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Jewish Witnesses on the Ukrainian Famine

The documents reproduced below were written by eyewitnesses of Jewish background. This fact has a double significance. First, their authors cannot be accused of Ukrainian bias. Second, their testimony is valuable. They too belonged to a nation which had been persecuted and thus the authors were able to both understand and empathize with the sufferings of others. 

VASILY GROSSMAN, a Russian language journalist and writer worked in the Donbas region of Ukraine in the early 1930s and saw the famine with his own eyes. In his autobiographical novel, Forever Flowing, he describes life under Stalin, and devotes two touching chapters to the famine in Ukraine (Ch. 14 & 15). The novel is also available in French (Tout passe, Paris, 1972), and in Russian (Vse techet. Frankfurt, 1970). Excerpts have been published in the Ukrainian Journal (Suchasnist). 

LEV KOPELEV, a journalist and a writer, was a young Communist activist in the 1930s. He was part of the cadres responsible for implementing Stalin's genocidal policies in Ukraine. His memoirs, The Education of a True Believer, published after the author's emigration to the West, reads like a confession and a testimony. 
 


1- Vasily Grossman, Forever Flowing, New York: Harper & Row, 1972 
(Chapter 14). 

        I don't want to remember it. It is terrible. But I can't forget it. It just keeps on living within me; whether or not it slumbers, it is still there. A piece of iron in my heart, like a shell fragment. Something one cannot escape. I was fully adult when it all happened... 

        No, there was no famine during the campaign to liquidate the kulaks. Only the horses died. The famine came in 1932, the second year after the campaign to liquidate the kulaks... 

        And so, at the beginning of 1930, they began to liquidate the kulak families. The height of the fever was in February and March. They expelled them from their home districts so that when it was time for sowing there would be no kulaks left, so that a new life could begin. That is what we all said it would be: "the first collective farm spring."... 

        Our new life began without the co-called "kulaks". They started to force people to join the collective farms. Meetings were underway from morning on. There were shouts and curses. Some of them shouted: "We will not join!"... 

        And we thought, fools that we were, that there could be no fate worse than that of the kulaks. How wrong we were! The axe fell upon the peasants right where they stood, on large and small alike. The execution by famine had arrived. By this time I no longer washed floors but was a book-keeper instead. And, as a Party activist, I was sent to Ukraine in order to strengthen a collective farm. In Ukraine, we were told, they had an instinct for private property that was stronger than in the Russian Republic. And truly, truly, the whole business was much worse in Ukraine... 

        Moscow assigned grain production and delivery quotas to the provinces, and the provinces then assigned them to the districts. And our village was given a quota that it couldn't have fulfilled in ten years! In the village rada (council) even those who weren't drinkers took to drink out of terror... 

        Of course, the grain deliveries could not be fulfilled. Smaller areas had been sown, and the crop yield on those smaller areas had shrunk. So where could it come from, that promised ocean of grain from the collective farms? The conclusion reached up top was that the grain had all been concealed, hidden away. By kulaks who had not yet been liquidated, by loafers! The "kulaks" had been removed, but the "kulak" spirit remained. Private property was master over the minds of the Ukrainian peasant. 

        Who was it who then signed the act which imposed mass murder? ... For the decree required that the peasants of Ukraine, the Don, and the Kuban be put to death by starvation, put to death along with their tiny children. The instructions were to take away the entire seed fund. Grain was searched for as if it were not grain but bombs and machine guns. The whole earth was stabbed with bayonets and ramrods. Cellars were dug up, floors were broken through, and vegetable gardens were turned over. From some they confiscated grain, and dust hung over the earth. And there were no grain elevators to accommodate it, and they simply dumped it out on the earth and set guards around it. By winter the grain had been soaked by the rains and began to ferment -- the Soviet government didn't even have enough canvases to cover it up!... 

        Fathers and mothers wanted to save their children and hid a tiny bit of grain, and they were told: "You hate the country of socialism. You are trying to make the plan fail, you parasites, you pro-kulaks, you rats." ... The entire seed fund had been confiscated... 

        Everyone was in terror. Mothers looked at their children and began to scream in fear. They screamed as if a snake had crept into their house. And this snake was famine, starvation, death... 

        And here, under the government of workers and peasants, not even one kernel of grain was given them. There were blockades along all the highways, where militia, NKVD men, troops were stationed; the starving people were not to be allowed into the cities. Guards surrounded all the railroad stations. There were guards at even the tiniest of whistle stops. No bread for you, breadwinners! ... And the peasant children in the villages got not one gram. That is exactly how the Nazis put the Jewish children into the Nazi gas chambers: "You are not allowed to live, you are all Jews!" And it was impossible to understand, grasp, comprehend. For these children were Soviet children, and those who were putting them to death were Soviet people... 

