London Free Press | 01Dec2008 | Chris Mitchell (Special to Sun Media)

Holodomor survivors recount tragic tales of Soviet genocide
UKRAINE: The forced famine of 1932 claimed millions of victims

At the tender age of 11 and in defiance of an empire, Stephan Tischenko searched for food to feed his three starving brothers. It was 1932 and the Soviet government was deliberately starving people in Ukraine, a tactic aimed at destroying any hopes of independence. "The government took everything. We had nothing left," Tischenko said yesterday as about 200 people attended a memorial service at the London Ukrainian Centre to honour the survivors and remember the victims.

He recalled going out to find any food he could, knowing if the authorities caught him, he could be shot on sight. He picked rotten potatoes and weeds. "When I came home, there was one brother dead -- the youngest." Again he went out to find food and when he returned, another of his brothers had died. Tischenko's tragic story is only one from the Holodomor, a famine that killed as many as 10 million people in Ukraine.

"Ukraine remembers -- the world acknowledges," said Mykola Wasylko, president of the Ukrainian Centre, in an address to the crowd at yesterday's ceremony. This year is the 75th anniversary of the famine, which until only recently was almost unknown outside Ukraine. Survivors were afraid to speak of the tragedy in public until the Soviet Union collapsed.

In May, Canada recognized the Holodomar as an act of genocide. At yesterday's ceremony, the crowd ate bread baked by one of the 12 survivors who attended. It symbolized "the bread that was forcibly taken from the mouths of the dying," Wasylko said.

Tischenko wasn't alone in having to go to great lengths to find food. Victoria Kaluschny, who was eight in 1932, said she had to eat grass and chew on cherry tree branches for food. Her parents sold their wedding rings to feed her. Kaluschny saw an entire harvest ruined so Ukrainians wouldn't be able to eat. The Soviets had poured gasoline over the wheat.

She remembers passing a pile of bodies in a ditch. "Mother was pulling me by the hand and saying, 'Don't look.' " Bodies lined the streets and workers rode by in carts to collect them. "They would take people by the legs and hands and throw them in the cart like pieces of wood," Kaluschny said.

She recalled an uncle who fainted from hunger and was thrown onto one of the carts. He awoke later, under a pile of dead bodies. When he returned home several days later, his once black hair had turned pure white.

Another survivor, Michael Fediw, was six during the famine. His most vivid memory is also the carts passing him, filled with bodies. "I don't think I can ever forget it." He said yesterday's ceremony comes as a relief now that the truth has come out. "Thank God that I lived long enough to see it."