Research on the fate of women and mothers during the Holodomor by a Lviv historian Oksana Kis this week was awarded the Robert Conquest Award for contributions to the study of the Holodomor. This award, named in honor of the outstanding Holodomor researcher who opened this Ukrainian tragedy to the Western scientific world, is awarded every two years by the Holodomor Scientific and Educational Consortium of the Canadian Institute of Ukrainian Studies at the University of Alberta to the author of an outstanding article that contributes to the most comprehensive understanding of the Holodomor.
The article, “Women’s Experiences of the Holodomor: Challenges and Ambiguities of Motherhood,” published in the Journal of Genocide Research (2021), has been called “groundbreaking” by Western historians, as it is one of the few that examines women’s experiences during the Holodomor.
Norman Naimark from Stanford University says that “she focuses on Ukrainian mothers and children, as well as how women faced the traumatic realities of a starving village.” He says that her “comparisons with the Holocaust and the extraordinary difficulties of Jewish mothers in trying to feed their children” make for “interesting and instructive comparisons and contrasts with the Ukrainian experience.”
Dr. Kis is the author of two books that study specifically women’s experience – the traditional life that developed at the time of the arrival of the totalitarian system on Ukrainian lands and survival in the most difficult conditions of the totalitarian system: “A woman in the tradition of Ukrainian culture of the second half of the 19th – early 20th centuries” and ” Ukrainian women in the Gulag: survival means victory.” The last book was included in the list of the thirty most important Ukrainian books published during the time of independence and received the Translated Book Prize from the Peterson Literary Fund in 2021.
Currently, Professor Oksana Kis teaches in New York at the private university “New School”. There she got a call from Voice of America correspondent Natalka Churikova, who asked the researcher about the comparison with the Holocaust, what helped Ukrainian women to survive and keep their children, and whether this experience helps now, when, according to many researchers, the Kremlin’s policy towards Ukrainians has returned to genocidal practices.
The conversation has been shortened and edited for flow and clarity.
– Ms. Oksano, genocide researchers mostly focus on their topic, rarely comparing the tragedies of different peoples, but your colleagues especially noted that you found interesting parallels between what Ukrainian women experienced during the Holodomor in 1932-34 and what they had already experienced 10 years after them, Jewish women during the Holocaust during World War II. What experience is it about?
– Women’s experiences of the Holodomor give us a great field for comparisons and parallels with what Jewish women experienced. It is obvious that the majority of genocide studies in the world were focused primarily on establishing the very fact of the act of genocide. And in Ukraine, this trend is also maintained – proving within the limits of international law that the Holodomor was a purposeful act of genocide of the Ukrainian people.
But for society, it is important not only to enshrine this act in the legal field, but also to understand and comprehend the experience that millions of Ukrainian men and women had to go through, suffering huge demographic losses at the same time – about 4 million people.
“Ukrainian and Jewish women had similar experiences during the genocide”
As for comparisons with the Holocaust, there are several parallels – Ukrainian villages were surrounded, you couldn’t leave them, just like you couldn’t leave Jewish ghettos, not to mention concentration camps. Therefore, women who found themselves in this trap were forced to rely only on internal resources, had to learn to adapt.
Anticipating the Nazis’ offensive, many male Jews fled, leaving their families, and hoped that women and children would not be touched by the Nazis, because women with children were “outside of politics”
Another parallel is that Ukrainian and Jewish society in the 1930s and 1940s lived according to the rules of such a patriarchy, where it was believed that the man was the head of the family and the owner of property. Decisions on political and property issues were made by the father as the head of the family, and the female voice was not decisive. Therefore, anticipating the Nazis’ offensive, many male Jews fled, leaving their families behind, and hoped that the Nazis would not touch women and children, because women with children were “outside of politics.”
In the Ukrainian context, refusal to join a collective farm, active opposition to forced collectivization was primarily seen as a father’s decision not to join a collective farm. Therefore, they became the first targets of persecution, and at the beginning of the Great Famine, a large number of men were either arrested, killed, exiled, or fled, hiding in large cities, mainly in Donbas mines, at large enterprises.
At the beginning of the Great Famine, most men were either arrested, killed, exiled, or fled
Meanwhile, women, who were traditionally responsible for caring for children and older family members, had to stay put. This is very noticeable in the memories of Holodomor eyewitnesses, because when the testimonies were recorded, only those people who survived the Holodomor as children or teenagers remained, and the image of mothers in their memories is very powerful – the image of a mother who was left with many children.
