|Discovering Your Ukrainian Roots
UNDER THE AUSPICES OF UN VETERANS ORGANIZATION
|Interview #1 : Growing Up Hungry
Q.: How old were you then?
I was about 8 months old at that time. After having the whole cup of milk, I slept all
night and half a day.
In early spring of 1935, two women planted potatoes. They hoped to have the harvest
early, but the potatoes were dug up next morning. They couldn’t stop crying. An aunt
of my mom, Uliana, helped them. Keeping it secret from other family members (who
were in need), she cut off the potato sprouts when peeling the potatoes to give to the
women, who planted the sprouts. The potatoes grew very well. The women dug them
up early — because they didn’t want other people do it — and were very glad to get a
good harvest. But all the potatoes rotted very soon because they were dug up so
early. So, they were without food since potatoes were the main food for villagers at
that time. The two women worked in the collective farm but none of the workers there
were paid. Very seldom were they given even a handful crops to eat.
Q.: Where were you when they worked?
When my aunt was younger, she stayed with me. Later, she joined my mom at work
and a distant relative, an old woman, took care of me in the daytime.
Then I remember the war and how it started. I was about 6. I remember all the
children running to the street to see the Fascists, who were dressed all in black with
the fascist flag. They were riding motorbikes.
Q.: Did the villagers know about the war from the radio?
No, there was no radio in the village. People told news to other people — that was our
radio — by word of mouth. I remember an old man named Gavrishko very well;
Gavrishko was his last name. He came up to the street holding bread-and-salt on a
“rushnik,” a traditional embroidered Ukrainian towel (a traditional ritual of offering
bread and salt to a welcome guest).
Q.; Why did he greet them?
Why? People are different. They can become different in a war.
Q.: Do you think he wanted to play up to them?
I am sure he did. Nobody wanted to greet the Fascists except him. He greeted them at
the end of the street and they rode to the next village. Later, we saw airplanes flying
over the village and they didn’t drop any bombs. They were afraid to be at war in our
village as it was at the riverbank.
Q.: How could the river be dangerous for them?
There were lots of lakes there as well. The Fascists were careful not to be
surrounded and trapped in the bogs. Our village was a rehabilitation zone for them.
The main troops were at a distance of about 8 km. The school was a kind of base for
the Fascists. The villagers were made to bring food there — milk and eggs. The
Fascists drove a black convertible car around the village and caught hens, mainly
Q.: Did they enter the houses?
Yes, they did. These Fascists were different from the group that came earlier. The
first Fascists were dressed in black uniforms; these were in dark-green.
Except eggs and chickens, they also looked for lard (“salo” in Ukrainian, or pig’s fat, a
traditional Ukrainian food). My mom kept beetroot slices in a medium-sized barrel.
(The Ukrainian national soup “borsch” is traditionally cooked with sour beetroot.)
Once when a Fascist came to our house for food, he saw that barrel and thought that
salo was hidden there. He rolled one his sleeve up to the shoulder and put his arm
deep into the barrel. He didn’t find lard there. Mom never used that beetroot for food.
People tried to hide chickens and pigs (if anybody had them) in pits.
Q.: Were those pigs and hens alive?
They were until their masters killed them for food. People shared the food with each
other. Amazingly, but even at that difficult time they always shared the food they had
with those who needed it.
Then I remember “oblavas,” when the Fascists went through the village, chased men
and girls and caught them to send to Germany for work or to concentration camps.
That is why young men, when they needed to go somewhere, put on big head
kerchiefs trying to hide their faces, and big long skirts; they arched their backs as
though they were very old women. Girls were also chased and put into special lorries
to be sent to the same places. As for older men, they hid in a pit made on the
riverbank. Their relatives brought them food and other necessary things at night. But
somebody informed the Fascists about that place.
There was the “starosta” Vasyl Kostyshin, a local man appointed by the Fascists to
cooperate with them and control the life in the village. His house was at the back of
our orchard, behind the pond. Do you remember that pond behind our granny’s
orchard? The Fascists looked for men everywhere but not in the starosta’s house.
