My father explains how his family survived famine
My father lived through Ukraine's forced famine in 1932-34. Millions died. His family survived.
He told me how that happened. He and his mischievous brother Henry became skilled field mice catchers in the spring when the rodents emerged from their winter burrows. Nothing was wasted as the boys dried the furry skins and sold them to buy products from the village store.
Grass isn’t your typical source of nourishment, and is indigestible to humans, although I’ve heard of wheatgrass being touted lately. Dad’s mother would make soup with any grasses and weeds he collected from fields and under hedges.
This famine was not the result of natural causes like drought. It was the policy of Stalin to control people he hated, the somewhat wealthy farmers he called Kulaks. He collectivized the farms, then demanded such high quotas of grain that there wasn’t enough left for the farmers to live on.
Stalin was born Josef Vissarionovich Djugashvili, but in his 30s, renamed himself Stalin, meaning steel. He also gave himself a new birthdate a year later. He had become a cold man filled with hatred. His policies of collectivization took earlier ideals of sharing the wealth with everyone and turned them into forced poverty for everyone.
He created gulags, work camps with miserable conditions where many died. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn raised awareness of them when he wrote about his experience in The Gulag Archipelago. My dad’s father Johann was one of many local men forced into gulags. That left mostly women and children to struggle as best they could during the famine.
My father’s family survived. Throughout the hardships, his mother Anna continued to play Christian songs and teach love and kindness, even though any religious practices were forbidden and risky. Anna’s music plays on in my father’s memory, and even though I never met her, I can imagine those uplifting angelic sounds.
I’m reading The Book of Forgiveness by Desmond and Mpho Tutu. They advise that telling the story is a critical part of the journey to forgiveness. They also encourage us to imagine a perpetrator as a baby, before they have hurt anyone. Stalin was once a tiny innocent child named Josef. Somewhere he lost his way and razed a dark path for countless others. If we could go back and surround this innocent child with love, could we change the past? Could we make the future brighter, more loving, more peaceful? Could we bring back the grandparents I never met who died from his policies? Perhaps not, but we can remember the love that they always showed to others, and try to live up to that rich legacy.
- Irene Plett
Topics: Ukraine, famine, survival, collectivization, communism, Kulaks, gulags, Josef Stalin, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Desmond Tutu, Mpho Tutu, forgiveness, Peter Plett, Johann Plett, Anna Plett
Irene Plett is a writer, poet and animal lover living in South Surrey, British Columbia, Canada.