The Great Famine-Genocide in Soviet Ukraine (Holodomor)

Lessons Learned from 1932-33 Horror Haven't Been Forgotten

By Carol Sanders, Winnipeg Free Press
Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada, November 28, 2003

I remember going to a friend's house after school when I was a kid and her quiet, smiling "baba" pinched my cheeks and offered me freshly baked cookies and bread. The only time I ever heard her Ukrainian grandma raise her voice was when I took a big piece of bread, had one bite and threw the rest in the garbage.

At the time, it seemed like an overreaction. With so much food, what's the big deal?

Thirty years later, I found out. This week I met some of the survivors of the Ukrainian famine-genocide of 1932-33.

When we were children, my friends and I played with Barbies and wasted food; 70 years ago in southern Ukraine, kids were scrounging for scraps of anything edible and were surrounded by people starving to death.

(Click on image to enlarge it)

I'd heard about the famine orchestrated by Communist dictator Joseph Stalin, but didn't feel it until I listened to the people who lived through it. I saw how their experiences shaped them. And how years of official denials, the apathy of other governments and a coverup at the time by a New York Times reporter in Stalin's back pocket kept them from talking about it.

Not long after Stalin succeeded in the collectivization of their farms, closure of their churches and the killing of nearly one-quarter of the population, the young Ukrainians who made it through the "famine" had to deal with Hitler. They were rounded up and sent to work camps in Germany. If they survived till the end of the Second World War, they were placed in displaced persons camps before coming to Canada. In a new country they had to find their way, start their own families and learn to speak English. There was no time to dwell on the past.

And for decades, no one believed them, so what was the point in discussing it?

Now in their 70s, 80s, and 90s, they can finally take a breath and tell their stories. Some, like 92-year-old Peter Trimpolis of Winnipeg, have written about the famine of 1932-33. Trimpolis's book, My Rocky Road of Life, documents his first-hand account of collectivization of the farms in Ukraine and the adventures and hardships that followed.

Edith Friesen, another Winnipegger, wrote Journey Into Freedom about her mother's experience as one of the many Mennonites living in southern Ukraine who survived the artificial famine.

The man-made disaster isn't an event that's buried in the past. The thriftiness, devotion to family and strong ties to the church as the cultural centre of the community have been passed down through the generations. And the importance of sharing when there's not much to share is another.

Friesen goes back to that part of Ukraine every year and is struck by the kindness of the people, most of whom are living in poverty.

"It's amazing they can still be so generous having experienced that."

This weekend, the Ukrainian community is hosting a symposium on the famine-genocide of 1932-33 at the St. Mary the Protectress Ukrainian Orthodox Cathedral in Winnipeg. It's their chance to tell their story and for us to listen.

For anyone who's wondered about their friend's quiet baba who loves to cook and hates to waste, it's a big deal.