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Buffalo News | 21Nov2011 | Jay Tokasz

Area survivors recall horrors of forced famine in '30s Ukraine

Requiem service honors millions who lost lives

Alex Iwaszczenko was just a young boy in the early 1930s, so he doesn't remember much about his life back then.

But he won't ever forget the constant hunger, or seeing bodies of villagers lying in the fields. Some of them were so famished, they simply dropped dead on a hunt for whatever sustenance they could find.

"I look around in the field, and I see lots of people dead," Iwaszczenko recalled Sunday, following a requiem service commemorating the 78th anniversary of the Ukrainian genocide.

Millions of Ukrainians died in 1932 and 1933 as a result of a policy under the Stalin regime that eliminated food in most parts of rural Ukraine under Soviet control.

Ukraine's peasant farmers resisted Soviet efforts to stifle their national identity, and Stalin responded by using food as a weapon of mass destruction.

Ukrainians refer to the forced famine as the Holodomor.

Iwaszczenko, now 86, lost aunts and uncles in the great starvation, when agents of the Soviet state went into homes and confiscated any vegetables, grains and even seedlings -- so peasants couldn't grow their own food.

"The local government came in, and they took away all vegetables. They created hunger. They threw food in the ocean, but they wouldn't give it to the people," said Iwaszczenko, who moved to Western New York in 1950. "We ate what we could from the fields."

Iwaszczenko's parents survived the famine, too, but his father was arrested in 1937 by the KGB, the Soviet secret police. Iwaszczenko said he never again saw his father, and he still doesn't know what happened to him.

The local commemoration, one of hundreds around the world, attracted about 165 people in the Ukrainian Orthodox Church hall on Como Park Boulevard in Cheektowaga.

Iwaszczenko, of Depew, was joined by Sofia Pitolaj and Maria Dranka, both 87 and residents of Buffalo, as local survivors of the Holodomor participating in the annual Remembrance Day.

Dranka recalled eating a runny pancake concoction made of the blossoms of clover plants mixed with water.

"You tell people now, and nobody can believe how could it happen like that," said Dranka.

Family members of Holodomor survivors also relayed stories passed down to them: of children being forced to vomit to prove to authorities they had no food in their homes; of a small head of cabbage feeding dozens of people in a soup seasoned only by the cook's salty saliva; of villagers digging up floor boards for a bite of a spoiled seed.

"Stalin's henchmen confined millions of Ukrainians in their villages, confiscated every grain and leaf of sustenance and prevented international relief efforts from reaching the millions of starving men, women and children," said John Riszko, secretary of the Ukrainian Congress Committee of America, Buffalo Chapter.

The commemoration, which was spoken mostly in Ukrainian, included a brief religious service led by the Rev. Yuriy Kasyanov and musical performances by children of Ridna Shkola Ukrainian School and by local Ukrainian organizations.

Event organizer and emcee Zanna Vaida noted that her grandparents died in the famine.

"I never had a chance to meet my grandparents. This is why I'm personally involved," said Vaida, who also urged fellow Ukrainian-Americans to pass down accounts of the Holodomor to future generations so that the tragedy is not forgotten.

Americans will be giving thanks this week for all they have and celebrating with large feasts at their dining room tables.

"At the same time the Ukrainian community is remembering people who starved to death because of [Stalin's] regime," said Vaida.

Ukrainians in the diaspora continue to be worried about the future of their nation, as its independence and sovereignty again appear to be facing a challenge from an aggressive Russian leader, this time Vladimir Putin, said Riszko.

Ukrainian-Americans, he said, are nervous that Ukraine's path to democracy could be blocked by a Russia intent on "trying to re-establish hegemony."

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