So, he dug the pit under a pear tree in his garden and hid them there. Only a few
people knew about that.
A family lived across the street, opposite our house, the Scacuns. A cousin of that
woman was a “politsai” (a policeman recruited by Nazi authorities from among
collaborating locals in occupied territories during World War II). He was the one who
informed the Fascists about the pit on the riverbank.
Q.: When did our grandfather join the army?
Father hid in that pit for a long time and at home, behind the heater. (Or stove?)
There was a narrow space behind it which was covered by a plank. There were 4
children in the family, and we didn’t have enough warm clothes to go outside. So,
when it was cold we stayed inside and often looked through the window. When we
saw them coming, we informed the relatives about the Fascists. Or people informed
each other about the “oblava.” In 1943 or 1944, the men who had managed to
escape this fate were mobilized to join the war.
Q.: So, our grandfather joined the army this way?
Yes, Grandfather joined the army this way.
Q.: It was in 1944?
Yes, in 1944. But there was once when father was taken somewhere. I do not
remember who took him — the Soviet army or the Fascists. He ran away from
Shepetivka in his underwear and came home early in the morning. It was in 1941.
Since then, he was in the village hiding in the pits until spring of 1944. Then he went
to Berlin with the Soviet army, and two brothers of my mom were together with him.
The brothers were killed in a battle in Berlin after May 9. The husband of my mother’s
sister, Fedir, was also killed while at war. This woman, my aunt, died in 1944. My
mother took care her two children, Maria and Ivan, who now live in the Chernigiv
In 1945, when people started to cut rye, my father came home from the war. He was
wounded, very thin and weak. You are sure to remember that he couldn’t move his
left arm till the end of his life. But he was appointed a group leader in the collective
I remember that when the Fascists were gone in 1944, people started work in the field
as one community. Before that, they divided the land into plots (one plot for 10
families), distributed the farm horses, bulls and sheep between the groups and
worked as they could. Our family got a horse and sheep. When leaving the village in
1944, the Fascists took many cows. There were lots of dead cows on the snow – it
was in March or April.
Q.: What was the reason for this? To run away from the Soviet soldiers? To
take cows for food?
Yes, to have food on their way home, to have milk and meat.
Our cow was killed in the field. She tried to run away because she had a baby calf,
but was killed by the Fascists. In 1944, the people joined the plots, the cattle, some
miserable technical equipment they managed to save, and started to work together.
So, father was a group leader.
They used cows to plough the field and spades to dig the ground. They made the
cows do this hard job and wanted them to give milk. Mother made me lead the cow
and she controlled the plough. I was 9 at that time. All the people gathered ash – any
ash they could find, as well as chicken manure and so on and brought it to the
collective farm to fertilize the ground since there was no fertilizer.
In 1945, they got a good harvest and started to live better. But, in 1946 a draught
happened. And a famine came the next year. I don’t remember that as many people
in my village died as during the famine of 1933, but I still remember children and
grownups with swollen bellies from starvation. Very many people didn’t have enough
to eat that winter and spring until the first wheat spikes got ripe enough to be used for
A distant relative of my parents, Uncle Philimon had 5 or 6 or 7 children – I don’t know
for sure. They suffered from the famine a lot. In autumn, when people dug potatoes
up and found the old potatoes from the previous year’s harvest, they didn’t take
them, because they were not good for eating. Uncle Philimon and his family found
such potatoes and cooked pancakes out of them. That was in 1947.
As for my father, he was the breadwinner for our family, my granny with two children
(because her husband was killed in Berlin), my mother’s brother’s widow with her four
children and the two widows of two other uncles with three and four children each. In
the 1947, my father’s sister’s husband died. Another aunt (her son lives in the
Donbas now) came from Germany to us. As she had no house, she stayed at the
relatives’ houses for short time. So, my father felt responsible for all those relatives
There were people from a neighboring village who found out a way to get more food.
