The Great Famine-Genocide in Soviet Ukraine (Holodomor)


In Depth: By Patti Mengers,
Delaware County Daily Times
Delaware County, Pennsylvania, November 17, 2003

In the verdant backyard of Maria Wenchak, roses bloom not far from the kitchen where the aroma of her famous apple cake fills the air. On her front porch, she proudly displays an American flag.

"God bless America," declared the Ukrainian immigrant. "She gave a place to everybody."

The 78-year-old widow has a regal bearing that belies a deep-seeded heartbreak also harbored by several of her fellow immigrants.

She is a survivor of the Ukrainian Famine of 1932-1933. Some call it genocide engineered by Josef Stalin. Others call it a naturally occurring famine compounded by government retribution against those resistant to the communist regime.

Wenchak is very clear about what she lived through seven decades ago.

"You tell the world what Stalin did to us," she said, her blue eyes blazing. "And for what, for what?"

The famine of 1932-1933 caused the death of between 7 and 10 million Ukrainians, and yet many Americans are unfamiliar with it.

The height of the famine was November 1933 and so the international Ukrainian community annually observes the fourth Saturday of November as a day of mourning "to recall this Soviet crime against humanity."

Yesterday, a memorial Mass marking the 70th anniversary of the famine was offered at Holy Ghost Ukrainian Catholic Church, Third and Harwick streets in Chester, by the Rev. Vasil Bunik.

It was followed by a program about the famine sponsored by Souz Branch 13 of the Ukrainian National Women's League of America, emceed by President Christine Kyj Pluta. Andreij Solczanyk presented the program in Ukrainian while Meli Kozak presented it in English.

In an effort to raise awareness of the Ukrainian famine, on Oct. 20, the U.S. House of Representatives unanimously adopted House Resolution 356. The resolution maintains that the famine "was deliberately initiated and enforced by the Soviet regime through the seizure of grain and the blockade of food shipments ..for the purposes of eliminating the resistance to the forced collectivization of agriculture and destroying Ukraine's national identity ..

It also asserts "..this man-made famine was designed and implemented by the Soviet regime as a deliberate act of terror and mass murder against the Ukrainian people ..


Swarthmore College history professor Bob Weinberg, who specializes in 20th century Russian history, said he doesn't believe the Ukrainian famine was genocide as much as "a disastrous combination of government policies and bad weather."

"It's a political hot potato. There was a massive famine in 1932 and 1933, not just in the Ukraine, but in the whole Soviet Union," said Weinberg.

But unlike the rest of the Soviet Union, the Ukraine's borders were blocked by Stalin's forces.

"Everybody suffered. Everywhere there was hunger, but it happened to be worse in the Ukraine because they closed the borders and made it hard for peasants to leave and food to get in," said Weinberg.

Throughout the Soviet Union, the peasants' land was consolidated into large farms and they were told to work as a collective group. The government did not provide enough large tractors for everyone to farm the land, noted Weinberg.

Many Ukrainians resisted collective farming. They were arrested and deported to labor camps known as gulags in Siberia and other northern regions. The Soviet government then imposed a very harsh grain tax.

"They demanded the peasants hand over the grain and there was very little left for the peasants. That antagonized and alienated the peasants and they became weaker. The able-bodied men were arrested," said Weinberg.

The grain was used to feed workers in the city or was exported to the west to aid industrialization, said Weinberg.

"There was little for peasants to consume and not enough for the next year's planting," he noted.

Visitors were not allowed into the Ukraine and Soviet government officials suppressed news reports of the famine, said Weinberg. They did not ask the United States or other countries for help as they had during a famine in the early 1920s.


Some reports did surface. A Dec. 27, 1933, story attributed by the National Committee to Commemorate Genocide Victims in Ukraine to The Jewish Daily Forward of New York stated: "We saw it with our own eyes -- real unrestrained famine ..along with hunger, typhus, swollen, naked corpses, empty villages whose inhabitants have been deported, died or run away, and with cannibalism that has ceased to be a punishable crime."

In 1984, the Academy Award-nominated documentary "Harvest of Despair," by Canadian film-maker Yurij Luhovy, was considered pivotal in exposing the Ukrainian famine when it premiered at the Manitoba Museum of Man and Nature.

Former New York Times correspondent Walter Duranty, who won a Pulitzer Prize in 1932 for his coverage of Russia, has come under fire for not reporting about the famine. House Resolution 356 accuses the late reporter of covering up and refuting evidence of the famine "to suppress criticism of the Soviet regime."

Last spring the Ukrainian Congress Committee of America joined an international effort to get Duranty's award revoked, by bombarding the Pulitzer Prize Board with thousands of post cards.

In June, Pulitzer board administrator Sig Gessler announced that the 18-member board was reviewing Duranty's work and reconsidering the award. He noted that Duranty's prize was for stories unrelated to the famine. A decision is expected this month.

The international Ukrainian community has also been lobbying New York Times Chairman and Publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. to return Duranty's Pulitzer. A study commissioned by the New York Times reportedly deemed Duranty's work as being "distorted" and having a "serious lack of balance."

