A generation vanishes: Naples Ukrainians illuminate the history of their genocide
Harriet Howard Heithaus, Naples Daily News
Natalie Santarsiero has no photos of her mother as a child in her native Ukraine. No pictures of the fertile farmland her grandfather once plowed. No solemn, wide-eyed family portraits next to a frame house. No sepia images from some school rite of passage.
Nothing is left from that life. Her mother’s family lost their home, their father and their son to Stalin’s program of starvation in Ukraine.
Santarsiero’s mother, at 8 years old, lost her childhood as well. She was one of millions of Ukrainians caught up in a Soviet plan to crush Ukraine’s independent farm economy by confiscating — even door to door — all its food. Those who hid anything were executed or imprisoned. The borders were sealed; journalists who documented what was happening were ejected.
That’s why the Ukrainian National Women’s League of America is bringing the story of the Holodomor, as it’s known in Ukrainian, to the Holocaust Museum & Cohen Education Center this month.
To give it even more grounding, a historian steeped in its realities, Timothy Snyder of Yale University, will speak there Sunday on what has been called “Stalin’s Secret Genocide” (see information box).
Snyder specializes in the history of Central and Eastern Europe and the Holocaust, and has written numerous books on such topics.
What happened in 1932 and 1933, Santarsiero said, was done with little to no written history until 1991, when the demise of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republic allowed the archives to be opened. Soviet officials confiscated grain, seed, supplies, even food, under the pretext that the farmers were not meeting their imposed harvest quotas.
Families starved to death. Or fled. Estimates say the country lost 10 million people over those years. At least 3 million of them — and many accounts make that closer to 7 million — died of hunger.
Santarsiero’s own grandfather died that way, imprisoned until he was too weak to even crawl home. His crime: burying a bag of grain to feed his family.
Santarsiero recalls her mother’s memory, watching the authorities ram metal prods into the ground around their home until they struck the sack of grain. Her mother also told her of being evicted from their home, and walking the 55 miles to find relatives in Kharkiv.
“They would sleep under a tree. My mother’s younger brother was just a baby. During the day, she would watch him while her mother went out to look for food,” Santarsiero recalled from her late mother’s stories.
The hunger was mind-altering. If they were like their fellow Ukrainians, they stripped leaves from the trees, ate worms, dandelions and burdock, and boiled frogs or birchwood in water to make a broth.
More misery awaited them in Kharkiv. Although Santasiero’s grandmother found refuge with her married sister, the baby, Andrij, was one mouth too many. The sister deposited him at an orphanage. When her grandmother was able to save enough money to retrieve him, she arrived to find the orphanage closed.
“They never found out what happened to him,” Santarsiero said.
Then, during World War II, Santarsiero’s mother came under German occupation. She was herded into a box car with other able bodies and sent to Germany as forced labor while World War II raged on.
The Naples chapter of the league has other members with different stories, people like Halyna Traversa, who was born in Ukraine as an air raid whistled above their home. Luba Drahosz was born in World War II displaced persons camps. Drahosz, an artist, created the poster that is part of the exhibit, The organization is hoping it will travel to other museums around the U.S. after its stay here through December.
“Part of the mission of our organization is to help educate people about issues that relate to Ukraine, and last year was the 85th anniversary of the Holomodor,” explained Traversa, who was born in a displaced persons camp. “We were looking for ways we could educate the people of Southwest Florida.”
When the group scheduled a talk at the South Regional Collier County Library and 100 people showed up, they determined to widen their scope even more.
The organization knew the Holocaust Museum was moving to larger space and asked it they could mount an exhibition laying out the facts of the tragedy.
“We’d like to set right the history about our country,” said Santarsiero. “There have been a lot of misconceptions about the history.”
Drahosz remembers her parents’ stories of the scars on Ukrainian identity. During the war, some Ukrainians felt they were safer staying with the Russians; others felt supporting Germany would offer them more protection.
“It was a little bit like our Civil War in the U.S.,” she said. “Families broke apart over this.
“The interesting thing about the famine is that we grew up knowing about it, we as Ukrainian-Americans, or the Ukrainian diaspora if you will, who grew up in the U.S. and Canada,” Traversa said. But Soviet-ruled Ukraine was totally silent. “They knew absolutely nothing. They denied it.”
Ukrainians still face public push-back from Russia over its story of genocide. A Russian foreign ministry statement on its 85th anniversary last November still describes Ukraine as a “young state” in those years. Characterization of its “common tragedy” for multiple ethnic groups a a genocide has “nothing to do with either the restoration of justice or historical facts,” it claimed.
“People whispered about it in families, perhaps, people who had survived, but they were afraid to talk about it in public. Absolutely,” Santarsiero said. Today, she added, even in the U.S., only major cities have offered the opportunity to see exhibitions on the Holodomor, and learn about it from the few survivors left.
That, these women hope, is about to change.
SOURCE: Naples Daily News