The Great Famine-Genocide in Soviet Ukraine (Holodomor)

People Ate Anything They Could Find, Just to Stay Alive

By Carol Sanders, The Winnipeg Free Press
Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada, Thursday, November 27th, 2003

WINNIPEG.......LUBA Perehinec ate wood chips, straw and grass. A woman in her neighbourhood ate the flesh of her children who'd starved to death.

"To describe it is impossible," said the 77-year-old.

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But yesterday, for the first time in public, she painted a picture of the horrors she and up to 10 million others faced in Ukraine during the 1932-33 famine/genocide orchestrated by communist dictator Joseph Stalin.

Perehinec and three other survivors of the Holodomor, as it is called in Ukrainian, met in the basement of St. Mary the Protectress Cathedral in Winnipeg's north end to talk about their experiences 70 years after the manmade famine.

While parishioners in the kitchen down the hall prepared Ukrainian dishes for sale to help support the church, the four survivors of the famine ploughed through decades of pain to share their stories.

Perehinec was one of six daughters living in Blimaka, in the southern part of Ukraine known as the breadbasket of Europe for its fertile soil and abundant harvests. Her father lost his land with the collectivization of private farms and was forced to work on one of the state-owned operations.

After hiding some of the collective's grain in his boots to take home to his wife and six kids, he was caught and imprisoned. The authorities took away everything except their house and a cow. That cow saved their lives, she said.

"We milked that cow every half hour," said Perehinec, who was seven at the time. At night, they took the cow in the house so no one would steal it. Famine changes people, she said. "You're existing, not living."

In the case of Ukraine in 1932-33, neither drought nor an act of God were to blame for the famine.

Stalin took over the privately owned farms, built grain elevators in the Black Sea port of Odessa and rail lines to carry the grain produced in southern Ukraine. While farmers lost their land and were starved, grain produced on the collectives was exported by Stalin to help finance the regime.

At the same time, he was trying to destroy the Ukrainian national identity by starving one-quarter of its people. Communist "agents" went door to door in the agricultural areas taking land, livestock, equipment, produce and seed.

Those who rebelled or tried to hide food were labelled enemies of the state and executed or sent to Siberian forced-labour camps, called gulags.

Reports of the man-made famine leaked out to the rest of the world, but were dismissed by New York Times' Moscow correspondent Walter Duranty. In the 1930s, he wrote there was no famine in Ukraine, and won a Pulitzer prize for journalism. His reports were discredited by historians years later who called him an apologist for Stalin, and a campaign was launched to have his Pulitzer taken away. Earlier this week, the Pulitzer organization acknowledged Duranty's stories were false but refused to posthumously strip him of his award.

Perehinec said she feels the genocide she witnessed in Ukraine has largely been ignored, and that motivates her to dredge up the bad memories. "We were swollen, weak and tired," she said. "We didn't care. We were numb."

A next-door neighbour couldn't feed both her ailing mother and young son, so she walled off the portion of the house her mother was living in and fed only her little boy, she said.

"It taught me the value of a person, the value of your life. You live day to day thanking God you have enough food," said Perehinec.

Eugenie Kanchir was seven years old in 1932 when her mother was sent to work on a collective farm and her father was sent to jail in Siberia. She was left alone in the village of Klalnchuk with her two sisters, aged 10 and five. They were left to fend for themselves in a house that had been stripped bared of everything including bedding, she said.

"We almost froze," said Kanchir. "We started to swell up and had nothing to eat." But their will to survive was stronger than their hunger.

"We would cover up with straw and sleep like that -- like the pigs," Kanchir said unapologetically.

"One time we went to look outside and we found a nest. The (chicks) were still alive." They boiled water and cooked the chicks then ate them. "We ate mice, rats and porcupines. We'd eat everything they found."

"As Christians we should forgive," said Anna Shewel, 78. "But it's very hard to forget. Everybody was short of food," she said recalling the hunger and despair in her village of Bereza. "The hardest was winter."

Her mother used dried leaves to make a kind of flour for pancakes. "That's how we survived."

Her saddest memory of the famine is when she was eight years old and seeing her grandfather for the last time. "His legs were swollen and he was close to death." Shewel said, crying. "It's not easy to talk about it."

Anastasia Mylnycky and her siblings lived with her grandparents in the village of Shpola because her father had passed away and her mother had to work. Her grandmother had hidden kernels of wheat and corn in the insulation of their attic. It was Mylnycky's job to climb into the attic once a day to collect a small cup of grain her grandmother used as a base for soup.

"She put everything she could find outside in it. She'd give it to me twice a day. She'd make tea from cherry tree branches and told us to drink as much as we could. We were very weak... but we pulled through," she said.

"How many old people and children were dying! They were sometimes sitting by the fence and they'd fall asleep and they died." Mylnycky's sister died, and so did her mother.

All four of the women survived the famine but it wasn't long before they and all the other able-bodied young people were rounded up by the Nazis in 1942 and taken to work camps and factories in Germany.

But even that wasn't enough to break their spirits.

"Hard times teach people... Anyone who doesn't go through hardship wouldn't appreciate life," said Perehinec.


This weekend, a symposium on the 1932-33 famine/genocide in Ukraine is being held by the Ukrainian Canadian Congress and the Metropolitan Ilarian Centre for Orthodox studies at St. Mary the Protectress Cathedral in Winnipeg. Here's the itinerary:
Friday, Nov. 28
6 p.m. -- commemorative service for the victims.
6:45 p.m. -- official opening.
7 p.m. -- Prof. J. Shapoval from Kyiv presents a historical perspective (in Ukrainian). Saturday, Nov. 29
12 p.m. -- Commemorative service in front of the famine monument at Winnipeg's city hall.
1:30 p.m. -- Lubomyr Luciuk, director of research for the Ukrainian Canadian Civil Liberties Union, offers a glimpse into the past and issues an invitation to today's youth.
5 p.m. -- Vespers service.
6 p.m. -- Public acknowledgment of the famine.
6:30 p.m. -- Senator Raynell Andreychuk will speak about recognition of the famine.
7 p.m. -- Luciuk will speak about the controversy surrounding a Pulitzer prize being granted to a New York Times journalist who denied the famine took place.
Sunday, Nov. 30
10 a.m. -- Commemorative Divine Liturgy with Koshetz Choir.
11:45 a.m. -- Service for famine victims with the Synod of Bishops of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of Canada presiding.
12:30 p.m. -- A memorial luncheon with Moe Levy, executive director of the Asper Foundation, who will speak about plans for the $200-million Canadian Museum for Human Rights.