They went to Western Ukraine and bought corn flour because it was cheaper than
here. They sold it here to cover expenses and to make money. So, father went to that
village to buy corn flour. It was at the end of June & the beginning of July, when there
is nothing good to eat yet in the fields and in the orchards. People were very hungry. I
remember how my mom, using a bowl, put equal amounts of potato, corn flour and
millet to give to the relatives so that they didn’t die of starvation and managed to
survive until the new harvest.
Once, I came to my granny’s. She was sitting next to a long bench on a small stool
(the furniture was very poor then) and eating a kind of soup, a very unusual one. The
soup we cooked was completely different. Granny didn’t see me entering the house. I
came up silently and stood behind her watching the soup. There was something
green floating there (but we never put anything green in soup), something very
I asked, “Granny, what is this you are eating?”
She said, “A kind of soup.”
“And what is floating there?”
She answered, “Orach.” When she weeded her orchard, she uprooted orach and
cooked soup with it. I felt so sorry for my granny and her children!
Q.: And what is orach?
It is a kind of tall grass. People don’t use it for food. So, I came home with an idea to
help my granny. I knew that mom had some millet. I found a piece of fabric, put the
millet in it and hid it to bring to granny the following day. But mom noticed my strange
behavior and caught me at taking it out of its hiding place.
“What are you doing?” she asked. I told her the truth. She started crying so hard, but
nevertheless punished me. “I help our relatives openly by informing our father. I also
help them secretly without telling him about it. And you want to do it without telling
anybody!” That was her moral. So, I was punished but couldn’t help my granny.
The next year, in 1948, life became a little bit better. I was older and started working.
My job was to bring water to the field so that the mowers could have a drink. There
were only girls and women in the field, but one man to whet scythes. There seemed to
be so many mowers—all in white head kerchiefs, linen skirts and blouses of an
uncertain, vague color as they were dyed in European elderberry juice. I remember I
used to bring water for them.
Q.: Where did you bring water from?
From the village. I was small. I wanted to bring more water and filled the bucket up to
the top. The water spilled over the bucket. The mowers made a long line and they
sang nice Ukrainian songs. They stopped from time to time for a short rest and sang
more songs. One bucket of water was not enough for all the mowers. Those at the
end of line asked me to start from their end or let each person take one cup a time,
because everybody wanted to drink.
I don’t know when it was—maybe in 1948 or 1949— they gathered a very good
harvest. The wheat and the rye were so tall that when I went through, it covered my
head. The villagers didn’t have any technical equipment for mowing. They mostly
used sickles, but buckwheat or barley could only be mowed with a scythe. They put
the hay in stacks, and the threshing mill didn’t process the hay until the New Year or
I got older and started to work near the threshing mill. At that time, when Stalin was
the leader of the country, villagers were charged very big taxes. For example, if you
had a pig, your tax was its skin. And each family had to give 220 liters of milk.
Q.: For how long? For a year?
For a year or more than that—200 eggs. For nothing! Nobody was paid with any
money. In some farms, people were given 200 grams of grains for a day of work. Our
collective farm was better —we were given 600 grams. Nobody gave any salary to
farm workers. I remember, an elderly man spoke at the market:
“People!” he said. “What miserable slaves we are if we work so hard for the collective
farm the whole year and still owe money at the end of the year!”
Q.: Why did the villagers owe money to the farm?
Although they earned a certain amount of crops or hay for a year, they didn’t pay for
it. But they had to pay for a cart to get it to their barns. Carts were taken from the
collective farm. So, where could the people get money? They sold eggs, onions—
everything they could— at the market.
There were other kinds of taxes: a land tax a tax on an apple tree, a pear tree, or a
plum tree. So the people started to uproot such trees. Another reason was that they
had no wood to use for their heaters and ovens. So gardens were destroyed.
