to 800 grams. However, one must remember that there was no other food.

There were also the so-called “closed cooperative stores” (zakryti rozpodilnyky) for the party elite, the military elite and the NKVD.

Thus, the urban population could not in any way help those who were coming to the city, those who were exhausted, fainting in the open, and dying right in the streets, in people’s yards and in hallways. One evening, upon leaving a friend’s house, we noticed something on the doorstep. Frightened, we called our hostess who turned on the outside light, and we noticed that the object which we could not see at first was a dead man. We fled in fright and were afraid to talk about it, because we already knew, that one doctor who had diagnosed a collapsed laborer, mind you, and not someone found in the streets, as dying from exhaustion, was promptly arrested for slandering the Soviet state. Thus, the militia went around gathering bodies of the dead, and almost dead, and loaded them onto the backs of trucks whereupon they were taken off to ravines outside the city.

It was said, that they were left unburied until the spring, because the winter had been extremely cold. The winter of 1933 was extraordinarily cold. Homeless children roamed around the city aimlessly, and the older ones stole and hid from the militia. The younger ones, on the other hand, were taken away, their mothers had died or were left behind with the hope that someone would save them.

These years, 1932-33, were when they were carrying out the so-called industrialization – new and huge manufacturing plants were built to produce tractors, turbogenerators, etc., and older factories were expanded with the help of foreign firms and specialists, including Americans, Canadians and Europeans.

There was plenty of work, but no one without a passport could get a job. But those who had migrated from the villages closer to the cities before the famine, that is, if they had friends or family there, did get passports on the black market and jobs on construction projects. Their accommodations were usually found on the outskirts of the city – these usually were extremely primitive structures covered with straw.

When spring arrived, it was time to till the soil. There were few people left who were able to work; most of those who were left were exhausted and swollen.

Under compulsion, the government organized the so-called “brigades” for work on the collective farms. Students, civil servants and laborers were required to go. I went with a group of students to a village located 150 kilometers from Kharkiv – Pishenkivka. We received accommodations in a school building. There we were told not to go outside at night and not to open the door. We went out into the fields to weed sugar beets.

Then it rained for several days, and we could not go to work. After it stopped raining, in the afternoon, several women and the “brigadeer” arrived, and we went into the fields. On our way there, the women went inside a house thinking that there was an able-bodied woman there. A woman sat with a boy at a table, and they were eating. They looked horrible. They did not react to any calls or knocking on the door. The women mumbled something among themselves; they were troubled and frightened. We followed them in silence.

We had hardly begun our work when the brigadeer arrived and said that an order had arrived for us to return home. We were extremely surprised because we had been told that we would be in the village for at least four weeks.

We returned to Kharkiv at daybreak, but we were not allowed to go home. We were taken to an institute, despite the fact that we were hungry and dirty. When government officials arrived, an errand girl told me that I had to go to a special department. The manager asked we what I had seen. I said nothing. Then he said go and don’t say anything.

Frightened, I never asked the others whether they had been called to the same department. There were rumors about cannibalism, and my thoughts returned to the whispering of the women.

Summer arrived, and brigades were being sent again to the villages to bring in the harvest. Various institutions, manufacturing plants and organizations took part in the so-called “patronage” over a collective farms, meaning that the “patron” institution was responsible for helping the particular collective farm or village assigned to it. Women’s party organizations established day-care centers and kindergartens and took food and clothing to the needy.

When we arrived, the woman in charge took us in to see what they had done: the house had been tidied up, the children were clean and sitting on the grass, and there were toys around them. The children did not pay attention to anything; they only pulled out grass and ate it. The head mistress complained, “We feed them, but they keep eating grass.” I shall never forget these children, and I wonder whatever happened to them? Did they ever recover and grow up to be normal? At that time, they did not lead a normal life. They were scraggly, their skin was gray, their eyes were lifeless – there were toys around them, but they only wanted to rip out the grass and eat it…

Ivan Oransky, Philadelphia:

I will speak about Kharkiv, one of the largest cities in Ukraine. Many villagers roamed the streets there. You met them everywhere. They were of various ages – old, young, children and infants. Their state of physical deterioration was evident in the slow way they moved their bodies. The light was extinguished from the downcast eyes on the haggard, and occasionally swollen, faces. They were hungry, exhausted, ragged, filthy, cold and unwashed. Some of them dared to knock on peoples’ doors, or maybe on someone’s window, and some could barely stretch out their begging hands. Others yet were sitting against walls, and they were motionless and speechless.

