May 1, 1983

The famine: raising consciousness


Ukrainians and scholars have made much of the general parallel between the Great Famine in Ukraine (1932-33) and the Jewish Holocaust. Both were clearly premeditated genocide, and both cost millions of lives. There are differences, of course, not the least of which is that the Jewish tragedy is well-known by the general public, while the Ukrainian one is not. The reasons for this are many. The Soviet Communist system which covered up the famine continues to remain in power and deny its existence. The Nazis, on the other hand, lost the war, and the extent of their atrocities was instantly verifiable when the Allies liberated the death camps. And there are other complex historical and political aspects as well.

But there is another significant reason the memory of the Jewish Holocaust remains vital and prominent, and one that has nothing to do with the fortunes of history or media access. The Holocaust has become part of the collective Jewish experience. It has become an integral component of the emotional, psychological and sociological make-up of all Jews, even those not directly touched by the tragedy. It has become a personal as well as national history. Every Jewish child is made aware of the Holocaust and its meaning for him/her as a Jew.

But can Ukrainians make the same claim? The key here is education, and it can safely be argued, we feel, that to this point, most Ukrainian schools, youth organizations and, perhaps, parents have not managed to instill in our young people of all generations the significance of this national catastrophe, save perhaps for commemorating the major anniversaries of its occurrence. For this reason, the famine has not become the emotional touchstone of national identity as has the Holocaust for the Jews.

We Ukrainians appear to be, sadly, anniversary-oriented. We tend to compartmentalize our history rather than see it as continuum, a living process. Our history has become static. We commemorate individual events locked in time, separate from ourselves, frozen in the past. Perhaps this is an unfortunate if not inevitable by-product of any emigre experience. Whatever the reason, we lurch from anniversary to anniversary without making connections. We isolate an event, solemnly commemorate it, and forget about it until the next anniversary. But what of the intervening or subsequent years? If the famine has not been assimilated and absorbed, not seen as an inexorable and living part of our collective national experience, then will it be remembered on the 51st anniversary? Or do we have to wait for the 75th?

Many of our Ukrainian schools and youth organizations have thus far continued their disjointed approach to Ukrainian history and its meaning. Many have inexplicably cut off Ukrainian history after 1919, only to resume it with World War II and the post-war struggle of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army. They have failed to effectively convey the message that the Great Famine is our holocaust. Other institutions are to blame as well for this failure.

Clearly, it is not too late. But the task of educating Ukrainians about the meaning the famine should have for their lives, as well as informing the public about its continued significance, is a collective community responsibility – and not just during anniversary years, but every year. Only when the murder by starvation of 7 million of our brothers and sisters becomes ingrained in our consciousness, becomes part of our everyday history as individuals and as a people, can we do it justice. But the more disturbing question, and one that has implications for the future of our history and the survival of our community, is why we have waited so long.