Another mechanism was invented to enslave people—raising a loan. People were
forced to sign a special document promising to pay 600 (more or less) rubles to the
government. Nothing was taken into consideration. Nobody asked how many family
members could work or if there were disabled in the family. Gnat Mazur, my mother’s
brother, had 2 or 3 boys and a daughter. He suffered from a heart disease, his
children were too young to earn money and his wife was an alcoholic. Late at night,
he was called for to the Village Council where he was tortured. Some agents from the
Rayon Council tried to make him sign the document for 600 rubles of loan by pushing
needles under his nails and crushing his fingers by closing the door.
The next morning, everybody knew about it as always happens in a village. I was in
Grade 3 then. It was in 1948 and I was the class monitor. Mr.Didyk Mykola
Denysovych was our headmaster/school director and our form master. He told me to
come to his room after the lessons. “I will tell what you should do.” The October
Revolution day was coming, which was always celebrated by the Soviet people, and
special arrangements were usually made. Moreover, that year the pupils of my class
were going to join the Pioneer organization. As it was an important day, it was good to
have a portrait of Stalin in the classroom on the wall. So, I asked my two friends to go
Q.: Why? Did you need them for support?
No, I wanted everybody to know that the director considered me a reliable person,
and I was sure they would tell it to the whole world.
So I went into the room, while they stayed in the corridor. He gave me a picture of
Stalin, a long and narrow one.
Q.: Where did he take it from?
From the newspaper called “Pravda”. He told me to draw a kind of frame with an ink
pen, to make a kind of starch glue and glue the portrait to another piece of paper to
have it firm; then to fix it on the wall in our classroom. I was assigned the task and left
the room. The girls were still waiting for me. Do you know what a fig means for
Ukrainians? It’s a gesture of contempt. So when getting out of the room, I got a look at
the portrait three times saying: “This is for the loan. This is for the taxes.” And I don’t
remember the third reason… The girls informed M.Didyk about my deed.
The day before the Great October Revolution Day, the third-year students were
going to become Pioneers. At the local club a special ceremony was going on and the
future Pioneers were onstage. They wore white blouses or shirts and dark blue skirts
or trousers. They had already been given special Pioneer badges – everybody
except me! Before that day, I only got a “good’ for behavior. That was the worst mark
for behavior because there was only “excellent” and “good”. All the other pupils got
‘excellent”. Do you know what I did?
Q.: I can guess. Did you leave the club?
You know, I sang well. I had a nice voice and led the singing in the school choir. I left
the stage without being noticed. As a song was being announced, I was wandering
among the people in the club. Another announcement was made and there was no
singing again. I saw the club manager and was trying to hide myself between the
people. When I saw M.Didyk, I decided to go home.
I came home and didn’t tell about my failure and revenge. But some time later, the
whole choir came over which made my father very surprised. He asked “What’s the
matter?’ They answered, “She has left the club! She doesn’t want to start our songs!
They didn’t give her a Pioneer badge.” He didn’t know about my ”four” yet. So he didn’
t say much. I was made to go to the club and lead the singing. Otherwise, I would be
Q.: Were you ever given a Pioneer badge?
Q.: You paid much for the badge.
Very much, but was never given it. The next school year term I got ‘excellent” for
behavior, but I never became a Pioneer.
In 1949, 1950, 1953, life changed for the better. Only taxes and the loan oppressed
people much. In 1953, Stalin died. Mourning meetings were held in every city, town
and village. People cried a lot as though he were their dearest person. Many political
leaders were changed after his death. When Malenkov was the Communist Party
leader, he made the prices lower before every national holiday.
Q.: Prices for food?
No, for other goods, but we still felt the lack of many things. At our school, there was
only one book to teach reading to pupils for each group/class. There was little paper
to write on. My brothers and sisters were lucky because our father had brought a
beige paper bag from the war. We cut it into rectangles, divided into layers and made
notebooks. Never mind that notebook had only 2 or 3 sheets in them; each of us still
had a notebook.
Then Khrushchev became the Communist Party leader. I think he could have been a
good leader, but he was not allowed to rule as he wanted. The government provoked
famine again. I was married then with three children. You were small then. I didn’t
work and your father’s salary was small. We needed at least three liters of milk for
three days. As for the other products, each child under three years old was given a
monthly ration (200 grams butter, 1 kilo of semolina wheat and 1 kilo of rice). We paid
for it, waited in long queues for one or two days with our babies crying. The eldest
daughter was not given that ration because she was over three.