I had to return home late, before midnight, from the school of linguistics, the so-called Technical Institute of Foreign Languages. To reach Kholodna Hora, an area of the city, where I lived, I had to cross some rail tracks. A glass-covered and unit viaduct went over them. Masses of homeless villagers had been brought to this shelter. I had to carefully watch my every step so as to avoid stepping on a living person, or even one who was already dead.

On the other side of the street near a fence, there was a corpse already covered by someone with something. It could be seen from the window of an apartment on Cemetery Street. The corpses which had been gathered were taken down Cemetery Street to the graveyard which was far away. The corpses were loaded onto an ordinary peasant cart, hitched with one horse, as though to cover it completely. There they were thrown into one common pit. There was not even one grave. The earth was thinly spread out above the “buried.”

Urban dwellers were forbidden to offer shelter to villagers. In order to spend the night somewhere, registration with the militia was required, these were the so-called “passes.” Our family violated this law: we offered shelter to a swollen 15-year-old girl from the village of Chorbivka in the Poltava region.

For some reason, at the beginning of a lecture on historical materialism at the Technical Institute of Foreign Languages, one of the students mentioned the horror in the streets of Kharkiv, where hungry peasants scurried along the streets as though they were some sort of phantom multiplied a hundredfold with an outstretched hand.

It had to be seen with what wrath, with what hatred and wickedness the student was attacked for expressing sympathy by the instructor who called them “the enemies of the people, those, who are interfering with government’s measures to collectivize agriculture, to get rid of private capitalist property, and to make society fortunate and socialist!”

The wounds of the people healed slowly. In 1937, during summer vacation, my father and I stopped in front of a house in the village of Prokhorivka located on the Dnieper River. The windows and the door were boarded up with pieces of wood which had already rotted through, and weeds had overgrown around the house. My father stood silent in front of the house for a long time ruminating over some burdensome and plaguing thought.

Insofar as the “tragedy of the famine” was like this or even different, it was an intricate part of everyone’s existence and left an indelible imprint on the minds of those who survived the Great Famine of 1933 in Ukraine. To ascertain this, a simple fact can be presented: one of the most renowned Ukrainian composers of our time, when inviting me to make introductory remarks to a concert of his original works, wrote to me in a letter dated April 10, 1961, the following:

“I would be grateful if you could paint a verbal description of the horrors of Kharkiv during those times, particularly 1932-33, when the famine took place and when the streets were full of dead people, and dogs, and horses.”

Iwan Zinczenko, Cornwells Heights, Pa.:

It would not be appropriate to describe the famine of 1933 without recalling preceding years, because one cannot understand the famine unless one understands how the Communist regime was created in Ukraine.

The Bolsheviks led by Lenin and Trotsky, aided by Ukrainian Communists, defeated the army of the Ukrainian National Republic (UNR).

First they destroyed the big landowners who had from 50 to 100 and more hectares of land. The majority of these landowners were shot, except for those who managed to escape abroad. This was in the years 1918-1920.

Then the state divided the confiscated land among those having little or no land.

Between the fall of 1921 and 1929 Lenin’s New Economic Policy (NEP) was in force. This was a kind of thaw. The villagers began to farm the land they had acquired. But the Communists intended to enslave people by means of the collective farms. Even during the revolution communes, in which everything was held in common, were set up the former estates of landowners, but most of these fell apart when the state let the villagers leave. Later, the so-called Associations of Jointly Working the Land were created. This was the loosest form of collective farm and the one most acceptable to the villagers. But even these were joined voluntarily by less than 10 percent of the village population. The remaining majority of the villagers worked their own independently owned farms.

When the New Economic Policy was proclaimed in 1921, the system of forced requisitions, by which the state seized all farm produce which it decided exceeded the villager’s most basic needs, was replaced by a tax in kind such that each villager was required to pay his taxes to the state not only with money, but also in grain, meat (live weight) and garden produce, but was free to sell any surplus he might produce on the free market. This meant that people once again had an incentive to produce, which the requisition system had denied them, and those who worked hard prospered.

The state kept what collective farms it could and retained its plans to collectivize the village, but the villagers did not rush to join these collective farms that the state had created. In 1927, they again started to requisition grain. Finally, in 1929, the state decided once again to force the villagers into its collective farms, where the state controlled what the farmers produced. As a result, the state taxed villagers more and more heavily, so that if a farmer compared the harvest he had collected and what he had to hand over to the state, he was left with nothing for his family. This is how it was in 1930-1931 and in 1932.