In both the Holocaust and the Holodomor, women were primarily responsible for the survival of their families and had to find all strategies for survival and adaptation. But we also see resistance practices – they resisted forced collectivization, legal arbitrariness, which they faced when they were deprived of any rights.
Children’s memories of their mothers make it possible to see a woman as an active subject who is not just trying to “take responsibility”, but is actively fighting
– Patriarchale society takes away womenthese passive rolebut at a time when a woman was responsible for feeding the whole family, she must have shown a miracle of cleverness in that, to find food, to hide distribute itand between family members.
– Yes, women’s memories, or children’s memories of their mothers, make it possible to see a woman as an active subject who is not just trying to “take responsibility”, but is actively fighting.
There is evidence of women’s riots, a well-documented phenomenon where women banded together in large groups to demand food for their families, for their children, acting from the culturally legitimized position of a mother who must have the means to fulfill this duty. Women carried out raids on the management of collective farms, local party branches, demanding food in an organized manner. Women physically tried to defend their property, their children, when the so-called “tow crews”, the so-called activists, came, and the women tried to chase them away.
They also addressed letters to the authorities, seeking justice from the top management, to Hryhoriy Petrovskyi, one of the leaders of Ukraine at that time. This is amazing because the women were mostly illiterate and still used this tool, looking for someone to help write this letter, hoping for a slim chance to save their family.
Women’s property was also used, so to speak, from the women’s chest: jewelry – balls, wedding rings, crosses – expensive clothes made of expensive fabrics, because it was the wealthy families who were selling them, and some managed to hide it. And in the memoirs, it is said that it was mother’s handkerchiefs, skirts or wedding rings, which were exchanged for bread, that were the main resource for the survival of these families.
Also, mutual aid – many women demonstrated great humanity in those conditions of dehumanization, when a person was reduced to the level of an animal, trying to find means for survival. These are the stories of children who say that my mother never spared a neighbor’s child a cup of milk.
Because happy were those who managed to save the cow. She was a real treasure – cows were kept at home, in the living room, guarded as the greatest treasure. Because a cow saved life, those who had a cow had more chances. This female solidarity, mutual support, is also, among other things, a characteristic of the female subculture.
“Any traumatic experience cannot be considered useful until it is understood”
– Are these the features of culture that were passed on to the next generations? Because today’s events, whether we like it or not, are perceived through the prism of the past Were there any survival strategies that were helpful?
Unfortunately, during the decades of Soviet rule, this topic was forbidden. And this prolonged silence became very toxic
– I think that any traumatic experience cannot be considered useful until it is meaningful, integrated into the general history of our identity. But, unfortunately, during the decades of Soviet power, this topic was forbidden. And this long silence became very toxic, because the experience forced people to very significantly change their life strategies, habits, ideas about what is good and bad, what is right and wrong.
Such behavioral models were passed down from generation to generation and we can observe the results after several generations in Ukrainian society – this is a respectful attitude to food, in particular to bread. This, I would say, is the sacred perception of bread, it cannot be thrown away, the remains of food cannot be left on the plate. It is obvious – injuries of hunger. Likewise, the habit of keeping large stocks of food.
There are also socio-psychological consequences related to how citizens treat each other – with trust or suspicion, whether they are ready to cooperate, or whether everyone prefers to save himself as best he can. And we know that the traditions of mutual aid that once existed in Ukrainian rural communities, these rural communities, have been largely undermined by the experience of the Holodomor. Because people were forced to save their lives at any cost, and acts of humanity were the exception rather than the rule.
And this is a rethinking that Ukrainians started working on relatively recently, already in the 2000s. This is a very painful and difficult process, in which you need to heal this wound, “overcome this past”, according to Yaroslav Hrytsak.
The Revolution of Dignity and the awakening of civic consciousness, an active civic position regarding the restoration of these institutions, which were inherent in Ukrainian society, contributed to a large extent to the rethinking of Ukraine by Ukrainians and themselves as a community.
This is trust, mutual assistance, which is a social value, and this is what we are observing now during the war against Ukraine. This war revealed the enormous potential of Ukrainian women, their readiness to contribute to the common salvation of our country, and the defense of those values that are important and meaningful to us.
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