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Jul-13-2010 05:55printcomments

There's No Future Without Learning From the Past

Starvation so severe that bodies were piled onto trucks every day and people resorted to cannibalism: a family story of the Soviet Famine that began in 1932.

Russian famine 1932-1933
Photos: ukraine-europe.info, garethjones.org, and englishrussia.com

(SACRAMENTO) - This is a story that was passed to me by my Mom, who wrote it down from the memories my grandpa’s sister shared with her. She’s the only eye-witness who is still with us; my beloved grandpa passed many years ago.

Background:

Encyclopædia Britannica estimates that between six and eight million people starved to death in the Soviet Union during this period. Of those who perished, about four to five million were Ukrainians.

Robert Conquest estimated the number of dead at 7 million peasants at least; dead from hunger in the European part of the Soviet Union in 1932–33. Of those five million people were in Ukraine; a million in the North Caucasus, and another million elsewhere, Wikipedia explains, and an additional 1 million deaths from hunger as a result of collectivization in Kazakhstan.

A terrible famine struck the Soviet Union in 1932 and 1933, affecting Ukraine, Northern Caucasus, Volga Region and Kazakhstan, as well as South Urals and West Siberia. In the former Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic, the famine is remembered as Holodomor.

The affected areas were significant grain-production regions. Little in the way of information about the famine of 1932–34 was released because the Soviet government chose to suppress the information until perestroika. These are the political and economic reforms and the end of Communist domination, as well as the end of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s.

Guard fields against class enemies

A Family Story from the Soviet Famine

1933 was the year of the worst nightmare from which so many didn’t wake up. My father was a talented man. He could fix anything, build anything.

Today you would probably call him a jack of all trades.

Before 1933 came, he had already lost his first wife and a son. Left with 2 kids, he married my mother and had a big family.

Our Dad worked day and night to provide for his family. He built a nice house with a ‘metal roof’ as they were called then.

Because we lived in a village, we fully depended on our harvest. Those were scary times when being branded as “rich” meant that everything you had would be taken away, and your kids would be branded as “enemies”.

Our family was on the radar too, thanks to our ‘metal roof’ on the house. My Dad’s brother-in-law was the one who reported us to the authorities.

They took away our house, left my parents homeless with 14 kids, facing a very cold winter.

Our neighbor was a kind woman. She let us stay in her hut. One could hardly call it a house. After some time, we returned to our own house which was trashed and left entirely roofless.

Dead people dominated the landscape during the
tragic famine of 1932 and 1933 in the Soviet Union.

Cannibalism in Holodomor was
a terrible problem during the famine.

Our Dad covered it with hay. The only dry place in the house was under what you might call a built-of-brick stove. Dad also found a sheet of something to put above our baby brother’s swinging crib to keep him dry.

'33 was the most devastating. People started dying like flies, but not because we gathered a poor harvest. All of our harvest was taken away to the last grain. People ate grass, and they could kill for a piece of bread.

There were known cases of cannibalism.

I remember when 2 teenager girls got lost. One of the mothers was wandering by our house yelling ‘They ate my girl’ pointing toward us because we were the poorest among the poor.

A crowd started gathering, but thank God those girls were found alive in the neighboring village.

We didn’t have funerals that year. There was an open wagon every day that gathered dead bodies along the road. They put them on top of each other. Just like that.

Often people were still alive because they didn’t want to come back to the same place the next day. My Mom didn’t want our infant brother to be under a pile of dead bodies, so she carried him on her week arms to the graveyard herself. She knew he wouldn’t live till the morning.

I remember when Mom found some kind of field job for a day. She promised us to bring 2 cups of milk. My brother waited for her on the porch with a spoon in his hands. He wasn’t lucky to live long enough to see that milk.

I remember my sister lying on my Mom’s knees outside, nearly dead. Our neighbor came in. She looked at the woman, asked for something to eat and passed away. Poor woman didn’t have a grain for days herself.

I remember my other sister only as a skinny body covered by something whitish. I remember when I got lucky to work a day for a cup of soup and a tiny piece of bread. I ate some liquid stuff. The rest belonged to my younger ones. I brought it home. I saw my brother crawling out of the house toward me. He passed away never tasting the bread that I brought.

Total, out of 14 kids only 4 of us survived. As for the brother-in-law, no, his life was not kind to him. I don’t feel happy about that, rather pity.

This story was told not to blame somebody and ask questions ‘why?’ We’ll leave it up to the qualified historians. It is to show that life is worth fighting for. You’ll probably meet people who would easily betray, even among friends and relatives.

But the Earth is also full of kind people who would share their hut and the last piece of bread with you.




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Daniel July 13, 2010 6:20 pm (Pacific time)

Natalie thank you for this important historic information . Growing up in the 50s and 60s the history of the Soviet Union was largely ignored in the American education system except for there participation in WW2 against the Germans . We also were taught why the Soviet system was our enemy and cold war advisory .


Tim King July 13, 2010 12:51 pm (Pacific time)

Natalie, congratulations on your first published piece here; I am pleased that you shared this important story. I found it to be extremely interesting and the knowledge of how hard things were before, causes us to appreciate what we have today.  I hope we see more!


eddie zawaski July 13, 2010 9:02 am (Pacific time)

The best way to understand events of the past like the famine in the Ukraine in the thirties is to read the stories of ordinary people who lived through it, stories like this. It tells more about what really happened than all the newspaper accounts, history books, official pronouncements or interviews with "experts" could ever tell. Anyone who is interested in knowing more about the tragedy described in this story should read Vasily Grossman's Forever Flowing. The novel is Grossman's personal memoir of living through the famine and it reeks of truth from the first page to the last. It was never published in the Soviet Union until 1988 over 20 years after Grossman's death.

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