TORONTO—Sometimes a tragedy is so deep it defines a generation, a hardship that marks a milestone in the existence of a people. Sometimes it’s almost forgotten and then someone calls out for the memory, demanding condolences be paid.
For Ukrainian Canadians, the Holodomor is that kind of event.
Valentina Kuryliw’s parents were among the lucky ones that survived. They led an ordinary life under extraordinary circumstances in eastern Ukraine during the 1930s.
Kuryliw’s mother, Nadia Menko-Mychajlowska, was born in Chernihiv, 120 km north east of Ukraine’s capital Kiev. Her father was from Kiev. When Soviet Union leader Joseph Stalin took over the land that’s presently known as eastern and central Ukraine, the aim was to wipe out Ukrainians using food, or rather starvation, as the weapon.
“Everything was taken away,” said Kuryliw.
“My mother said, ‘I never want to be hungry again.'”
— Valentina Kuryliw
Land, equipment, animals, all were confiscated. Kuryliw’s grandmother, Tatiana Menko, who worked on a collective farm her whole life, managed to keep the family alive during the years of the famine.
They were lucky.
Entire villages were surrounded by secret police and no food came in or out. Those trapped inside starved to death.
Kuryliw recalls seeing her grandmother for the first and last time when she visited the Soviet Union in the 1970s and listened to stories of the famine that she had never heard before.
One story her grandmother, Tatiana Menko, recounted was about how the local distillery made alcohol from grain, with large heaps of grain piled in front of the building, watched closely by armed guards.
Starving Ukrainians lined up to get the chaff from the grain, leftover bits not fit to be called food.
Kuryliw’s mother was snatched up in 1943 while on her way to work and was shipped off to Germany as a slave labourer. Her father joined them to work in the same conditions in 1944. Kuryliw was born in a refugee camp in Germany after the war.
The family was fortunate to escape to Montreal in 1950 when Kuryliw was four, and have lived there ever since.
“We were very poor growing up in Montreal, when we came as refugees, but our kitchen table was laden with all kinds of food,” Kuryliw said.
Although she might not have had clothes to wear or proper shoes, there was an abundance of food. “My mother said, ‘I never want to be hungry again.'”
The Shadow of the Past
The famine and the severe oppression left a shadow over her parents, she noted.
“My father never said much, but it was always there, at the back of my mind. I felt sorrow and pain,” she said.
Kuryliw’s father passed away 12 years ago. Her mother is still alive at 91. While at the hospital with a fever, her thoughts turned towards the past.
“All she wanted to talk about was the Holodomor,” said Kuryliw.
Holodomor is the Ukrainian word for the famine Stalin used to kill millions of Ukrainians. Estimates range from 2 to 8 million deaths.
Kuryliw is the chair of the National Holodomor Education Committee for Canada with the Ukrainian Canadian Congress. Before that, she was the department head of history with the Toronto District School Board. As a history teacher, she said she’s always felt that the Ukrainian famine should be talked about more in Canadian schools.
“Not too many people knew about it, or cared,” she said.
“I’ve taken it upon myself as a crusade,” she said about her efforts to have the Holodomor be included in school curriculums across Canada.
“I think genocide is something that everyone should know about.”
Many school boards in southern Ontario had announcements read over the PA on Nov. 23 to commemorate the Holodomor.
“A gifted teacher can even teach this in kindergarten, about how food can be taken away from you, by people who do not respect human life,” she said.
Recognizing the Holodomor
The 79th anniversary of the Holodomor officially took place Nov. 24. Ukrainians and Prime Minister Stephen Harper took the chance to remember that Canada was the first Western country to recognize the genocide in 2008.
“We are very proud to have more than one million people of Ukrainian descent in our country, many of whom lost loved ones in this atrocious act of malevolence, the Holodomor,” Harper said in a statement.
According to longtime Ukrainian academic and head of the Toronto office of the Canadian Institute of Ukrainian Studies at the University of Alberta, Frank Sysyn, the Holodomor is a major focal point for Ukrainians in Canada.
“It has become particularly a cause among the Ukrainian-Canadian community because for so long the Soviet Union denied that any famine had taken place in Ukraine,” he said.
“For some members of the community, because it involved their own families … it’s a very personal issue.”
— Frank Sysyn, Canadian Institute of Ukrainian Studies
Not only did the Soviet Union, which fell apart in 1991, deny that the famine took place, it also denied its responsibility for the famine, said Sysyn.
These denials spurred many Ukrainians outside of Ukraine to speak out for those who were silenced under the Soviet Union. Especially in 1983, on the 50th anniversary of the Holodomor, Ukrainian-Canadians launched numerous initiatives forcing the Soviet Union and western governments to recognize the mass starvation.
“This also explains why the Ukrainian community has gone to such great efforts to ensure that the Holodomor will be properly commemorated,” said Sysyn. One such commemoration will be found in the Canadian Museum for Human Rights now being built in Winnipeg.
Sysyn said that at the time of the famine there was also a nationwide attack on Ukranian culture, language, and religion that left emotional wounds for the survivors that carried forward in the following generations.
“For some members of the community, because it involved their own families … it’s a very personal issue, for others because it involves their communities, their culture and had such a devastating impact on Ukraine” he explained.
According to Sysyn, regardless of one’s age or time of immigration, it’s the allegiance that keeps many Ukrainian-Canadians close to their cause. The Canadian Institute of Ukrainian Studies is also launching a new project called the Holodomor Research and Education Consortium, which is being funded by the Temerty Family Foundation.
The project will begin Dec. 1 and mark the start of the commemorations and remembrance of the 80th anniversary of Holodomor.
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