Execution by Hunger: The Hidden Holocaust

Execution by Hunger: The Hidden Holocaust by Miron Dolot is the author’s eyewitness account of enduring and surviving forced collectivization in Soviet Ukraine in the late 1920’s and the subsequent famine, or Holodomor, in the early 1930’s. This was not a new book (it was published in 1985) and Dolot recounted the incursion of Soviet authorities into the lives of his family and neighbours and how they constantly had to thwart their pressure to convert their private farms to collectivization. A burgeoning bureaucracy descended upon his town, the numbers of whose personnel rivalled the population of townspeople. Bit by bit the farmers who retained control of their own private land were forced to join the collectives under threat of deportation to gulags. Some were taken away at night, never to be seen again.

Those that did comply soon realized that their new agricultural conversion was no paradise, and the authorities were relentless in their quest to “purify” the community by removing so-called enemies of the state:

“The individual holdings of some 25 million peasant households were to be amalgamated into approximately 250 thousand collective and state farms. Land, cattle, farm implements, in some cases even their dwellings, were to be taken from the individuals and transferred, in theory to the peasant community, in fact to the state. In name the collective farm was an agrarian cooperative, in reality, as the ‘reforms’ were being implemented between 1928 and 1930, it was much closer to a penal colony whose inmates’ work, cooperation, indeed the entire manner of life was prescribed from above and run by outsiders, often people quite ignorant both of agriculture and the local conditions.”

Show trials and scapegoats were part of Stalin’s modus operandi to force compliance and Dolot had to attend these trials, as well as hours of the most boring and repetitive political meetings. His memories were vivid recollections of ruthless actions by Soviet automatons who had no mercy–or logic–when faced with the starving masses as they ceaselessly demanded more and more from the farmers.

Dolot lost his father and older brother during this time, and was left to survive the famine with his mother and younger brother. Their efforts to find and conceal food was a daily struggle which could have led to their deaths if the Bread Procurement Commission found anything. Yet the authorities made it impossible for the population even to buy food or other necessary materials for cooking, like matches and fuel, and they even visited homes for the express purpose of destroying their cooking implements:

“Now it began to dawn on everyone why there wasn’t any food left in the village; why there weren’t any prospects of getting any more; why our expectation that the government would surely help us to avert starvation was naive and futile; why the Bread Procurement Commission still searched for ‘hidden’ grain; and why the government strictly forbade us to look for means of existence elsewhere. It finally became clear to us that there was a conspiracy against us; that somebody wanted to annihilate us, not only as farmers but as a people–as Ukrainians.”

Thus history has come to the conclusion that the Ukrainian famine was not strictly caused by failed Soviet collectivization, but that it was deliberately planned to exterminate the Ukrainian people:

“In the words of Malcolm Muggeridge, who personally witnessed the famine, ‘it was the deliberate creation of a bureaucratic mind.’ Indeed it was a genocidal famine, the one that was employed by Stalin and his followers as a means of subduing the Ukrainian farmers.”

Dolot and his family learned how to conceal food and to distract the authorities from finding it. They buried it in off-site locations so house searches would yield nothing. As Dolot visited other families’ homes to check on the occupants, he reported seeing dirt floors dug up and walls torn apart, a sign to avoid using those places to hide his own family’s meagre food supply:

“Compared with other villagers, my family and I were in better shape to survive the winter. We had learned from the difficulties experienced during last spring’s famine to make extra preparations and to take special precautions to stay alive. Our main problem was how to hide the little food we had from the X-ray eyes of the officials. It was difficult to outwit them, but our survival instincts made us inventive.
“The threat of imminent famine sharpened our minds; it freed us from the fear of being caught and made us ready to fight for our lives at any cost. While preparing for the long winter, we knew that we had to outsmart our persecutors if we wanted to stay alive.”

As the book nears its end the conditions get worse and worse. The hardest parts to read were Dolot’s eyewitness accounts of watching starving people die. I believe that only a witness would know what pervasive death by starvation would be like. During the winter of 1933 Dolot noticed more and more chimneys no longer emitting smoke. That was a sure sign that entire households had died, and as he explored the village to check on people he came across yet again another house where everyone had perished. He addressed the desperate horrors that some people were led to commit in order to survive–anthropophagy–and what he discovered in some households. He writes:

“Looking back to those events now, it seems to me that I lived in some kind of a wicked fantasy world. All the events which I witnessed and experienced then and which I am now describing, seem unreal to me because of their cruelty and unspeakable horror. It is simply too difficult to associate all those happenings with real life in a normal human society.”

The end of the book came as an abrupt surprise, when Dolot, living in West Germany after World War II as a displaced person, made the curt statement:

“My mother and my brother, who suffered with me, who shared with me the last morsel of food, and to whom I owe my survival, remained in the village. They had no other choice but to continue working on the collective farm. World War II separated us and what happened to them afterwards I don’t know.”

And that is how the book ends. So for the next forty years, between the end of World War II and the publication of this book, he didn’t try to contact them?

Execution by Hunger, by its title and cover blurb led me to believe that I was about to read 231 pages full of unspeakable horror. I winced when I first picked up the book for fear that there would be photographs of anthropophagi inside, as I have seen such photos which are forever seared in my memory. There were no photos included. One cannot write about the Holodomor without the horrific stories of starvation but Dolot’s story was more about his survival and the unfathomable strength that he and others summoned to eke out an existence on practically nothing.

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