The Great Famine-Genocide in Soviet Ukraine (Holodomor)

Arkady Ostrovsky on a family's tragic search for a better future

By Arkady Ostrovsky
Financial Times, London
January 05, 2002


The last thing William Pirz remembers seeing in his native US is the Statue of Liberty.

As an 11-year-old boy, he watched it from the deck of a ship that carried him and his family away from New York and towards the promised land - the Soviet Union. The year was 1930.

"My father told me I would have a bright future in the land of communism and I am still waiting for it," says Pirz, an 80-year-old man who spent much of his adult life in Stalin's real-life version of hell that was the gulag. He speaks in Russian, the years having erased all memory of English.

Born in Philadelphia, Pirz knew he would die here in the port-town of Dudinka, 400km north of the Arctic Circle. It is one of the grimmest and coldest places in Russia, where Stalin's victims were brought to dig nickel mines and build railways and where many died.

His life is a tragic story of illusions shattered.

When first I meet him and speak in English, his eyes remain empty. Later, when I ask him in Russian whether he remembers any of his US life, he suddenly recalls one American word - Manhattan.

"Of course I remember, we had a house in Manhattan," he says, pronouncing the word in an unmistakeably American accent. He repeats the names of New York's districts as if they are magic words - Manhattan, Bronx, New Jersey . . . but then he remembers Dudinka.

His father, an Italian communist, sneaked into the US in the 1920s hiding under a pile of coal on the bottom deck of a ship. Disappointed with the New World, he decided to go to Russia to help build communism.

"My father took my hand and we walked around Leningrad. He told me: 'You are very lucky to have this new homeland'," Pirz recalls, smiling and lisping through broken teeth.

The family, three brothers and a sister, Clara, were sent to Odessa, a port town in Ukraine, where the father toiled in the docks for the happy future of the Soviet republic. Pirz junior's impressions of Ukraine were far from happy, however. The country was in the throes of a mass collectivisation, which killed millions of peasants and condemned Ukrainian villages to famine.

"I remember seeing peasant women whose bodies were swollen from starvation and who came to Odessa looking for food," says Pirz. Many of those who tried to survive by hiding sacks of potatoes and other food were sent to Dudinka and nearby Norilsk.

On June 23 1935, Stalin signed a decree ordering the development of nickel mines 100km north of the port of Dudinka. Two days later he signed another decree, ordering the creation of Norillag, a camp that was to provide slave labour for the mines.

At the time that thousands of Ukrainian and Russian peasants were being rounded up and sent to Norilsk, the Pirz family were applying for Soviet passports. Local newspapers published articles about them. "The American family finds a new home in the Soviet Union" is one headline Pirz recalls.

One day in September 1937, however, the NKVD (predecessor to the KGB) came calling. "I came home from a party and saw a militia man standing outside our house. I thought he had come for me, because I was up to no good at that time, but he told me to get into the flat. Inside everything was turned upside down."

Pirz's parents and two of his brothers were taken away and shot two months later. Shortly afterwards, William and Clara were arrested as well.

"The investigator told me I betrayed the Soviet Union. I told him, 'Hey boss, how could I betray the Soviet Union, if I only became a Soviet citizen a few months ago?'" But such reasoning counted for little, and brother and sister were sent to the gulag.

"I must have been born under a lucky star," Pirz told me. "I was sent to Karaganda (in Kazakhstan) - it was a good camp."

When he sees that I suspect him of being ironic he gets angry. "You understand nothing. I was really very comfortable there. I had three pillows and a bed-side table. Do you know what it means to have three pillows in a camp?

Compared with his brother, who was sent to fell forests in Siberia, Pirz was lucky. He was also fortunate to avoid Norilsk, where temperatures drop to -50 degrees C and nothing grows. Karaganda is a relatively mild place.

Pirz qualified as a tractor driver and spent 12 1/2 years in the camp. In 1941, with Russia at war, he asked to be sent to the front. He was told that one more such request would land him in a place from which nobody returned.

He was released in 1949 but was not allowed to live in a big city, let alone leave the country. "After my release I was supposed to report to the local militia station every month for five years, so they could keep track of me."

He lived in a ballok -a tiny mobile wooden hut - and worked as a tractor driver, night guard and fisherman in Siberia, where the pay was better. In 1960, seven years after Stalin's death, Pirz was rehabilitated.

Two years later, he joined the communist party. "My wife's brother was a local party boss, and he explained to me that if I wanted to have a good job in a collective farm, I must enter the party. So I did," says Pirz

In 1965 Pirz and his wife moved to Dudinka. "She died over a year ago - I miss her very much." His sister, who also survived the gulag, lives in Chelyabinsk, in eastern Siberia. They rarely see each other.

Neither of them has ever managed to find relatives in the US, a land that seems light years away from Dudinka. "Who needs us there? I am a Russian now - only here they still call me 'our American'."

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