The Holocaust Historiography Project

Book review

Execution by Hunger

Editor’s Note: Food and/hunger have, for as long as we have records, played a part in the internal and external struggle for political power. The advance to barbarism entailed in the intentional mass privation and starvation of millions of men, women and children detailed below has become an all too quickly “memory holed" part of our twentieth century heritage. The reviews of Professors' Ward and Hall are a start of illuminating this record.

We actively seek additional reviews and articles on all aspects of the uses of starvation as a weapon.

  • EXECUTION BY HUNGER: THE HIDDEN HOLOCAUST, by Miron Dolot. New York: W.W Norton & Company, 1985, xvi + 231 pp. ISBN 0-393-01886-5.

Reviewed by Arthur S. Ward

“Holocaust studies” are now being added to school curricula across the country. Yet, as syndicated columnist Joseph Sobran pointed out recently, one of the ghastliest examples in history, the Soviet’s deliberate starvation of nearly eight million Ukrainians in 1932-33, is largely overlooked.

Execution by Hunger is the first book-length account of this mass murder to be written by one who lived through these terrible events. The author, Miron Dolot (a pseudonym), is a language teacher in California, who as a 15-year-old boy, lived through the winter of 1932-33 in a Ukrainian village that became “a ghost town” that looked “as if the Black Death had passed through.”

What sets the Ukrainian famine apart from others is that it was a politically-induced catastrophe. Ukraine (not “the” Ukraine, anymore than China is “the” China) at one time was known as “the Breadbasket of Europe.” Ukrainians, who are not Russians and have their own language and culture, proclaimed their independence from Russia during World War I. But in 1921, the Red Army reconquered the area and a year later the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic was proclaimed by Lenin.

Ukraine had a history of free peasant farming. This fierce spirit of independence continued even after Ukraine was incorporated into the Soviet Union. But in 1928 Stalin began his program of collectivizing Ukrainian agriculture. The author describes how city-dwelling Communists, who had virtually no knowledge of agriculture and exhibited utter contempt for farmers, took over rural villages and began to enforce collectivization on the hostile populace. In the process, the deeply religious Ukrainians witnessed their churches torn down or turned into Communist Party offices, priests murdered, and religious objects, such as crosses confiscated.

In 1930, Stalin announced a stepped-up campaign of collectivization and declared that all “kulaks” (so-called rich farmers, often paupers by comparison with American farmers) were to be liquidated “as a social class.” Collectivization was organized by Communist offcials (with one Communist functionary for every six villagers) who were assisted by police agents and Red Army units. In Dolot’s village, a Comrade Livschitz oversaw collectivization and elsewhere, “strangers” as the author euphemistically dubs their non-Ukrainian taskmasters, managed the Red reign of terror. Villagers were divided into units of fives and tens, to keep better surveillance over them and root out those who were reluctant to join the collectives. Hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians were deported for forced labor in the far northern regions of the Soviet Union.

The Stalin regime confiscated the entire 1932 crop inculding even the seed grain. The bolders were then sealed. Even after starvation set in, agents of the “Bread Procurement Commission” continued to conduct periodic raids on all homes suspected of holding small amounts of food. The author describes what took place;

Faced with starvation, the villagers tried everything possible to save themselves and their families. Some of them started eating dogs and cats. Others went hunting for birds: crows, magpies, swallows, sparrows, storks, and even nightingales. One could see starving villagers searching in the bushes along the river for birds' nests or looking for crabs and other small crustaceans in the water. Even their hard shells, though not edible, were cooked and the broth consumed as nourishment. One could see crowds of famished villagers combing the woods in search of roots or mushrooms and berries. Some tried to catch small forest animals.

Driven by hunger, people ate everything and anything: even food that had already rotted — potatoes, beets, and other root vegetables that pigs normally refused to eat. They even ate weeds, the leaves and bark of trees, insects, frogs and snails. Nor did they shy away from eating the meat of diseased horses and cattle. Often that meat was already decaying and those who ate it died of food poisoning.

By 1933 there were numerous incidents of cannibalism, and this despite the fact that the 1932 Fall harvest had been a good one. States Dolot, “From the very start of the harvest to the end, not a single pound of wheat had been distributed to the village inhabitants. Nothing was left for them. We were told that all the grain had to be transported to the railroad stations. We also learned that there it had been dumped on the ground, covered in tarpaulins, and left to rot.”

The Soviet-created famine in Ukraine was apparently intended to break the independent spirit of the Ukrainians once and for all. In this effort, they seem to have failed. During the Second World War, many Ukrainians fought along side the Axis forces. Ukrainians are still persecuted in the USSR, at least in part because they retain their sense of awareness that they are indeed Ukrainians and not Russians.

It should be noted that this heart-rending account of the death of a once peaceful and a self reliant Ukrainian village is open to verification. As one who has taught Russian History at the college level, this reviewer can testify that the dates and details coinicide with other records. Adam Ulam, Director of the Russian Research Center at Harvard University, has written the Introduction to this work, and includes a concise overview of the historical context of Dolot’s narrative. This is an important work, dealing with another chapter of what the distinguished Revisionist historian, James J. Martin, has chosen to call “inconvenient history.”