Then some villagers began not giving anything to the state. Villagers who hid everything were arrested and sent to Siberia themselves or in entire families. Only those who had fled managed to avoid this fate.

This what led up to the year 1933 and the famine.

It began in the fall of 1932. It was rumored that Moscow had issued orders to break the Ukrainian village. Tens of thousands of Communists were sent into the villages. Each had a pistol in his pocket and local police, party members, members from the Communist Youth League and other activists at his disposal. They all advanced on the village. They said it was for industrialization, but I don’t know whether their main goal was to collectivize the village or to collect as much grain as possible for the state for the industrialization of the USSR. I only saw what was done to bring about the death of a great number of villagers. For what sort of industrialization could they achieve from the half glass of corn which they took from my neighbor?

In the winter of 1932-33 all the villagers in my village got from the village Soviet a list of what and how much had to be given to the state. Everyone was treated the same and repeatedly had to hand over grain to the state. Whoever failed to part with anything would be visited by those who would take away everything he had. If a person did manage to hand over the required amount, the same people would come and say: “you still have some grain left; you have to give more to the state.”

From the middle of the autumn of 1932 to the summer of 1933, I was 13 years old, and I remember how they went from house to house, searching everywhere and taking everything. The village was divided into sections, and these were divided into groups of 10 houses (“desiatykhatky”). Several local Communists were assigned to each group of 10, and one Russian was put in charge of the group, and every day they would rush from house to house, searching and seizing everything they could find, wherever they could find it, taking everything down to a cup of flour.

In 1932, father, who had been totally devastated by the grain quotas of 1927, 1928, 1929, 1930 and 1931, realized that if he gave everything they asked, there would be nothing left to eat. So, he refused to give a single pound of grain. He took the grain, potatoes, and even the honey from the bees and either buried them in the ground or in some other place and said that he had nothing. They came and found grain buried in two places, and they took it.

They would have arrested father if he had been home, but father had run away. He had false documents made and left for the Donbas where he worked at the railroad station until April 1933.

We five children and mother could have been exiled to Siberia, for we were already on the list, but mother hid for several weeks, and did not come home at night.

For two months in the winter of 1933 the “workers” who seized the grain selected our house for their headquarters. They slept on our benches. Mother hid out for weeks on end, spending the winter nights at a neighbor’s barn. She used to wait until the occupants were out running around in the village before bringing us food and escaping once again, for they would have taken us had they caught her at the house.

It was like this until April 1933. Mother had swollen legs and face while we children were as dried up as the boards. Every day mother would come and tell us that someone close to our family, or not so close, had died. Most had to be buried without any coffin. They’d wrap the bodies in old burlap and just throw them into a pit.

We survived the winter thanks to our aunt (father’s sister). Once in a while she would give us one cattle-feed cake at a time. Mother would break off a bite-sized piece and make soup out of it. In addition, mother traded her silver earrings and coin necklace for a few kilograms of groats at the torgsin.

In the spring when the snow began to melt, mother went out at night to uproot the frozen potatoes which revived us.

Sometime in May of 1933, father returned from the Donbas. The authorities no longer arrested fugitives because the fields, which lay fallow except for winter crops, had to be plowed and sown. Father again began to farm and next fall (late 1933, early 1934) father was arrested and sentenced to forced labor in Siberia where he died in 1934.

We children spent the entire winter of 1932-33 on the stove, while mother, like a bird, would bring us anything she could find. In May of 1933, my sister and I went to the meadows outside the towns to collect sorrel and came upon one house. We saw that it was empty – snakes were even crawling under the house. We went through the open doors and what we saw caused us nearly to suffocate – lying on the floor was a boy my age and on the stove bench was his mother. Both were already black and swollen. I don’t know who buried them.

Many neighbors died. Of my relatives, my grandfather died of physical weakness, although by that time he had some bread to eat. My mother’s sister also died.

It’s hard to say how many people died in the village. My village was not far from town, so that villagers could get something to eat there, albeit with difficulty. In those villages which were farther from towns (15 or more kilometers) half the village died.

Already in the spring of 1933 if a person joined a collective farm and went out to the fields to work, he was given some sort of soup to eat, but the population continued to be tormented by hunger until the next harvest.

Wheat ripens the earliest (in July, I believe) and hungry people tried to cut off the shafts of wheat, drying them and baking something out of it. Because of this many ended up in Siberia. But the authorities had high towers constructed in the fields where guards sat with rifles, and horses were tied below. When the guard spotted someone picking a shaft of wheat, he would mount his horse and ride after him. That man would not return home again.