ODESA — “Tomochka, do you remember anything from your past, I mean that horrible famine [Holodomor] seven years ago?” my mother asked me back in 1940.
“I do, Mom, I remember everything,” I replied. My mother looked at me and remained silent for a couple of minutes, then she said quietly, as though unsure of what she was about to tell me: “Please, listen to me carefully and do as I say. There is one thing that you must promise me. Do you remember the man who bit your leg during the Holodomor? You started shrieking with pain. I heard you and dashed out of the cabin, and grabbed him by the throat to protect you. I couldn’t stop strangling him with my hands until the man died. Please, keep this secret for as long as you live. Please, swear to me this will remain between the two of us!” Mom started crying and I told her no one would ever learn of this secret, cross my heart and hope to die.
Arriving at my twilight years, I’m tortured by my oath of secrecy; I can’t tell the horrifying story about what we — and other Ukrainians — went through during the Holodomor period, and how we survived. I’m still amazed that my mother and I did, with families dying of hunger around us. Few people survived the Holodomor in our village, although I remember that the year was marked by good harvest yields.
I was born to a well-off Cossack family in Syniavka, a village in Berezne province, part of Chernihiv gubernia [currently part of Ukraine’s Rivne oblast]. There were many prospering Cossack families in our village. I was Cossack by my father and peasant by my mother. My grandfather had a big and hard-working family. There were six daughters and two sons, my father and his brother Dmytro who was killed by [Bolshevik-affiliated] sailors who raided our village, riding two tachankas [tachanka is a horse-drawn cart or an open wagon with a heavy machine gun installed in the back — Ed.], simply because he was well-dressed. One of the sailors saw him and said to his mates, “Look at this counterrevolutionary!” and fired his Nagant revolver. My father’s brother was murdered when he was 16 years old.
In 1932, our family were subject to dekulakization [the process of destroying the more affluent peasants, the kulaks, as a social class – Ed.]. They [the NKVD] came and robbed us mercilessly. I believe it happened in October 1932. Seven men came, among them two wearing the militiaman’s uniform, with two horse-driven carts, and told us they were acting on orders from “upstairs,” that they had to rid us of all property, evict us from our home, and send us into exile because we were “enemy elements.” That included elders and children. They spent three days robbing our household, they even confiscated our winter clothes, as well as our two horses, two cows, pigs, poultry, grain, and kitchenware. My father was thrown behind bars in Berezne, my grandfather made himself scarce. My elder brother was placed in the care of my old maternal grandmother in the village of Shabalyniv; my paternal grandmother succeeded in staying with her daughter, whose husband was a party member. This left my mother and me in our plundered home, with no clothes or food. We were downright beggars. Mom told me later that she had spotted several men wearing our clothes, all of them members of the dekulakization team that had invaded our home. In fact, our home was turned into the local collective farm’s office. Mom and I were shown the door and told we could travel anywhere. We had nowhere to go, we kept sitting in our courtyard, knowing that no one in the village would have anything to do with a dekulakization victim, for such were the Soviet authorities’ instructions. Eventually, one of the local kolkhoz functionaries walked over and told us we could live in a cabin, but only us. He added, “If I find anyone else living with you, I will throw all of you out, you’ll have to live in the street.” The cabin in which we were allowed to live was actually my grandmother’s windowless pantry, where she’d kept all kinds of trash. However, this cabin was a godsend for us. Mom brought an armful of dry straw — there was a sheaf at the back of the barn-cum-stables — and made our abode somewhat warmer, for there was no heating. We survived. How? I went out to answer a nature call one evening (in early November). It was dark outside and as I stepped out someone grabbed me by the leg. I fell and I felt a terrible pain. I started yelling and saw Mom dash out of the cabin. She looked like a zombie — I couldn’t even recognize her. She ran over and pounced on what turned out to be a man on top of me. She grabbed him by the throat and didn’t let go. She started yelling that she couldn’t get her hands off his throat. We were both screaming. Then she managed to get her hands off the man’s throat. She stood up, grabbed the man by his clothes and dragged him behind the barn. She returned to the cabin, washed the blood off her hands, then washed my knee wound, applying a clay bandage (she used the clay the grandma had used to polish the floor). My wound did not heal until the summer. I still have a scar left from where the man bit me. As it was, Mom and I left our cabin the next morning to meet Maria Shablykha, a woman who lived next door. She asked about the yells she’d heard the previous night. We went over to the barn and saw a boy dressed in rags, with blood spots on his chest. Shablykha said he was between 12 and 13 years old. His mouth was open, with just one front tooth left. Mom and I were crying. Shablykha was saying this was the werewolf who had bitten a three-year-old boy, last night in Azarovychky. He had sucked his blood and the boy died shortly after. This was God’s punishment. My mother changed afterwards, she was like a living skeleton, with shaking limbs. I remember thinking it wasn’t the Mom I remembered. Famine had changed her beyond recognition and I became afraid of her. Even decades later, I still can’t figure out how we survived; we had no food, just water. Mom kept saying that the situation would change for the better, that there would be grass in the spring, along with leaves, bark, and roots.
