Night - A Memoir of The Great Famine of 1933
My mother lived through this famine as a 13-year-old girl, and the memories are indelibly etched in her mind. I published this memoir last November, but I'm reprinting it today because I have many new readers. This eloquent and understated testament to growing up under the tyranny of Soviet rule was published in Ukrainian in a Ukrainian-American magazine. This is my own translation of her moving memories.
Ultima Thule: Night - A Memoir of The Great Famine of 1933
Night - A Memoir of The Great Famine of 1933
By Maria D.
Night -- and sleep has vanished into the darkness. A light rain falls softly through the leaves of the tree outside my window, gathers in a stream in the gutters, and falls in heavy drops to the ground. I try counting them, but sleep will not come. My thoughts are a tangle of memories, long lost dreams and disappointments.
Suddenly, out of the distant and forgotten past a spark of memory flashes across my mind and I fly back through the years to my earliest childhood. But even here I am lost. Where to begin?
As my mother described it, I was born in March of 1920, "on the first day of Lent" as she liked to put it, in the village of R. in the Kharkiv region of Eastern Ukraine. My father was still away at war. Our village, plundered by the frequent waves of "Reds", "Whites" and other roving and warring factions, was left impoverished and half-starved.
In the village I had two grandfathers, Vasyl and Mykhailo, but no grandmother. Both my grandmothers had gone to an early grave, claimed by the heavy work and toil that was a woman's lot.
My grandfather, Vasyl, had four more children in addition to my father, and probably for this reason he married again, to give the children, if not a mother, then at least a stepmother. No household could survive without the capable and hard working hands of a woman.
My mother always told me that even as a very young child I was fond of singing. While singing I liked to parade back and forth along a bench that sat by the kitchen table.
And one day it happened that during such a "recital" I fell off the bench and landed on the floor under the table. I probably banged my head, but most importantly I smudged my brand new kerchief, that had only just been given to me by my aunt. There were lots of tears and grief, and later, whenever anyone would ask me to sing, I would always reply, "Oh, sure! And fall off that bench again!" And here my brilliant singing career came to an end.
After a few years our family (there were now three of us children) moved to town and we only visited the village during the summer.
Later, during the years of the NEP, the so-called New Economic Policy that led to a loosening of restrictions on private trade and labor, conditions eased and food and goods became almost plentiful.
I remember our village in those later years. The village had bloomed -- had prospered -- had burst into song in the midst of flowering cherry orchards. There were times at night, while lying in the hayloft in my grandfather's barn, that I lay awake and strained to hear the magical sounds of the night as the villagers gathered after their day's labor in the fields to join their voices in glorious ancient folksongs.
The night was so beautiful, starry and bright, with a full moon – and the nightingale added his ecstatic song – to my childish heart it was paradise -- and nothing less!
How desperately I wanted then to hurry and grow up to be able to join in this glorious singing -- I think I never again experienced such a night.
But it did not remain this way for long. In the fearful conversations of my elders, more and more frightening and foreign words began to intrude -- commune, kurkul (kulack), Siberia -- and we became afraid. Our visits to the village came to an end.
Soon, the terrible, black specter of the Stalin created Famine-Genocide of l932-33 spread throughout the land. And even though I was still quite young, I remember that frightening apparition of the famine very well. Images that are seared in my memory forever -- hundreds -- thousands of people, their limbs and bellies grotesquely swollen from starvation -- the walking dead, the half-dead and the dead -- orphaned children wandering homeless and begging for food in the streets -- or simply dying in the gutters.
In school during class a small boy suddenly pitched forward onto his desk and died -- I shall never forget the sound of his head hitting the desk -- and he wasn't the only one. And the textbooks, newspapers and so-called "artistic literature" all around us overflowed with the slogan: "We are grateful to Comrade Stalin for our happy childhood!" What obscene and monstrous mockery!
I remember my mother gathered all our relatives from the village where all the food had been confiscated, even from private homes. They lay about on the floors, many too weak to move as my mother stirred a weak "soup" in large kettles on the stove -- a broth so thin that one little grain of cooked wheat was barely in any danger of knocking into another. And even though we ourselves were hungry, at least my father as a civil servant received a small allotment, and we shared it with those closest to us who had nothing. I will never forget the image of my little brother coming home from school and opening the doors of the little cupboard where once we had stored bread. With tears in his eyes he searched the empty shelves, and then wetting his tiny finger he traced it over the naked boards, picking up the few crumbs left over from bread that had once been there. This memory still burns in my soul.
Many difficult and heavy years had passed since I had seen my native village. It was not until I had finished high school in town and at the suggestion of my classmate who was also from that same village, that I set out to again visit my relatives -- to see my grandfather whom I loved so very much. That journey was about 25 kilometers on foot. And now I too, a grown young woman, would definitely have the chance to go into the streets at night to sing as I had once dreamed of doing. My friend, though, was strangely silent.
As we walked along, I found myself entranced by the flowing fields of grain as the wind bent and lifted them in undulating waves, a lark sang high in the heavens, and with increasing anticipation and impatience I looked for the towering poplars that marked my grandfather’s garden as we approached the village. But in vain -- there were no more poplars, there was no more village so happy and full of song that I had so long treasured in my heart's memory. The village was dark and silent and numb.
I opened the door to my grandfather's house. I saw him, gray and stooped, and greeted him warmly, noticing that he did not recognize me. And it occurred to me to have a little fun with him and not tell him who I was.
I asked him for some water to drink and to wash my hands after my long journey. My grandfather took a bucket and I followed him out into the yard where he drew cold, fresh water from the well. He poured the water over my hands as he regarded my face with interest. He handed me a clean towel and in a hesitant and unsure voice asked: "Well
then, tell me now, after all -- whose child might you be?"
"Grandfather, it's me, Marika, your first grandchild. Don't you know me?" My poor old grandfather began to tremble, clutched me desperately to his breast, and a cascade of bitter tears rolled down his cheeks into his white beard.
"Oh, most merciful Heaven, what has the world come to when one doesn’t even recognize one's very own flesh and blood!”
My grandfather wept, and I wept too, out of pity for him and also out of shame for myself, that I had behaved so thoughtlessly.
I went to sleep again in that same barn where once in my childhood I had listened so fervently to the music of the night. But it was in vain. Long ago now -- very long ago the village had become mute. The young girls, exhausted from their hard labors on the collective farms, no longer sang. Only now and then somewhere in the distance a dog barked, and then again -- silence -- until dawn, when again the people were called to work in the new serfdom.
The memory of this night will stay with me forever.
This night, I will also never forget.