The Holodomor and the erasure of Jewish victims
In my last big installment, I wrote about my grandmother’s Ukrainian shtetl and my family’s lost history of pogroms. In this installment, I want to write about another big mystery that hangs over that branch of my family: Why did my grandmother Rosa and the rest of her relatives suddenly flee the shtetl and head south to Crimea.
This was in 1933, a decade after she and her parents had already survived multiple waves of pogroms. If the pogroms weren’t enough to send them packing, what happened in those first few years of the 1930s? And they didn’t just leave and go to some nearby big industrializing city, like was normal at the time. They left for Crimea. The question is: Why? The answer: No one in the family knows. This part of our history is completely missing from the oral record.
For a while now I’ve wanted to try to reconstruct what happened. But I wasn’t sure where to start. We simply don’t have any family stories or documents that could have provided even a hint at what happened. No one from that generation — not my grandmother, not my great-grandmother — talked about it with my mother. It’s as if there’s a cloud of silence that hung over that episode — as if there was something about it that no one wanted to discuss. Now I think I know why.
Since I had no personal family information, I delved into the problem the only way I knew how: by looking at the local context. What was happening in their region at the time? What were the bigger events taking place in Soviet Ukraine?
Now I think I know why the fled the shtetl: It was the horrible famine that was raging in Soviet Ukraine at the time.
I admit the proof I have is meager and circumstantial. Things align. But I could be wrong. But that doesn’t even matter that much. Because as I pieced this history together, I stumbled onto something much bigger than just my family story — something that’s surprisingly relevant to the Ukrainian politics and mythologizing that’s happening today. It has to do with the Holodomor. And in particular: the erasure of Jewish victims from the Ukrainian famine genocide narrative.
My family on my grandmother’s side is from Central Ukraine — from a few shtetls about 120 miles south of Kiev. While trying to learn the history of the particular shtetl where I think my grandmother was born, I found a Ukrainian encyclopedia entry that mentioned the village was hit by famine in 1932-1933. As it explained: “A memorial sign was erected to the victims of the Holodomor in the village cemetery in 1991.” I asked my mom if she knew anything about it and she shook her head. No, she had no idea. No one in the family told her about any famine from where they were from.
It might seem strange that no one said anything about it. Even if my family had enough to eat back then, they must have at least seen people starving. It would have been hard not to notice. The famine killed at least several million people. Starving people from the countryside swarmed the big cities, where people were also starving. The army was even brought out to prevent the flood of miserable people that was clogging the big centers.
But then, my family’s silence is not so surprising. As I wrote before, it may be hard for us to understand in this age of oversharing and our constant focus on trauma and micro-aggressions and PTSD, but that old generation generally kept quiet about the horrible things they had to endure. What was the point of picking at the scabs and reliving the horrors of the past? How could it possibly help? It just wasn’t done. And about the famine, people had an additional incentive to keep quiet: politically it was taboo. The topic was censored.
“Jews on the land,” Ogonek magazine, 1930. (Source: Felix Kandel’s A Book of Times and Events.)
My grandmother’s family didn’t farm. Like most Jews, they were small time merchants, lumpen capitalists that dealt in bread and grain out of their stalls. They had no power. So if grain was suddenly in short supply, like it was in in 1932 and 1933, they would have suffered along with the Ukrainian peasant farmers who produced the stuff. But there were Jewish farmers — not many, but they existed. And they suffered right there along with the Ukrainian peasants.
In his history of Soviet Jews, Felix Kandel — who was one of the writers behind the cult cartoon Soviet Nu, pogodi! back in the Soviet days — lays out some of what was going on:
During the “Holodomor” of 1932-1933, the biggest victims were in Ukrainian villages. The famine did not bypass their neighbors, Jewish farmers. Many Jewish collective farms were included in the list of the Council of People's Commissars of Ukraine as the most affected by the famine. Among the areas with the highest mortality was the Kalinindorf Jewish National Region. Outside the collective farms, in the cities and towns of Ukraine, there lived a huge number of Jewish artisans who worked for the rural population — tailors, shoemakers, tinsmiths, carpenters and blacksmiths; With the onset of famine, the orders of the surrounding farmers ceased, and the traditional delivery of products to the small-town bazaars also ceased. Now everyone was starving, and official documents of that time confirmed this.
Who was to blame for the famine?
It’s all politicized and muddy now.