by Marianna Davidovich and Jonathan Miltimore
Maria Katchmar was 7 when the troops came to her farm.
The soldiers entered her home in Cherkasy Oblast — a region of Ukraine along the Dnieper River — and immediately began to break everything. Windows and doors. Paintings and linens. Even pots for cooking. Her father was ordered to drown his livestock. When he refused, he was sent to Siberia — and the Soviet troops confiscated the animals anyway.
With the family’s two cows, chickens, and pigs gone, Maria’s mother left to find food, leaving her 10 children to fend for themselves for nearly a month.
“Our neighbor had a goat and gave us a glass of milk and some frostbitten potatoes every day,” Maria recalled years later. “She ripped leaves off the trees and made pancakes, and that’s how she supported us.”
The generosity worked for a while, but, even after Maria’s mother returned with a bit of food, it was not enough. Not for her family, nor for those in the surrounding farms, whose property had also been destroyed or taken. Starvation set in.
“Almost all the children died. Very few survived,” Maria said. “What are you going to eat?”
Maria watched her brothers and sisters die from hunger one by one. Their bodies were not buried but were thrown into a cart “like chickens” and then taken to a pit. Of the 10 children in her family, two survived. Russian soldiers were incentivized based on the number of bodies they brought in, so hardly anyone acted against Soviet Premier Joseph Stalin’s orders out of fear of harsh punishment or death. Very few were able to witness this crime against humanity since borders were completely sealed off with little-to-no chance of escape. The area was also strictly guarded to keep any food aid from entering.
Maria’s brothers and sisters were just eight of the millions of Ukrainians killed during the Holodomor, a man-made famine that took place in the Soviet Union from 1932–1933. (The word “Holodomor” literally means “death by hunger” in Ukrainian.)
Nobody knows for certain how many died: A joint statement to the United Nations signed by 25 countries estimated 7–10 million.
What we know is that countless children like Maria watched their parents slowly starve to death in order to feed their children whatever scraps they could scrounge.
Today, the atrocity is remembered annually on the fourth Saturday of November, yet it is an event most Americans have never heard of.
One reason is that the Holodomor has been buried from the beginning — and not just by its perpetrators. New York Times journalist Walter Duranty, a Soviet sympathizer based in Moscow during the 1920s and 1930s, infamously claimed that “there is no famine.” Worse, the Moscow bureau chief led a foreign press corps campaign to discredit Gareth Jones, a Welsh journalist who reported the atrocities in March 1933. (Jones’ heroic attempt to reveal the genocide was depicted in the award-winning 2019 film Mr. Jones.) Despite his deceit, Duranty would go on to win a Pulitzer Prize, even though the Times later conceded that his articles were “some of the worst reporting to appear in this newspaper.” There continues to be a worldwide effort to revoke his unearned Pulitzer via an online petition initiated by the Ukrainian Holodomor-Genocide Awareness campaign.
Unsurprisingly, the atrocity was also suppressed by its perpetrators. For decades in the Soviet Union, any mention of the Holodomor was treated as Western propaganda, something the ruling Communist Party did not treat lightly. Not until the USSR adopted its policy of glasnost in the 1980s was public discussion of the famine possible. (This is a sobering reminder of the danger in allowing the state to determine what is true and false.)
But those of us with Ukrainian blood in our veins remember.
When my mom brought me and my sister to Ukraine in 2018 to show me my birthplace, we visited many sights and museums. But one place, the Holodomor Museum, changed me. The sorrow I felt for the victims of the Holodomor was overwhelming, but it was soon followed by another emotion: anger. Why was I never told?
How was I never taught about it in school? The question led me on a mission to ensure that this horrific event would not be erased or neglected in history textbooks and classrooms.
The lesson of the Holodomor, like that of the Holocaust and other genocides, must not be forgotten. Central planning and collectivism place the multitudes at the mercy of monsters.
Let’s remember International Holodomor Memorial Day, which this year observes its 89th anniversary of the atrocity. Let us remember Maria Katchmar and her family.
If we don’t learn from our history, we are inclined to repeat it.
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Marianna Davidovich is the chief external affairs officer at the Foundation for Economic Education and serves on the Ukraine Holodomor and Genocide Awareness Committee.
Jonathan Miltimore is the managing editor of FEE.org. His writing/reporting has been the subject of articles in Time magazine, the Wall Street Journal, CNN, Forbes, Fox News, and Star Tribune.
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Photo “Bitter Memories of Childhood” by Ted McGrath. CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.