The Great Famine-Genocide in Soviet Ukraine (Holodomor)


Born in 1919 to ethnic German parents, Mary Rausch survived Stalin's worst atrocities and escaped to Canada via Germany after the Second World War.


Helmut Oberlander, who also grew up in Ukraine, described similar experiences in an interview with The Record.

By Tony Reinhart, Record Staff
The Record newspaper
Kitchener, Ontario, Canada
Saturday, May 6, 2000


Mary Rausch holds a picture of her family taken in the Ukraine before the Second World War. Rausch fled the country because of the Stalin-era oppression.

To look inside her Waterloo home, it appears life has been good to Mary Rausch.

Bright and airy, cosy and clean, her luxury apartment exudes the comfort that comes with a well-earned retirement.

But on her table lies a picture, an old black-and-white, that seems out of place amid the pale pastels of her living room.

It is a family portrait, taken half a world away and seven decades ago, in a time she'd like to forget, but can't.

Mary Rausch grew up in Ukraine under the rule of Joseph Stalin, one of the most brutal and murderous dictators the world has known.

"It was terrible then," Rausch said recently, as warm evening sunlight washed into her apartment. "But you know how it is when you're little. You just go along and you don't find it so bad."

Born in 1919 to ethnic German parents, Rausch survived Stalin's worst atrocities and escaped to Canada via Germany after the Second World War.

Behind smiling eyes, horrific images remain burned in her memory.

In the late 1920s, her family was forced to move 80 kilometres to another German village as Stalin abolished land ownership and collectivized Soviet farms.

"My parents had to put everything on the wagon," she said. "They had to leave the house, the land, everything."

The wealthy had their belongings confiscated and became targets of the secret police, which Stalin wielded to terrorize people into compliance with his Communist plan.

"They used to tell us, 'Just wait, one day it will be nice,' " Rausch said of the party's supporters.

Then the famine came.

What the Holocaust is to the Jews, the famine of 1932-33 is to Ukrainians, up to 10 million of whom starved to death when Stalin seized farmers' harvests and sold them abroad.

"In our village, there were some families who all died of hunger," Rausch said. "Nobody knew why."

She remembers two girls so stricken with hunger that they ate raw flesh from a dead horse lying in a field. The girls developed open sores on their legs and died.

She remembers the distended bellies of the children at a kindergarten she passed on her way home from school, and trying to feed them whatever scraps of food she could find.

She remembers the burial of a friend's mother; how she was taken in a blanket, unwrapped and placed in her grave, and how they put straw over her face before filling in the hole.

Rausch's family survived because her parents could see what was coming the previous fall. After receiving $18 in the mail from a relative in Canada, her father travelled to Moscow and bought all the wheat and beans he could carry.

Her mother then measured out daily rations for her four children.

They made it through the famine, but there were more hard times ahead.

As Adolf Hitler gained power in Germany and began eyeing eastern Europe, Stalin saw ethnic Germans as a potential security threat.

His secret police began targeting them for deportation to Siberia in the late 1930s.

"1937 -- that was the year they took so many men," Rausch said. "They came always at night, when it was dark."

She can recall the rumble of the truck the police would bring. "When we heard that coming, we knew that in the morning, some men wouldn't be there any more.

"I know one family, their little boys were running after the truck, and they were yelling for their daddy," she said.

"And their daddy never came back."

Rausch remembers her own father sitting up and waiting, but though they took his brothers, the police never came for him.

She believes he must have kept quiet around any Communist Party members of the village, who were apt to report their own family members for the slightest whisper of anti-Communist sentiment.

"Then the war came, and it was very, very bad for the Germans."

Rausch's older sister, who had just finished medical school and married a fellow doctor, was sent to the Russian front, as was her husband.

"We didn't know where she was, and she didn't know where her husband was," she said.

When the Germans invaded Ukraine, Rausch was married with a two-year-old son, but her husband was studying out of town. She decided to stay at her parents' home rather than report to the train station, as the Soviets ordered. She feared deportation to Siberia.

When German troops reached her village and found the people spoke their language, "they were so surprised and so happy, and we were so happy, too. We were all for it."

The Germans singled out ethnic German men and took them away to serve the military, she said.

Her husband, studying to be a steel engineer in a nearby city when the Germans invaded, had a problem with his arm and was deemed unsuitable. Instead, he was sent to Germany to work in a steel factory.

"But I had to stay there (in Ukraine) with my little boy," she said. "War is war. You have to do what they tell you."

In late 1943, she was able to join her husband in Germany, near the Polish border. But by then, Stalin's armies were beating the Germans back to the west.

"When I heard the Russians were coming again, I almost died," she said.

Rausch had to take her young son and board a westbound train to escape, while her husband stayed behind to fight the Russians.

They spent a week on the train, which became more full at every station, stopping at Dresden just before the infamous Allied firebombing began.

Eventually, they boarded another train for Marburg, where Rausch's sister, the doctor, had settled after fleeing Ukraine.

Rausch then tracked her husband down at a steel plant in Wetzlar, where they rode out the war's last days.

With help from the local mayor, they applied to emigrate to Canada, where Rausch had an uncle.

They boarded a ship bound for Quebec City, then made their way to Leamington, Ont., where her uncle put them to work on his farm. The couple moved to Kitchener-Waterloo when Rausch's husband found work as an industrial engineer.

He died recently, several years after retiring from Kaufman Footwear.

Most of her family eventually made it to Canada, but her younger sister first had to endure a harrowing ordeal in Siberia, where she was jailed on a bogus charge of being a "German spy."

When she looks back on those days, Rausch is happy just to have enough food to eat.

Mary Rausch's situation is not unique; there are millions of people whose families endured years of hardship under Stalin.

Compared with Hitler, "he had as much, if not more, blood on his hands," said John Jaworsky, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Waterloo.

"In terms of sheer numbers of deaths, he at least equalled, if not outdid, Hitler in many, many ways."

Helmut Oberlander, who also grew up in Ukraine, described similar experiences in an interview with The Record.

Many starving people found their way to the hospital in Oberlander's hometown of Halbstadt, where his mother worked double shifts as a nurse to support him and his sister.

"The 1930s were an extremely, extremely traumatic period for all of Soviet society," Jaworsky said. "For the authorities, human life was very cheap."

Ethnic Germans were among the many victims of Stalin's mass deportations. Authorities often gave them just minutes to pack and leave their homes. "If you resisted, you were shot," Jaworsky said.

The single largest resettlement of ethnic Germans happened in September 1941, three months after Hitler invaded the Soviet Union.

More than a million Germans of Russia's Volga region were shipped east in a mass evacuation.

More than 20 per cent of them died along the way, or soon after reaching their desolate destination.

Jaworsky said he could not comment on Oberlander's experience, but said in general, many young Ukrainians were "very much affected by the cruelty and brutality of society around them."

As a result, the Nazi genocide they later witnessed was not as shocking as it might have been to those who hadn't lived through Stalin's horrors.

"The context (of pre-war life under Stalin) was one of arbitrary violence, brutality and of tremendous change occurring in a short period of time," Jaworsky said.

"In those circumstances, it's always easy for nasty things to happen. It is sometimes easy for people to do things they wouldn't ordinarily do."

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