||The Famine: Chapter 1
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|Working for the good of the State had become an extension of the Communist credo. Only, the twisted principle had imposed a judgment that whatever was grown on the land also became, legally, the property of that State. Why stop there they reasoned, the land itself should also be owned by the State. So, they confiscated everything.
Many Ukrainians refused to give up their land, believing that their property was their last link with freedom. They soon died, either by the firing squads or through starvation. In either case the executioner had called his card on nearly ten million people. Nature can sometimes induce a famine through a slight deviation of its elements. Yet man can also inflict a similar disorder, only more sinful in its purpose because his deflection is imposed for the evil needs of Power, Hate, and Greed.
The authorities called it “collectivization”. I called it murder, an indirect homicide that too frequently slips its guilt along nondescript corners until the crime itself fades from memory. The greater the horror, the easier it is for the criminals to let go. Mankind seldom seeks to accept the blame. Perhaps it is my shame as well. If not, what other excuse can I invent for my petrifying apathy.
I had not seen Petro, my older brother since the summer of 1930, two years ago. I had decided to stay in Leningrad during the summers instead of helping him out at the farm in the hope that I might complete my engineering studies earlier than expected. Besides, my part time job as a waiter paid good money, enough to make it worth my while with enough left over to still send some money to Petro.
It was a heady time. I was busy enjoying the company of friends and the pursuit of knowledge at the University. Leningrad was also a cultural capital with a bustling economy. Its ongoing trade reflected the Soviet Union’s growth, its civilization, or so I thought.
It had never occurred to me to wonder why I hadn’t received a single letter from Petro for over a year, until I’d overheard two men in the restaurant where I worked that I feared the reason why. They were discussing a rumor that Ukraine was in the midst of a tragic famine. A week later I left Leningrad.
The train let me off at Zolota, a loading platform as its only identity. Kryva, the nearest town, was another ten kilometers further east. I walked the 3 kilometers to my brother’s farm. The hike took the better part of the morning.
It was an ominous walk. Quiet, as if life had suddenly held its breath. A few crows cried out their stories while a group of vultures, silhouetted against the grey sky, silently performed their circle dance. I thought it strange that I didn’t hear any of the farm animals that usually added to the symphony of nature. I felt as if I had stepped onto a mysterious path leading to another dimension. When I finally arrived at my brother’s farm, I was jolted back. My fears were sharply realized, releasing a part of the tension of my disregard. At the same time, catapulting me beyond the darkest corners of my imagination.
I had never seen my brother’s farm look so bad. The summer flowers that Irena, his wife, usually planted by the house were nowhere to be seen. The house itself had already staged itself for total decay. The roof was revealing bare spots where the thatched straw had slipped its hold. And cracks along the fading white plaster walls needed patching.
When I had last visited the farm, the surrounding colors highlighted by the sun’s brushstroke, were as vivid as the richest pigments on any canvas hanging at the State museum. An artist’s eye would have nestled the white and gold home on a green bed, with flowering jewels sprinkled throughout.
In the background --- more colorful patterns, lined by rows of trees bordering fields of early wheat, already gold, but lighter since it still held on to its breath, while on the western field the wheat was still green, still stretching its youthful growth. And throughout, the fields rolled in a smooth wave along the wind’s command.
The sky, royal blue, arrested anything but harmony. Even as white clouds designed an ever-changing ceiling, the order was distributed with understated unity. Yaremko the artist would have loved to paint it, including Petro, and his family, working the fields onto the canvas--- and how they sang during harvests.
Markian, the oldest at nine would try to keep up with his father while Ivan and Lubko found more time for play as youngest children do…
I blink and the memories are lost in the gray sky, overcast by smoking centers that spread a solemn purge across the land. And the fields, they have been harvested and left in disarray, choked by untrimmed weeds that destroy the past. At that point I knew that my brother and his family were dead. I could no longer hide the truth. Petro would have resisted with all his might. His dignity was strong, perhaps too strong to ensure survival.
The stillness around me whispered confusion. And yet I had nowhere to go for answers. I might as well have been cast adrift on an endless ocean of mourning. Which way to go, I wondered --- and why?
Further down the road, towards Kryva, a slight tremor rattled the stillness. The rumble grew louder, revealing a vehicle. It was an army truck. I waved for it to stop.
Inside the covered truck were two Russian soldiers, enlisted men. They spoke in Russian. I asked them if they knew what might have happened to the people who’d lived at this house. The driver, a heavy set man with a thin mustache that was barely distinguished from his unkempt whiskers, asked who I was, to be so concerned. I explained my reasons.
The driver rubbed his thick hand over his mouth and slid it towards the back of his neck. He looked at the other soldier, thinner and clearly misplaced from his city-bred environment, and asked him if I should be taken in for questioning.
“Remember the last time we’d brought someone in for questioning,” he told his comrade. “It took us almost three hours before we were allowed to leave. I don’t think the girls will wait that long.” The driver agreed, and shifted into gear.
“But what about the family” I reminded them. “What happened to them?”
“Probably the same thing that happened to all of them.” the passenger replied, evoking laughter at my naiveté. The driver laughed loudest. Enticing his coarseness to reveal a vulgar disdain.
“Check the disposal camp down the road, about four kilometers in that direction,’ said the other soldier, pointing towards Kryva which was behind them.
The soldiers drove off, hanging on to their laughter until the truck disappeared in the distance. I looked towards the line of my journey, preconceiving that my search would probably end where the smoke was the thickest. Still, I was unprepared for the horror of unleashed evil that awaited me. I know now.
As I approached the fires, the smoke drifted towards me as if to sense a new arrival. I watched as two Russian soldiers unloaded stiff corpses off a truck, throwing them unto a slow building pile of dried hide and bones. They made a game of it, seeing who can carry the most. Neither one could managed more than three. They laughed beneath the scarves that covered their stanching lies. I prayed that I would not see my brother and his family among the tossed.
I had never smelled drying death before. It had a musty manure-like aroma that draws its odor from a strange vacuum that inhales the skin closer towards its support, stretching a wrinkly past in its search for sustenance. There was none left. The faces, all drawn from a similar misfortune, meant nothing anymore. They had lost their identity. Not even a ghost was left behind.
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