Mark Massive Famine by Grady Semmens, Calgary Herald, Calgary, Canada.
It's been 67 years since John Chernezky sat down to a plate of roast
gopher and a steaming bowl of grass soup, but the 76-year-old Ukrainian
Canadian remembers the sweetly pungent taste it was on the menu
It's not that he was fond of eating rodents. It's just that the
alternative - starving to death in the 1932-33 famine engineered
by Russian dictator Josef Stalin - wasn't appetizing, either.
"We were so weak and hungry, we were looking for anything that was
edible," Chernezky recalled. "It was terrible."
One of only a few famine survivors living in Calgary, the retired
Canadian Pacific Railway employee was the guest of honour at the
Calgary Ukrainian community's first memorial service to honour the
estimated 10 million peasants who perished in the communist-sponsored
About 100 people attended the hour-long service Saturday at the
memorial to the victims that was erected last year beside the Bow
River at Memorial Drive and Edmonton Trail N.E.
The service brought back harsh memories for Chernezky, who was eight
years old when Russian troops confiscated all the food from his
village, Vesela Balka, in the autumn of 1932.
"They came to our village with wagons and they went to each house
and started looking for food," he said. "They took everything -
potatoes, grain. They even dug the beets out of garden."
It was the beginning of the Ukrainians' great winter of discontent
and suffering in what historians describe as Stalin's attempt to
crush Ukrainian culture and force the peasants into collective farms
to provide food for the then-fledgling Soviet Union.
Chernezky considers himself lucky to have survived when so many
of his countrymen wasted away and credits the resourcefulness of
his family and neighbours.
Within the first few months, villagers resorted to eating whatever
they could find and carefully rationed the small amount of grain
they managed to hide from the frequent government raids.
"Those who were still strong enough caught all the cats and dogs,
anything that was edible," he said. "My mother hid some wheat in
a pile of straw and when it was safe we would bring her a handful
of it that she would crush and used to make soup."
By the spring of 1933, he said, the secret food stores were gone
but his family of six managed to stay fed.
Chernezky and his younger brother would pick grass and weeds for
soup and flush gophers out of their holes.
"When spring came, it became easier," he said. "We'd get a few gophers
and take them home to my mother who would cook them up. They tasted
good actually, the meat was very sweet."
While few people died in his village, Chernezky remembers hearing
about whole villages wiped out by the famine, which eventually ended
after Ukrainians like his father demanded food from the Soviets.
"There was death everywhere. We went to one village in the summer
of 1933 and it smelled so terrible," he said.
While his life in Canada since 1949 has been a comparative cakewalk,
Chernezky says he is glad the famine is not forgotten people who
now study it in school.
"Eight to 10 million lives were lost in a manmade famine because
a small population of Ukrainian peasants resisted change," said
Mike Verdonck, a 16-year-old member of the Ukrainian St. Stephen's
Youth Group who has written essays on the famine.
"We need to remember, so history does not repeat itself."