We heard a knock on our cabin’s door early in the morning. It was early March and the frost was murderous. Mom opened the door and let in a man who looked horrible, dirty, unshaven, and dressed in rags. His feet were wrapped in rags for want of shoes. Mom was scared, but the man said, “Have no fear, Dunia, I’m your father in law, please let me spend at least an hour in your home, for I can’t survive in the woods. I’m on the militia’s wanted lists; they want to exile me to the north of Russia.” He was an intelligent man, proud of his Cossack heritage. A well-to-do and hard-working individual reduced to the enemy-of-the-people status. What had he done to deserve such a lot? He and his family had worked hard from dawn to dusk. None of his family had wronged any fellow villagers. Mom was afraid he had been spotted by a kolkhoz activist or militiaman, that we would be thrown out of our cabin and left to die in the street. As it was, my grandfather spent a day with us. In the evening he told Mom he was leaving. Mom kept walking around the room, wringing her hands, racking her mind for a way to save her father-in-law. In the end, her fear for her baby got the upper hand. If and when discovered, both of us would be thrown out in the street and no one would dare take care of us, for there was a decree from “upstairs,” that no one was to accommodate a dekulakized character, on pain of harsh punishment. And so my grandfather left. His frozen naked body was discovered the next morning by the dam. That same day a militia officer visited Mom and asked if she had accommodated “the old Bannyk” the previous night. Without waiting for her answer, he faced me: “Hey, little one, did your granddad visit you last night?“ I replied in the negative (I understood the situation even then). The man told Mom: “I’ll have you evicted if I find your testimony to be false. You’re allowed to live here because you have a child. We found his frozen body by the dam; we’d been hunting him down for half a year, only to find him right under our nose.”
Mom told me later the weather would get better, God willing, we would survive this horrible period and settle in Russia, following in the footsteps of many, for in Russia we wouldn’t have to experience the horrors we did in Ukraine. Vain hopes of a horror-stricken people. We lived through every painful day, hoping for warmer weather, so as to walk all the way to Russia to find salvation. In the depths of poverty we lived on hope alone, as did all those around us. But there was one living skeleton, our former villager, who told my mother — and all the other starving villagers who were dreaming of salvation in Russia — that their dreams would never come true. He said he had been on the Russian border, and was nearly killed there, for there were too many people trying to cross it, and soldiers and armed civilians kept them from doing so. Some Ukrainians tried to cross the border anyway, they were hit with rifle butts, some were shot on the spot. He had seen bodies being carted away, so he returned to Ukraine’s living hell.
I have many hair-raising memories, as well as my mother’s and other people’s stories and recollections about the horrible famine. In this letter I adhere to my own memories, what I actually witnessed, without a word or allegation that could be proven false.
After hearing the fellow villager’s story, Mom began looking forward to the coming of spring, and warmer weather, which would bring grass and other plants [that could serve as food]. She was also expecting changes for the better, considering since we had already reached the pits of despair. Came April with grass, leaves and the tree’s bark thickening. At long last, there seemed to be light at the end of the channel. But then [the communists] started forcing peasants to join collective farms — the kolkhozes had lots of land, considering the plots and livestock confiscated from the farmers. Hence the notorious Soviet motto: “All Power to the Soviets and Land to the Peasants!” The trouble was that the masses believed this and shed their blood to help establish the communist political system.
My father, a perfectly innocent civilian, was eventually released from a Soviet prison. But in the village of Syniavka there were no homes or means of support for former kulaks, so my father and mother decided to resettle. My father found an accountant’s job in Horodne, in the vicinity of our native village. We were allotted a room [in a communal flat] on the premises of Atabksyrie where my father worked. In 1939, our family — my parents, my brother Andrii and I — moved to Odesa. We rented an apartment and my father worked as an accountant for the Agarov Factory. In 1941, my father was drafted into the Red Army and my brother followed suit in 1944. Mom was worried about my father and even more so about my brother, considering that he hadn’t reached his 20th birthday when conscripted. I remember Mom whispering the Lord’s Prayer before going to bed, adding her own prayer, saying “My Lord, I pray for You to have mercy on my son, allow him to live and keep him healthy… Jesus Christ, I beg You to forgive my deadly sin. I committed it defending my child, I couldn’t have acted differently at that horrible time. I’m also praying for the soul of that poor boy I slew; his only guilt was his hunger that forced him to commit his crime.” She repeated this prayer every night.
My brother returned from the front and things began to look up. Then we had the 1947 famine, even though it was a far cry from the 1933 horrid experiences. What happened in 1947 was really caused by poor crop yields. What happened in 1932-33 wasn’t, the harvest had been good.
Years later, in 1994, I was in a bookstore where I ran into a lady who eventually told me she was from the Volga Region and spending her vacation [in the Crimea]. She went on to say that she was fond of Ukraine and Ukrainians. I told her I was happy to hear a Russian woman saying she loves Ukraine. She said: “Let me explain the reasons. I was born in a village in the Volga Region. In 1932 we had very bad crop yields, with villages left to starve. Six man died of starvation in my village. There was no food, but we survived, thanks to Ukraine. My mother used to pray to God to help Ukrainians in return for their help.”
I recall Kirill, the Moscow Patriarch, and his visit to Ukraine in 2009. He also said that there was a famine in 1931, and people found sackfuls of flour at their doors. He said he knew it was a present from the Lord, sent to them from Ukraine to help people survive.
Well, I think I have carried out my duty by telling you about how people suffered and died during the Holodomor in Ukraine, all this being the fault of the political leadership of that time.
I have also breached the oath I had sworn to my mother. May God and my mother forgive me. Mom is no longer among the living, so perhaps I had the right to render a truthful account of what I had seen with my own eyes.
I was born [Dunia] Leliavko.