Again, people helped each other by economizing and sharing food. An acquaintance
of mine, Masha, worked at a school buffet. Milk was delivered there every day for
school pupils. She economized and sold that milk. I worked in a nursery school. Some
of the parents whose children were under my care could steal salty fish at their work.
They gave me some, so I brought it home or exchanged it for some products I needed
Life was especially difficult for young mothers: upon delivering a baby, they were
given a 56-day maternity leave and a three-month leave without pay. So, a five-month
old baby was put in a day nursery. If such a baby was fed naturally, with mother’s
milk, the mother’s working day was an hour shorter. Not every woman could benefit
from that rule because it didn’t work at the factories with non-stop industrial process,
or just because she could lose her job. When a child was over a year old, they were
put in a 24-hour nursery. There were about 30 children in one group and two nurses.
You could imagine what a childhood they had and what a job it was. I don’t want to
say anything bad about nurses. They were much more reliable than now. They had
also left their children with somebody else while they were at work.
(Liuda: I remember, at midnight, just before the radio stopped announcing, there was
the Soviet anthem on the radio. We always left the radio on for the parents to get up
at 6 am when it started again. My father had put me to bed because mother was at
work. But I couldn’t get to sleep because I missed my mom. The anthem seemed so
sad for me that I cried every night.)
Q.: Before, you told a story how grandfather hid at the attic when the Fascists
were in the village.
There were Fascists and soldiers from the countries occupied by them. Fascists
made them fight against Soviet people. I remember a Czech or a Hungarian soldier in
our house. I came home once and saw an enemy soldier who was eating borsch at
our table. He and my mom were trying to communicate; he showed us pictures of his
family. He didn’t want to kill people. He was a victim too.
Another case has just come to my mind. Once a Fascist came to our house. At that
time we had a woman with two children evacuated from Berdychiv staying with us. My
parents had four children of their own and two adopted ones. As that Fascist saw how
many children there were (we were all sitting on a special bench near the stove), he
counted us first and then left without taking any food. Next time, he came with a big
gripsack and a 1-liter mug. He took one mug full of sugar out of the grip and asked
my mom to give him two eggs in exchange. He gave us five mugs of sugar and took
five eggs. They made a deal. He came regularly. Once, in winter, we children were
sitting in front of the window watching outside. Father was at home, but nobody knew
that he was in the village. The Fascists could have taken him, imprisoned him or killed
Q.: l am sorry to ask this question. May my late grandfather forgive me. I’ve
been thinking that defending their country from Fascists was a matter of honor
for Soviet men. Why was our grandfather at home the first part of the war?
Do you remember I told how he came back in the middle of the night in his
underwear? He and other men had been taken by Fascists and managed to escape.
He arrived home and had to hide himself from the Fascists, not from the Soviet army.
There was no Soviet administration in the village at that time. The politsai and the
starosta were appointed by the Fascists and served the Fascists. Though you should
remember how the starosta helped the local men by hiding them in the pit in his yard.
By the way, after the war he was imprisoned for 25 years for his cooperation with
So father was hiding from the Fascists until he was evacuated after the Fascists left
the village in 1943. Let‘s get back to the moment when we, the children, saw a
Fascist coming to our house. We told father about it immediately. He got up in the
attic. The way to the attic was just a hole in the ceiling in the hall. Mother let the
Fascist in, they exchanged sugar and eggs and were standing at the doorway. I don’t
know why, but suddenly my father shouted, “Malanka, has he gone?” Mother shot a
look at him, but the Fascist went away.
Q.: Did the Fascist realize that it was grandfather?
No, fortunately he didn’t realize what was going on.
My godmother Mazur Todoha Fadeivna (she was my mom’s sister as well) happened
to hide two Jewish people: a father and his son. Fascists especially hated the Jews.
