WCR PHOTO | CHRIS MILLER
St. Martin Students Lesia Bogdan and Maria Ovcharenko give 'hungry snacks' to younger pupils. The snack consisted of water and a soda cracker.
EDMONTON – Imagine lighting between seven and 10 million candles at night. The light would be brilliant and bright. Now imagine extinguishing those candles, and how much darkness there would be.
That's how survivor Leonid Korownyk described the impact of the Holomodor, the villainous Ukrainian famine genocide of the 1930s, to elementary school students.
"This is exactly what happened in Ukraine. Between seven million and 10 million people died in the artificial famine, and what a terrible disaster it was for the whole country," said Korownyk.
He was the guest speaker at St. Martin School, when the bilingual Ukrainian elementary school commemorated the Holodomor Memorial Day Nov. 25.
Edmonton Catholic Schools has been educating students about the Ukrainian famine genocide.
All 87 Catholic schools in Edmonton were encouraged to hold a moment of silence in recognition of the millions of Ukrainians who died as a result of the tragedy about 78 years ago.
Students at St. Martin School heard songs, were read a children's story about Holodomor and saw images of a memorial in Kiev.
The Holodomor translates literally into "killing by hunger." The terror-genocide was a manmade famine in the Ukraine in 1932-33. The exact number of deaths is undetermined, but estimates are as high as 10 million, with the resultant loss of life comparable to the Holocaust.
The Holodomor remains the largest mass murder of civilians during peacetime.
Korownyk argued that the Soviet leadership used the famine to attack Ukrainian nationalism. As early as 1917, Vladimir Lenin said Ukraine's struggle for independence was worthy of punishment and the best way to punish Ukrainians was through artificial famine.
"Lenin died and it's a good thing that his evil plan didn't come into practice earlier. In 1927, Joseph Stalin succeeded Lenin and he introduced this plan in 1932," explained Korownyk.
Russian soldiers went into their homes, and the Ukrainian people were forced to surrender all of their food. Families in every village had their potatoes, chickens and cows confiscated. People who refused to comply were shipped to Siberia or labour camps – essentially a death sentence either way.
Principal Taras Podilsky told the students that about one in four Ukrainians starved to death during the Holodomor. The famine was kept a secret though, and the rest of the world did not know what was taking place.
"In 1933, several reporters from across the world were allowed to come in and see what was going on in Ukraine. But they had set up a village that wasn't a real village.
"They gathered a bunch of people together to make a happy village, people living great lives, where there was no starvation," Podilsky said of the misinformation and manipulation techniques used by the Soviet regime.
The Holodomor was denied for many years and hidden from world scrutiny. Only in more recent years, as Soviet archives have become available, has the full scope of this atrocity become known.
"For many years the government of the Soviet Union said it never occurred. It's only been the last 15 years that people started seeing the real files of what actually happened," said Podilsky.
More than 1.2 million people living in Canada are of Ukrainian origin, but few Holodomor survivors remain.
Korownyk is one of about six remaining in Canada, and he knows the story because he lived through it. He told students that he was so hungry at times his family ate almost anything.
In the winter, his mother concocted a soup from chaff, tree bark and frozen pears. In the summer, his family ate thistles, leaves, dandelions and caterpillars.
Students were surprised to hear that at his school in communist Ukraine, he was not taught about God.
"One day I was so hungry and so tired that I said, 'God, if you are there, let me have enough bread to eat.' I hope you will never have that kind of experience," Korownyk told the students.
God answered his prayer. He survived the famine, but many did not. An uncle and cousin died during the Holodomor.
"For visitors to Ukraine, we have accounts of people who saw what was happening. In the cities and villages, people were just lying dead. People were not healthy enough to bury them," said Korownyk.
Korownyk remembers that his uncle lived nearby. He went to his uncle's home, and he had some potatoes. He took one potato home for his parents to cook for them. His parents told him it was wrong to steal the potato, and had him return it, and apologize.
Korownyk documented the experience in a poem, Little Sinner, which he recited at City Hall Nov. 19.
Evidence of widespread cannibalism was documented during the Holodomor. The Soviet regime printed posters declaring that to eat your own children was a barbarian act. More than 2,500 people were convicted of cannibalism during the Holodomor.
"The hunger was so severe that people were actually losing their minds and hallucinating. They didn't know what they were doing," said Korownyk. "A husband would kill his wife and child, and there were instances where the husband would chop his wife into pieces and put her body into a barrel with salt."
He is grateful to Edmonton Catholic Schools for acknowledging the tragedy, lest the world be doomed to repeat it. The tragedy has stayed hidden for so long, he is thankful that a new generation of people is finally learning about it.
"The worst thing is that no one spoke afterwards of the artificial famine as long as we continued to live under the Russian occupation," said Korownyk.
"If you spoke about it, you could be exiled to Siberia or a hard labour camp. In Ukraine, no one uttered a word about it."