During 1932 and 1933 an estimated seven to 10 million people starved to death in Soviet controlled Ukraine because of a man-made famine, the Holodomor — death by starvation — even though the country was producing bumper crops of grain. Recently 340 elementary children at St. Theresa of Calcutta Catholic School in Edmonton gathered for a memorial liturgy to honour Holodomor victims. The liturgy was celebrated by Edmonton Eparchial Bishop David Motiuk along with Edmonton Catholic Schools chaplain Rev. Julian Bilyj.
In speaking to the children, Bishop David explained this little-known atrocity. “Imagine living in a country where there was so much wheat and corn and all kinds of other grains that no one had to worry about not having enough to eat. Well, in Ukraine, the homeland of my ancestors and many other Canadians, that was exactly what happened in the years 1932 and 1933. There was food in abundance. Yet millions of people died of starvation. That time in history is called the “Ukrainian Famine” or simply “Holodomor,” which is a Ukrainian word meaning “death by starvation.”
“At that time Ukraine was part of a large group of countries called the Soviet Union with Russia as the ruling country. The rulers wanted to crush the heart of the Ukrainian people, especially the farmers, who wanted to be free from the slavery of their parents and grandparents. So in the years 1932 — 1933, the people on the farms were told that they had to produce a certain amount of grain, which was impossible to fulfil. Everything had to be sent to fill granaries in Russia. The government’s policy was simple: seize the grain and let the peasants starve to death. Every handful of grain was collected. Anyone who refused paid huge fines or were put to death. Even children were arrested for gathering any grain that might have escaped the eye of the authorities. Millions died from starvation, their lives stolen from them.”
Bishop David also spoke about the significance of the Holodomor today, even to school children. “Understandably, it is easy to feel hopeless in the midst of so much darkness. Yet, as Christians, we are people of hope. We cannot turn back the pages of history, but we can work towards a brighter future.”
He offered a number of concrete activities young students and adults alike can take part in. “At our schools and parishes, we can pray for the souls of the Holodomor victims and their families. Through education we can learn more about the past and learn from our mistakes. We can fight hunger in our own communities by donating to the food bank, serving a meal at a soup kitchen, or distributing food hampers to local needy families. There may even be some here today who are hungry and need our help. Finally, let us honour the memory of the millions who died during the Holodomor by prayerfully committing their souls to the Lord. As we say in Ukrainian, Vichna jim pamjat — God grant them Eternal Memory.”
The Holodomor Memorial was organized by Elizabeth Dokken, a Grade 3 teacher at St. Theresa’s. She explains why she did it. “Holodomor, though it still stands as the most horrific act of genocide during peace times, is perhaps one of the least well-known events in history. I remember being in junior high and learning about Marx, Lenin and Stalin. There wasn’t a very strong emphasis placed on the horrors that had been inflicted upon the Ukrainian people while under Stalin’s rule, but when we talked about the communes and the people who had starved, it made me want to learn more. I knew that my gido — grandfather — had not lived in Ukraine at the time, but would have more knowledge of what had happened. It was a proud moment when he volunteered to come to my class and tell about Holodomor. When he spoke about the pain and suffering of the Ukrainian people, and used numbers as big as 5 million to account for the victims, I thought he had to be wrong. We all knew about the Holocaust and yet this event seemed to be just as important. How could no one be willing to talk about it?”
“Through the dedication of people like my gido who wanted the world to know what had really happened, Holodomor would eventually be accepted by governments around the world as an act of genocide, one of the most horrific events in history. We have come a long way in teaching the world about what occurred in 1932, but there is a long way yet to go before people truly understand this event . . . (it is) important that we, as teachers, educate our students about Holodomor so this event does not disappear into the past. For that reason, as a legacy to my ancestors from Ukraine, for those who suffered, and for those people like my gido who wanted to teach the world about what happened, I decided to organize a school wide Holodomor Day.”
Kyle Porter, principal of St. Theresa’s, saw the memorial not only as a “both lungs,” but as something many of his students could relate to in a personal way. “It was a beautiful experience for our children to pray in the Eastern tradition and to build the cultural capacity of our community. Being an inner-city school, where many of our families struggle with hunger and experiences of displacement due to war, this memorial connected our community to the victims of famine in Ukraine.”
Following the Memorial, Steven Dokken and Victoria Kostyniuk from St. Basil’s Language Arts Society performed a lyrical dance about a 10-year-old boy who is dying of starvation. In his despair, the young boy is comforted by a spirit who brings him peace in his last moments. They were accompanied on the bandura Dr. Andrij Hornjatkevyc.
Since 2008, the fourth Saturday in November has been officially recognized in Alberta as a memorial day in remembrance of Holodomor victims.
Whether we are remembering the victims of the Holodomor or helping hungry inner-city residents, there is always work to do. Now, as Christmas approaches, we are reminded that, East and West, we are all united in celebrating Christ’s birth and the hope he brings us. May you be blessed with good health, abundance, peace, and love.
Kostyniuk, who lives in Edmonton, has a bachelor of theology from Newman and is a freelance writer. He and his wife Bev have been married for 39 years and have eight grandchildren.