While making a fighting retreat, they passed through Berdychiv where there a lot of
Jews lived. A family with two children ran away from the Fascists into the fields. The
father and the son happened to come to my godmother’s house late at night. She
lived at the edge of the village. She let them in and hid them in a cellar until the
Fascists left the village.
I don’t remember what year those people came. Their last name was Godel, I think.
The son’s name was Simon. The neighbors were very unreliable people, as they
could inform the Fascists about those Jews. My godmother took risks. She kept them
in the cellar and only at night they could go up the house to get warm and even to
see the light. She lived with three children of her own and took care of those two men.
Her husband was killed in 1943. Only my mom and grandmother knew about the
Jews. They helped godmother with milk when her cow was not milking (didn’t give
milk). Once I was told to bring a jug of milk to Godmother. I can’t say how, but I knew
that milk was for the Jews. It was in winter. There was very deep snow on my way. But
I went that way because I was told to go by my mother. I was short. My way through
the snow was a struggle.
I decided to go another way, which happened to pass near the Fascists. A group of
drunken soldiers were driving around the village shouting out and laughing. They saw
my struggle and started to chase me. They drove me into the deep snow again, drove
over me and left. I wasn’t hurt. My basket with a jug of milk was turned over and no
milk left. An old woman, Fedora, saw the accident through her window. She ran out of
the house, dug me out of the snow and took me back to my mother.
Q.: Was it possible to get out of the snow without Baba Fedora?
Maybe. Maybe I could. You know, I was punished by my mom because I didn’t save
the milk. She didn’t ask me how it happened.
Q.: Our granny was kind but strict. So, tell me about the two Jews you were
They were at my godmother’s until the Fascists left Shepeyivka. They left Vinnytsia
on March 22, 1944. So, the Jews went to Vinnytsia. They were very grateful to my
godmother. The man even offered to marry their children, but Galya, godmother’s
daughter, didn’t want to marry Simon.
In 1952, my father gave me the address of the Godels in Vinnytsia. I had just entered
teaching college and had moved to Vinnytsia. My parents had two cows at that time
but decided to sell one since it was very difficult to keep two. Instead, they decided to
buy a sewing machine. The father, Godel, was a good tailor. So my father asked him
to find a good sewing machine for us to buy. I visited that man. He hadn’t found his
wife and daughter after the war and remarried later. I also saw Simon. They sent their
regards to the people who helped them during the war. They also asked me to come
again before my next trip to Shepitivka to take their presents to those people. They
were VERY grateful.
Q.; Well, thank you very much, Mom.
There’s a little bit more. We were young at the time when the war started, so we didn’t
really have a childhood. We didn’t have clothes and shoes. We were hungry. After
the war, we were hungry again. After classes at school, we were made to go to the
field to catch snout beetles or to pick up wheat. The sheaves then were brought to
the collective farm and were considered as payment for delivering the hay our granny
would be given later as her salary. In summer, we didn’t have holidays. It was a kind
of working semester. At the age of 11 or 12, we weeded barley and milled millet. I had
already my work record card. My work record is 44 years, 4months and 12 days. And
my pension is 617 hryven/month (less than $150) for all those years!
Our first interview was conducted in May 2008
by English teacher, Liuda Ratova, with her
mother, Lidia Ivanivna Ridvanova (Kalinchuk),
born February 18, 1935, in the village of
Shepeyivka, Kalynivsky rayon, Vinnytsia oblast.
I was born in 1935. My father had gone to the
Donbas to earn a living. His sister and my mother
lived with little food and no money. They were so
poor that there was no need to close the door in
their house, because there was nothing to steal. I
was a hungry baby and didn’t stop crying all day
and night. My mother’s cousin lived across the
street. He was the secretary of the Village Council,
and wasn’t as poor as my parents were. He came to
my mom at about midnight and asked: “Why is your
baby crying all the time?” Mom didn’t say the truth,
but he guessed. He gave my mom a cup of milk.
When she fed me with that milk …
Liuda's mother, Lidia