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Where there is no law, but every man does what is right in his own eyes, there is the least of real liberty
Henry M. Robert

A Candle Lit in Memory and Hope...

25 March, 2003 - 00:00

Why does my heart ache so whenever I recall that old story? I heard it from my mother when I was a little girl. Perhaps I was in a bad mood and didn’t want to clean my plate. In such cases parents back in the 1950s, would say, “You must eat everything on your plate, for your dad and mom...” I don’t remember, but I clearly remember what my mother told me. It had happened in her youth and the story would have a lasting impact on my mentality...

My mother, Antonina Tkachuk, was fortunate to be born in Kyiv. Although the famine after the Russian Revolution did not discriminate among its victims, it was not as ruthless in the big city. However, my mother’s famished childhood, when a boiled beet and no bread was considered a festive treat in winter, would have its toll in the form of countless ills as she grew older.

After school she enrolled in an agricultural technical school in Kyiv. Together with other happily young and enthusiastic Komsomol girls, she would be sent to neighboring villages for her academic practice. It was in 1933 and food was a problem in Kyiv, so the girls expected to be better off on the collective farms. Somehow, my mother, then 16, went to the village assigned her alone. She had to walk 60 kilometers. She had long eaten the small slice of bread she had taken from home. Her young system protested vigorously an empty stomach, and she strained her eyes, trying to spot a village by the road. If and when she found one she thought she would be sure to have something to eat; there were no people anywhere in the world as friendly and hospitable as those in the Ukrainian countryside.

Finally, she saw a village. It looked strange. No dogs barking, no chickens cackling, no children playing and shouting. There was no one in sight. As she reached the place she found it deserted and frighteningly quiet, every home standing like an old blind beggar, all the windows hastily boarded up, the boards blackened with rain and snow. And then she noticed a cabin with its door ajar. Tentatively she stepped inside. “Anyone here?” Something moved in the rags on top of a big stove. She heard a faint woman’s voice, “What do you want, little girl?” My mother looked closer and recoiled, horrified. A living skeleton was looking at her, eyes glinting in a face all skin and bones. Stammering, she explained she was on her way to such-and-such village and that she had hoped to find a place to rest and have something to eat; that this place looked so weird, so dead. “You’re right, the place is dead. Some died of hunger, others left for the city to stay alive,” the woman whispered and then told my mother something she refused to believe. No one would in his sound mind, with healthy instincts, above all that of self-preservation, demanding food and drink. “See that small chunk of bread on the table? Take it. You’re young, you need it. I don’t. It won’t help me anyway. I’m dying.” The woman didn’t ask her to give her bread, but to take it and eat it!...

My mother took it and ate it (it was hard as stone, made from goosefoot, weeds, and acorns) as she went on her way. She ate and wept for that woman with such a big heart and because there was nothing she could do to help, because she could not understand what was happening. No one heard her... Like so many others, she knew nothing about the manmade famine, the Holodomor. She knew that one of her friends had been told by a well- wishing chairman of a collective farm to go home, because she looked too healthy for her own good. One morning in Kyiv she had seen several dead emaciated bodies in country clothes by a bakery. A woman nearby had whispered that they had eaten fresh bread on an empty stomach...

Now we know about frequent cases of cannibalism in Ukrainian villages, about NKVD cordons on city outskirts to prevent residents finding out about the Ukrainian countryside, only yesterday the world’s most industrious, hospitable, and thriving, now dying of hunger. The countryside was the nation’s gene pool, the carrier of the mother tongue and age-old culture. At the time everything was officially explained by poor harvests and no questions were asked. Those that did were soon told to mind their own business and pointed to an empty chair where their colleague had sat only yesterday...

My mother survived several famines, but her story about that dying woman offering her last crust to a girl she did not know was the most arresting. No one in our family threw out any bread. My mother was always very hospitable and would make every visitor join us at the table, however low the family budget at the time. Memories of the Holodomor decades after made her collect dry bread and carry it to the Besarabka market and give to young women selling raw meat, saying, “It’s for your cattle.” It took them some time to understand the intelligent-looking and well-dressed lady (she was a philologist and journalist). She, in turn, did not understand them when they refused to take her bread and tried to explain that she could not just throw it out... We kept our door open for relatives and guests, welcome and otherwise. No one would ever leave our home without being treated to some food by my mother. It was a law she strictly observed. Her attitude toward bread was not because she had become stingy but because she felt profound respect for every tiller, every baker, and also because she harbored a deep sorrow she would retain to her dying day. It was her way to repay her debt to that starving country woman.

I told my daughter my mother’s story and she was very impressed. So much so that she still keeps a sharp eye on everybody at the table, lest they leave any bread. She makes them eat it or eats it herself. I also know that she will always respect people living in the countryside and wearing simple clothes...

A reverent attitude toward bread is a tribute to all those callused hands growing wheat and rye; it is our genetic memory of the millions of men, women, and children that died because they were denied their daily bread...

Politicians at all levels now seem obsessed with some national idea capable of uniting the entire Ukrainian people, allowing each and everyone to live a decent life, as befits a European nation with a rich culture and tremendous intellectual potential.

I will allow myself an assumption: a candle should be lit in every Ukrainian window (as so timely proposed by Prof. James Mace, a leading political analyst opening our eyes on the truth about the Holodomor) on a certain day commemorating the victims, becoming a symbol of national unity. On that day one and all should remember the ordeals befalling our people. Looking back at that grim past, we should feel happy, even if because we have been spared that tragic lot, and realize that our strength is in our unity. We should then feel inspired to build a happier future.

If we do perhaps we will make Shevchenko’s dream come true: “Then shall our day of hope arrive,
Ukrainian glory shall revive,
No twilight but the dawn shall render
And break forth into novel splendor....
Brother, embrace! Your hopes possess,
I beg you in all eagerness!”

[Translation of Shevchenko by
C. H. Andrusyshen
& W. Kirkconnell]