How anyone could miss the deaths of approximately 25,000 people a day is beyond Maria Wenchak. She was living on a farm in Wodiana in the southern region of Dnipropetrowska at the height of the famine.

"I remember every morning in my village they took one horse and a wagon and they'd go through the village. If they saw a person lying in the street, dead or alive, they'd take that person and put that person in the wagon," said Wenchak.

When they filled the wagon, they would dump everyone in a mass grave, dead or alive. Some times she would see the hand of someone still alive, reaching out of the grave.

Wenchak, who was only 8 years old, also remembers working at a kindergarten. When children would starve to death, she would help carry their bodies to a barn full of straw.

"One time, myself and another girl put one boy on the straw. We heard shimmering and thought it was a mouse. It was a big water bug eating his eye out," said Wenchak, as she choked back tears.

Her big sister would boost her up to the thatched roof of their home and she would grab sparrows nesting there.

"The next day, my mother would make soup," said Wenchak.

Her mother would also squeeze grass to make soup, or shape grass into patties and cook them. Eventually, the ground was bare.

When her mother became bedridden with ulcerated legs from malnutrition, Wenchak and her older sister took on the task of digging up a horse that had starved to death, for meat for the family of six.

They were so desperate after Stalin's quotas depleted their reserves, they ate the potentially poisonous pits of already eaten fruit.

"If you had 10 chickens, you'd have to give them so many eggs. If you had cows, you had to give them so many gallons of milk," said Wenchak.


Wasyl Bolonka, 79, of Upper Chichester, remembers Stalin's enforcers - - the Pospechew, big men who would sometimes recruit Ukrainians who were alcoholics or otherwise disenfranchised, to help them collect what was declared state property from the farmers.

Bolonka was living in the village of Avrimivka in Winnyca in western central Ukraine during the famine that claimed his 11-year-old sister and his mother, who was about 50. He survived because he played with a Russian boy whose father owned a factory across from his home.

"Every day in the morning I waited for him. Every day in his pocket he had bread he saved for me. It saved my life," said Bolonka, who noted the boy stopped coming after his father apparently discovered what he was doing.

Bolonka remembers a 3-year-old girl with a younger brother, on her knees, begging for some of his bread.

"I was swollen myself. I had nothing," he said sadly.

The next day the little girl and her brother were both dead.

Bolonka's 79-year-old wife, Maria, also remembers famine victims swollen with malnutrition, dying in the streets of Bila Czerkva in the Kiev region in the west.

"People would rob them and take away whatever they had because they were hungry,"said Mrs. Bolonka.

She survived because her 18-year-old brother, who had raised her from age 2 when both her parents died, took her and her two siblings to another village. When they later returned, the village was deserted, the fields overgrown with weeds.

It was ironic in a country known to be the Bread Basket of Eastern Europe.

"We had the kind of soil people buy here for flowers," said Mrs. Bolonka.

"We had rich, rich soil, black soil," noted Katheryna Molodowec.

The 78-year-old Chester resident lived in Stebliw in the Kiev region during the famine. Her most vivid memory is of her father drowning while trying to catch fish for their family.

"A neighbor came running and say to my mother, `Lukia, Lukia, your husband die in the river,'" recalled Molodowec.

In addition to her father, her brother, grandmother and two aunts died in the famine.

"People killed horses for meat, honest to God," said Molodowec.

Even non-farming families suffered. Martha Yanczak, 80, of Brookhaven, is from the village of Ternowa in the eastern region of Ckarkiw, where her parents were factory workers.

"My mother every morning would boil water with salt for us to drink. If we didn't have salty water, we would swell up," said Yanczak.

Her father would bring home one piece of bread for the family of five.

"He would distribute it like candy - a little piece here and a little piece here. He said, `Eat a little bit so you don't die,'" remembered Yanczak.

She recalled her mother's sister sleeping in one bed with her four children.

"She started stealing from people, beets. They beat her so she stopped stealing and her children all died," said Yanczak.


Ivan J. Danylenko, 79, felt the famine early in a rural area near Lubny in the central region of Poltava. In 1931, he and two of his five siblings started gleaning, digging for frozen beets in the fields, to stave off starvation.

"In the fall of 1931, that's when they started to hurt us. We went out in the fields and were gleaning. We were chased by an overseer on a horse. We were whipped and everything we collected was taken from us," said Danylenko.

His aunt was sentenced to seven years in Siberia for gleaning. His father traveled to towns near the Black Sea to trade his mother's clothing for food until his mother had no more garments to trade.

Danylenko, Wenchak, Molodowec, Yanczak, and the Bolonkas all survived the Ukrainian famine of 1932-1933 and went on to survive slave labor conditions as Ost Arbeiter in German work camps during World War II.

After the war, they spent time in displaced persons camps before coming to the United States. Most have been here for 50 years or more.

But they will never forget living through what is considered one of the greatest losses of human life in the 20th century.

"Nobody knows why it happened," said Maria Bolonka, "why people had to die like that."

Patti Mengers,
Delaware County, Pennsylvania