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Ukraine: This 96-year-old survived Soviet Holodomor famine

Iryna Ukhina
November 24, 2023

Hanna Domanska survived the genocide in Soviet Ukraine in the 1930s. Ninety years on she recalls the agony of the "Great Ukrainian Famine." This is her story.

Hanna Domanska sits on a bed with pictures on the wall
Born in 1927, Hanna Domanska recalls the Great Famine in agonizing detailImage: DW

"Come on inside, Granny is already waiting," Mykhaylo Domanskyi says lovingly. He is the son of Hanna Domanska, an eyewitness of the Holodomor, also known as the Great Ukrainian Famine, that killed millions of Ukrainians from 1932 to 1933.

Holodomor literally translated from Ukrainian means "death by hunger" and refers to the period of Soviet rule when some 6 to 7 million people died of chronic starvation across the Soviet Union some 90 years ago. Almost 4 million of those deaths were in the former Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic

Domanska has spoken to her son about the catastrophe at length. It hit people living in what is now Ukrainian territory particularly hard.

The 96-year-old woman sits in a room where the bed is scattered with embroidered cushions and family photos line the walls. She still lives alone in her house in the village of Severyny in the Khmelnytskyi region of western Ukraine, which today has around 230 inhabitants. She was only five years old when the deaths began.

Expulsion, deportation and exile

Domanska grew up in a large family. Her grandparents had eight children: four sons (one of whom was Hanna's father) and four daughters. She herself had a younger brother and a younger sister.

They were a hard-working family, but not a wealthy one, she said. Her grandfather Marco Shvedyuk had some land and a horse, but no cows. He allocated a parcel of land to Domanska's father, who built a house on it.

Hanna Domanska at home
Domanska and her aunt survived partly by eating thin soups of flour and waterImage: DW

But the young family only lived in their new home for six months. At the start of the 1930s, the Soviet leadership under Joseph Stalin hiked grain taxes by almost 50%. Farmers, who were neither able nor willing to meet these demands, became the number one enemies of the communist project, being dubbed "Kulaks."

'They took everything away'

"Some party bosses and youth communists came into the house and took everything away, literally everything," the elderly woman recalls. According to her, representatives of Soviet authorities even took groceries away from people.

They even checked the oven for cooked food, she said. "They simply ate everything they found or took it with them," Domanska recalled.

But authorities took more than food. They also took people. According to Domanska, officials took away the hardest-working farmers. "They were after people who could farm, who weren't lazy, who were a bit better off, and they took them away."

A third of the villagers were driven out of their homes. Their property and livestock were transferred to a collective farm, known as a kolkhoz.

A photograph showing Hanna Domanska's identification papers
Domanska was born in the village of Severyny, where she says at one point almost everyone died in famine or warImage: DW

Many of the people were exiled to Siberia, including half of the Shvedyuk family: Hanna Domanska's grandfather Marco, her grandmother Pestyna, her then 15-year-old aunt Secleta, her father Vasyl and her uncle, Todos.

Mother, brother, sister – all perished

After the disappearance of her father, Domanska's mother Olha went looking for her husband. Shortly after the birth of her youngest child, Olha walked to a village where the Soviets had set up a collection point for "kulaks."

On the way there, her mother fell ill with a cold and then pneumonia. Olha found her husband, but he was not set free. A little later, the mother lost her newborn daughter.

After half the family had been banished to Siberia, government representatives came for the mother and the two remaining children. "They said: 'Get yourselves ready, a truck is coming'," Domanska recalls.

"My mother was already dying. She died next to my aunt. My two-year-old brother also starved to death. I survived. I stayed with my aunt, whose legs were swollen from hunger. But she had no children and looked after me."

Porridge made of weeds

To survive, Domanska had to constantly search for food. "Summer came, the acacia trees blossomed, everything blossomed, and we fed on them. When we started threshing on the kolkhoz, there were a lot of weeds. So we grabbed goosefoot leaves and made porridge."

A soldier holds a lit candle and ears of wheat during a requiem service at the "Candle of Memory" monument on Holodomor Remembrance Day
In Ukraine, the fourth Saturday in November is Holodomor Remembrance DayImage: Photoshot/picture alliance

There was no food available. "In 1933, the only thing we cooked were soups. My aunt added a little flour, mixed it with water, and we drank it. We had to work so we needed to get something into us," Domanska explained.

At the time, you could swap a piece of cloth for two potatoes or a piece of bread. It was impossible to buy anything in a shop with money, she said.

A village stricken by catastrophe

The year 1933 was the worst, the eyewitness recalled, when there were the most deaths. "All the people were just lying around, one here, another there, some of them already dead. They stacked up the corpses on top of each other like firewood … and took them to the graveyard."

There was not a single cat or dog left in the village, Domanska recalls. All of the animals had been eaten. Her aunt even told her there were cases of cannibalism.

"There is nothing worse than hunger. How can you sleep when you haven't eaten for days? You'll chew on whatever you can find, leaves from trees, anything. All that matters is that there is something to eat," she explains.

Holodomor survivor on ‘the worst war’

As Domanska tells her story of the Holodomor, she is visibly worried she might not be believed. "But it's the truth. All of this weighs on me. I'm telling what I saw," she stresses.

Under Soviet leadership

People could not talk openly about the Holodomor in Ukraine until after the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991. Before then, you risked being locked up.

Ukrainian historians estimate that almost 4 million people died in the Ukrainian Soviet Republic from starvation in the 1930s. The Ukrainian parliament classified Holodomor as a genocide of the Ukrainian people. The German Parliament recognized it as a genocide in November 2022.

After surviving the Holodomor, Domanska went on to survive World War II. Anyone from her village who did not starve during the Holodomor died during the war, she said. Even her father, who had been transported to Siberia, later lost his life on the frontline.

Hanna Domanska is now living through another war: Russia's war on Ukraine. But she has hope. "Ukraine won't give in to them," she says, full of confidence. "Ukraine will defeat them."

This article was originally written in Ukrainian.