Remembering the Holodomor during COVID19

In Canada, the fourth Friday and Saturday of November are Holodomor Remembrance Days. I remember my grandfather, Eduard Ristau, who survived the Holodomor in rural Ukraine. He would have spent 1932 and 1933 in hiding—trying to avoid arrest—after his farm had been confiscated for collectivization. Mathilde, his wife and my grandmother, died in distant Siberia a year earlier. My mom, Else, and his other kids had been safely sent to East Prussia just in time. But my grandpa couldn’t get his documents in order. And so he lived through Stalin’s starvation agenda enforced by the OGPU (Soviet secret police).

During those long months of starvation, my grandfather received letters and money from his East Prussian extended family. In 2004, I read those letters in the Zhytomyr secret police files. It was so precious to me to make this connection with him and I am forever grateful that he let his kids get out of the country in time. My mom and her siblings, already half-starved after their time in Siberia, would probably never have survived the Holodomor. 

While visiting various villages in the former Volhynia area, one old woman told me of how she would cower in the fields with the mice as the OGPU came around confiscating grain and the seeds for the next year’s crops. 

Our local Human Rights Museum educates visitors about the Holodomor and reminds us of the suffering caused by deliberate starvation by the Soviet government. 

Today, during  COVID, I am grateful to be living in Canada—a country that is trying hard to help each of us stay alive, fed, safe and warm. It’s mind-boggling to me that anti-maskers would see masks as anti-freedom.

And yes, you can miss what you’ve never had. I’ve always missed my grandparents and it took me half a century to learn their story. Opa Ristau—homeless and starving in the empty barns of rural Ukraine—I remember you today on Holodomor Remembrance Day.

FYI:   28,000 people died daily at the height of the famine. Today—with a pandemic raging—I’m finally beginning to grasp what that number means. Another sad fact: 30% of those deaths were under the age of ten. 


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