        Death from starvation mowed down the village. First the children, then the old people, then those of middle age. At first they dug graves and buried them, and then as things got worse they stopped. Dead people lay there in the yards, and in the end they remained in their huts. Things fell silent. The whole village died. Who died last I do not know. Those of us who worked in the collective farm administration were taken off to the city... 

        Before they had completely lost their strength, the peasants went on foot across country to the railroad. Not to the stations where the guards kept them away, but to the tracks. And when the Kyiv-Odesa express came past, they would just kneel there and cry: "Bread, bread!" They would lift up their horrible starving children for people to see. And sometimes people would throw them pieces of bread and other scraps. The train would thunder on past, and the dust would settle down, and the whole village would be there crawling along the tracks, looking for crusts. But an order was issued that whenever trains were travelling through the famine provinces the guards were to shut the windows and pull down the curtains. Passengers were not allowed at the windows... 

        And the peasants kept crawling from village into the city. All the stations were surrounded by guards. All the trains were searched. Everywhere along the roads were roadblocks -- troops, NKVD. Yet despite all this the peasants made their way into Kyiv. They would crawl through the fields, through empty lots, through the swamps, through the woods -- anywhere to bypass the roadblocks set up for them. They were unable to walk; all they could do was crawl... 

        What I found out later was that everything fell silent in our village... I found out that troops were sent in to harvest the winter wheat. The army men were not allowed to enter the village, however. They were quartered in their tents. They were told there had been an epidemic. But they kept complaining that a horrible stink was coming from the village. The troops stayed to plant the spring wheat too. And the next year new settlers were brought in from Orel Province (Russia). This was the rich Ukrainian land, the black earth, whereas the Orel peasants were accustomed to frequent harvest failures. 
 


2 -- Lev Kopelev, The Education of a True Believer. New York: Harper & Row, 1980. (Chapter IX "The Last Grain Collections") 

        The Myrhorod district had not fulfilled its plan of grain collection in December 1932. The oblast committee dispatched a visiting delegation of two newspapers, the Socialist Kharkiv Register and our Locomotive Worker, to issue news sheets in the lagging villages. There were four of us: two lads from Myrhorod -- a typesetter and a printer; and two from Kharkiv -- my assistant Volodya and myself... 

        The highest measure of coercion on the hard-core holdouts was "undisputed confiscation." 

        A team consisting of several young kolhospnyks and members of the village rada, led as a rule by Vashchenko himself, would search the hut, barn, yard, and take away all the stores of seed, lead away the cow, the horse, the pigs... Several times Volodia and I were present at such plundering raids. We even took part: we were entrusted to draw up inventories of the confiscated goods... The women howled hysterically, clinging to the bags-... 

        I heard the children echoing them with screams, choking, coughing with screams. And I saw the looks of the men: frightened, pleading, hateful, dully impassive, extinguished with despair or flaring up with half-mad, daring ferocity... 

        And I persuaded myself, explained to myself I mustn't give in to debilitating pity. We were realising historical necessity. We were performing our revolutionary duty. We were obtaining grain for the socialist fatherland, for the five-year plan. 

        Some sort of rationalistic fanaticism overcame my doubts, my pangs of conscience and simple feelings of sympathy, pity and shame, but this fanaticism was nourished not only by speculative newspaper and literary sources. More convincing than these were people who in my eyes embodied, personified our truth and our justice, people who continued with their lives that it was necessary to clench your teeth, clench your heart and carry out everything the party and the Soviet power ordered.... 

        I have always remembered the winter of the last grain collections, the weeks of the great famine. And I have always told about it. But I did not begin to write it down until many years later. 

        And while I wrote the rough drafts and read them to friends, questions arose... Questions put to history, the present day, myself. 

        How could all this have happened? Who was guilty of the famine which destroyed millions of lives? How could I have participated in it?... 

        On December 27 [1932], the Central Committee issued a ruling on passports: they were to be introduced for city residents in order to facilitate "the counting of the population, the unburdening of the cities and the purging of kulak criminal elements from the cities." 

        But in fact the passport system laid an administrative and juridical cornerstone for the new serfdom; it provided one of the foundations for an unparalleled state totalitarianism. The "kulak elements" of which the cities should be cleansed proved to be all peasants who had left the countryside without the express permission of the local authorities. Once again the passport system tied down the peasantry, as it had before the emancipation of 1861. 

        In February 1933 I was sick... My father arrived after a trip through the provinces, where he had been checking on the preparations for planting sugar beets. He sat hunched over; his face was dark and his eyes inflamed, as if after a bout of malaria. But he was not emaciated. People don't go hungry at the sugar refineries... 

        Father was gloomy and immediately let into me. "Everything is done for! Do you understand? No grain in the village! I'm not talking about the Central Workers Co-op or the city story, but the village. The grain growers are dying of starvation! Not some derelict. tramps, not some unemployed Americans, but the Ukrainian grain growers are dying from want of grain! And my dear little boy helped to take it away."

 

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