Readers had ample evidence of Holodomor
Despite Soviet censorship, eyewitness accounts of ‘murder by hunger’ reached pages of The Journal
A week ago, members of the Alberta legislature passed Bill 37 to proclaim a day of remembrance for the victims of the 1932-33 famine in Ukraine. Visitors to the legislature that day heard speeches by members of the three political parties ontheHolodomor— atermthat Helen Fawkes of BBCNewstranslated from Ukrainian as “murder by hunger.”
A question that might be pertinent to pose on the 75th anniversary of the famine is the extent to which Edmonton’s 80,000 inhabitants were informed about the incidence of mass starvation in Ukraine at the time it was happening — a time when censorship was being practised in the Soviet Union. Whatkind of information was being presented to readers of newspapers such as the Edmonton Journal in 1932-33? How and when did The Journal bring the famine to the attention of Edmontonians?
The earliest signal in The Journal that widespread starvation was raging in the U.S.S.R. seems to have come in its issue of Feb. 17, 1933. The Journal revealed that the Rev. E.E. Shields of Chicago, during an address delivered in Toronto, declared that there were “well-authenticated reports of cannibalism in certain areas of the U.S.S.R.”
Just over a week later, Ralph H. Webb was reported to have begun reading letters from the Soviet Union that “asked for food, clothing, shoes, and not for money.” The mayor of Winnipeg and Conservative memberforAssiniboia said that people “would be astonished if they learned howmuchwasgoingoutofWinnipeg every week for the needy of Russia.”
Another story in The Journal referred to a discussion in the Saskatchewan legislature about the famine. In the middle of March 1933, the Saskatchewan legislature suspended its sitting on the motion of Dr. John M. Uhrich, the member for Rosthern, in order to “consider a matter of urgent public importance.” The Mennonite board in Rosthern, he said, was receiving 700 to 800 letters a week from people in the U.S.S.R. They were asking for help.
According to The Journal, members of both sides of the house, including Premier JamesAnderson, agreed onthe“urgent need of offering assistance, possibly by shipping wheat to the starving people of Russia.” Uhrich, a member of the Liberal opposition in the house, suggested that the federal government take steps to send a shipment to the U.S.S.R. of 10 million or 20 million bushels of wheat.
Prompted by that story, W.S. Plawiuk wrote a letter to the editor. Ukrainian Canadians hadreceived thousands of letters in the fall of 1932, he told readers of The Journal. They asked not for money, but for grain and flour. “We tried to make arrangements to collect 400,000 to 500,000 bushels of wheat to be shipped to Ukraine,” Plawiuk said, “but the Soviet government, through their charitable institutions, refused to accept our offer, stating: ‘In view of satisfactory harvest this year, proposal is not necessary in the absence of real need.’ ”
TheJournal also referred to eyewitness accounts. Rose Kritzevosky, a 30-yearold woman, who “got out of Soviet Russia more by luck than good management” and was bound for Alberta, was asked by a reporter what the U.S.S.R. was like. “There was terrible starvation and many people were dying in the rural districts,” came her reply.
In April 1933, the newspaper also covered a local rally staged in response to the famine. Oneof the resolutions at the meeting charged that “famine conditions in the Ukrainian territory, probably the richest section of eastern Europe, were due to the Soviet system and acts of the Russian authorities.” The Journal went on to report that “action by the provincial, dominion and British governments to initiate a movement with other nations andhumanitarian organizations to help the starving people and also urge uponthe Soviet government the need of stopping exports from the Ukraine, was urged in a resolution passed by the meeting.” It also noted that one of the speakers at the meeting, Dr. Verchomin, related the efforts of the Ukrainian community through the RedCross to have grain shipped from the Dominion to Ukraine — efforts that he described as unsuccessful because of lack of co-operation from the Soviet side.
There were also two editorials. In the first one, on Aug. 9, 1933 titled What to Believe about Russia, The Journal asserted that the reports it was hearing about the situation in the U.S.S.R. were “contradictory.” Much was being written about the Soviet Union by people who had acquired a thorough knowledge of conditions there, the editorial said, and so little attention deserved “to be paid to conclusions reached by visitors who cannot have had the time to make anything more than surface observations.” Many of them had come away with the idea that the country was in much better shape than the outside world thought, it wentontosay, but aletter from Humphrey Mitchell suggested otherwise. Mitchell had “stated that he had never seen such suffering as he did in Russia among those who appeared to be peasants and unskilled workers.” Mitchell, the Labour Party MP for East Hamilton, had been visiting the Soviet UnionandinJuly, fromGermany, shared his impressions in a message to Mayor John Peebles.
