Tears were shed as accounts of the devastation of the Holodomor were heard at a vigil at Vernon city hall, marking the 90th anniversary of the man-made famine Saturday, Nov. 25.
More than 20 people gathered at the vigil to remember the dark chapter of human history that took place in Ukraine in 1932-33, when millions of lives were lost as the result of a genocidal campaign by Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin.
Holodomor translates to “death by hunger,” and Ukrainian Canadian Congress Thompson Okanagan Branch president Andrea Malysh went into the history of the atrocity.
As is the case with many atrocities, Holodomor started out with a grand vision. As Malysh explained, Stalin in 1928 had introduced his first five-year plan for rapid industrialization with the goal of turning the Soviet Union into an economic powerhouse. To finance his ambitious plan, his regime turned to collectivization and seized family farms as well as the animals needed to seed and harvest the wheat fields.
The former landowners and their families were forced to sign up to work on the collectives, while the state imposed unattainable grain quotas. Malysh said when these quotas were not met, heavy taxes were imposed, and when farmers weren’t able to pay these taxes, the regime took away all their possessions, food, horses, and seed set aside for planting in the spring.
“The consequences were devastating,” Malysh said, explaining by 1932 many peasants were fleeing to towns and cities in search of food. Meanwhile, Stalin continued selling train loads of grain to other countries, refused foreign aid, and imposed tougher laws.
At the height of the Holodomor, some 28,000 people in Ukraine were dying of starvation each day, Malysh said.
“We honor those who suffered and died at the hands of a totalitarian regime 90 years ago, as well as those who carry on the fight for freedom in Ukraine,” Malysh said, dovetailing the atrocity of the past to the current day when Vladimir Putin’s Russian forces continue to wage war in Ukraine, based, as Malysh said, on dreams of controlling Ukraine as Stalin once did.
North Okanagan-Shuswap MP Mel Arnold was in Ottawa Saturday and therefore could not be at the vigil, but Malysh read a statement in which Arnold recognized the horrors of the Holodomor on one hand while criticizing Putin as a Stalin-esque figure on the other.
“Today, as we commemorate the Holodomor, we are reminded that Vladimir Putin is repeating history with his illegal invasion of Ukraine, destruction of Ukrainian lives, and threat to the freedom of Ukraine, all in an attempt to repeat Stalin’s seizure of Ukraine.”
The speeches were translated into Ukrainian by Kseniia Rudenko, who at times paused in her translation, overcome with emotion, saying her family in Ukraine had been victims of the Holodomor.
Kathy Zozula took the mic at the vigil to tell the story of her parents, Antonina and Maksym Zozula, who had lived and suffered the Holodomor.
“History is more than a published list of names and dates to be memorized today and forgotten tomorrow,” Zozula said. “It needs to be seen through the eyes of artists, musicians and poets. It needs to be heard through the voices of survivors.”
Zozula said she had always asked her mother about living in the Second World War. Her mother, Antonina, once told her that the war was “terrible,” but the Holodomor was “much, much worse.”
Zozula teared up several times as she told her mother’s story from her mother’s point of view, describing the loss of her grandfather who died in the middle of a two-year prison sentence, weak with malnutrition, in an overcrowded cell riddled with filth and disease.
She described mothers leaving their babies in the city “knowing that this was the only way they could save them from certain death.” She described the miracle of horseradish, which could be dug up, boiled and turned into a soup — a lifeline amid the famine. She described her mother stripping the leaves and bark off trees, turning them into paste and “calling it bread.”
A moment of silence took place after the speeches, followed by a prayer led by Father Chad Pawlyshyn of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church. A Ukrainian tradition ended the event: a loaf of bread was shared among those in attendance.