Three weeks later, The Journal ran an interview with Peter J. Lazarowich, an Edmontonbarrister whohadrecently returned to the city after nearly a year in Europe. Lazarowich, who spent some time in Prague, spoke of Ukraine “as the centre of the most appalling famine in its history dueto the internal strife and bad government in the various states.”
At the start of September, a second editorial about the famine appeared in The Journal. Under the title of Russia’s Famine, the editorial began by saying that Lazarowich’s words “must have proved startling to many readers.” Yet even though during the past twoorthree weeks there were reports of large crops in Europe andareduction of the supplies needed to be purchased, said the editorial, Lazarowich’s statement was supported by other sources of information.
There was the appeal made by Arch- bishop Cardinal Theodor Innitzer of Vienna, who spoke of catastrophe even at atime of anewharvest. Andit also pointed to fundraising efforts in Germany to “relieve distress among the Russo-German inhabitants of the Ukraine.” An American correspondent, continued the editorial, “cabled that the indications were that the estimate of 4,000,000 deaths due to malnutrition in rural Russia during recent months was too low.” The Journal further observed that even Walter Duranty, who represented The New York Times and dismissed the famine reports as anexaggeration or malignant propaganda, acknowledged there were some deaths, putting the death rate in the winter and spring at four times the normal. The editorial asserted the food shortage in the U.S.S.R. wasnotduetoclimatic conditions as was responsible for the famine in 1921–22, but attributed it “solely to the government’s farm collectivization policies.”
Another eyewitness account of the famine appeared in the Oct. 10, 1933, issue of TheJournal. After landing in Canada on her way from Ukraine to Consort, Alberta, Maria Zuk of Kalmazovka (in Odessa region) “told of a case last spring in which a young married couple … killed andconsumedtheirtwosmallchildren. The gruesome crime was accidentally discovered when a pig was stolen … and the members of the militia organized a search of all the houses in the vicinity in an endeavour to locate the stolen ‘treasure.’ ” The head of one child was apparently found in an oven. Cats and dogs had disappeared, Zuk recounted, and “people also consumed all the field mice andfrogs they could obtain.” The only food the people could afford, said Zuk, wasa“simple soup prepared of water, salt and various weeds.”
Also in October, The Journal turned over space to Peter Lazarowich to discuss the famine. Lazarowich expressed his belief that the loss of human life would exceed the figures reached during the famine in 1921–22. He opined that the “Russian Soviet government is deliberately determined to starve most of the population of the Ukraine in order to beat it into complete submission to the principles of Communism which the Ukrainian peasant masses have hitherto resisted and repudiated.”
By October, however, the famine in Ukraine was over. When Cardinal Innitzer made an appeal earlier in August for the starving, a Soviet official retorted that there was no famine in the Soviet Union and, he added, “no cardinals.”
In November, George Palmer, whohad worked as a reporter for Moscow Daily News, also dismissed stories of food shortages in the U.S.S.R. “I never saw so many healthy, robust men and women as I did there.”
The remark did not go unchallenged. HowcouldPalmermiss the famine in his travels up and down the country, asked aletter writer, whenMennonitesinSaskatchewan and Ukrainians across Canada were receiving thousands of letters that described deplorable conditions. Palmer dismissed that letter and others.
“My own experience in the Soviet Union gives the lie to most of the assertions made,” he said. “I want a letter that gives concrete details such as name of person whodied of starvation, the town or village, the time. Just one letter with these concrete details so that an investigation could be made.” If in Alberta, thousands of people were dying of starvation, Palmer continued, he was quite certain it would be possible to obtain the details of at least one case. Until such proof was forthcoming, he said, “I am still of the opinion that the stories of famine, cannibalism, etc., purporting to be from the Soviet Ukraine are, like Mark Twain’s death, ‘grossly exaggerated.’ ”
Bythat time, stories about whether the United States would recognize the Soviet Union, which it did in November 1933, were mounting. Appeals by Ukrainians in North America were directed to U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt to take the famine into account prior to extending any recognition. Among the letters received by the U.S. State Department was one by the Winnipegbased Ukrainian National Council in Canada and Oct. 2 (published in M. WayneMorris’s bookStalin’s Famineand Roosevelt’s Recognition of Russia). The council asked Roosevelt “to take the necessary steps to arrange for an immediate neutral investigation of the famine situation in Ukraine.”
The U.S. State Department also received the council’s bulletin. It included Maria Zuk’s testimony, which would soon become known to readers of the Edmonton Journal.