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"Lighting a candle as a reminder to honour this day": Ukrainian Americans remember the Holodomor

Monday, 27 November 2023, 23:26

Across America, from California to New York, rallies and prayers are taking place throughout November. The Holodomor will be remembered throughout the whole month in the US. 

Researchers estimate that over 4 million Ukrainians starved to death during the Holodomor, a famine artificially engineered in Ukraine by the Soviet government in 1932-1933. In remembrance of the tragedy 90 years on, the parliaments of 28 countries have recognised the Holodomor as a genocide. 

Consequently, an increasing number of people are aware of the Holodomor and share the belief that it should be acknowledged as a Genocide against the Ukrainian people. The Embassy of Ukraine in the US has reported that the number of states and cities that have recognised the Holodomor as a genocide has doubled over the past two years.


The Ukrainian community will not stop until every state in the US has acknowledged it, the Embassy said. It is vital to spread the word internationally and to collect memories of the victims of the tragedy. 

Collecting every single story 

"My uncle used to tell me that during the Famine they would eat with their eyes because their food had been taken away from them," said Ukrainian American Krystia Oraskevych. Khrystia has come to the Holodomor Memorial in Washington, DC to pay tribute to the victims of the Holodomor in Ukraine and to remember all the lives that were lost that no-one knows about. Krystia lights a candle and continues tearfully, with a trembling voice, "This isn’t a fairy tale. It’s very real, and it’s very real again today, what’s happening in Ukraine."

More than a hundred people have gathered at the Holodomor Memorial in the very heart of Washington, DC to remember the victims of the brutal tragedy that the Soviet Union inflicted on Ukrainians. They include members of the Ukrainian community and other Americans, Ukraine’s ambassador to the US, US government representatives, and clergy.

Photo: Uliana Boichuk

"It's very significant this year, as we have been under attack by the Russian Federation since 2022, and the Holodomor was a famine engineered by the Stalinist regime. If history is not to repeat itself, Ukrainians, and Americans as well, must understand that it’s important for us to stand together and tell the story of the Holodomor. Because no one should be starving anywhere in the world in this day and age," says Father Robert Hitchens from the Ukrainian Catholic National Shrine of the Holy Family.

Liuda Draganova has come to the rally with her children. When she speaks with us, she thinks back to the times she visited the Holodomor Museum in Kyiv. It was a moving experience. An enormous book filled with the names of those who perished from the famine in different regions is displayed in the main exhibition hall. 

"We found our own region and saw names of relatives and friends – it was heartbreaking. But it's essential for the world to remember. We're thankful that many countries and states in the USA acknowledge the Holodomor as genocide. It's crucial for Russia to take responsibility for the tragedy," Liuda emphasises.

Photo: Uliana Boichuk

A deeply painful and unforgettable chapter in our history

Erin McKee, Assistant Administrator in the US government’s Agency for International Development in Europe and Eurasia, has brought a candle with her. She mentions that the resilience of the Ukrainian community has kept the US-Ukraine relationship strong. 

"We together stand with each other for democracy, for human rights, and for life, opportunity, hope and a future. That is what our partnership and friendship is about. And what the strength that we have together means. The Holodomor remains a dark episode in the history of the Ukrainian people and society. The authorities tried to hide this crime. They lied about the famine and its origins. They were using food to destroy the Ukrainian identity. Today, once again, another authority and regime in Moscow has brought suffering to Ukraine," Erin says.

Khrystia Oraskevych, a proud New Yorker with Ukrainian roots, found herself grappling with a chapter of history that has been largely overlooked. "My parents spoke of it, but it felt absent in our lessons," she recalls, saying that the Holodomor was a tragedy relegated to a few passing mentions in her history books.

"Only after college did the truth unfold," she shares, remembering the shift in narrative. It was then, through discussions with peers and professors, that the gravity of the Holodomor began to receive the acknowledgment it deserved. "Yes, it happened," they would finally admit.

"I stand here for all those voiceless souls," Khrystia declares, her eyes reflecting a profound sorrow extending from the victims of the Holodomor to the present-day tragedies unfolding in Ukraine.

"It's inconceivable," Krystia expresses with a tremor in her voice, "that even today, in our modern age, such atrocities persist." Her distress deepens as she mentions the unnoticed plight of children being taken from Ukraine to Russia, a modern tragedy echoing the painful history her parents and grandparents recounted.

"For every Ukrainian, the Holodomor is a deeply painful and unforgettable chapter in our history. Even here in America, it stays with us," says Liuda Draganova. She has been living in the US for a while, but her mother came here just a year ago. "When I returned home today, I found a candle lit by my mother, reminding us to honour this day," Liuda says.


Holodomor then, Genocide now, Justice… when?

Three decades ago, the Ukrainian diaspora established the Committee for Ukrainian Holodomor Genocide Awareness 1932-33 in the US Congress. The Committee works tirelessly every day for the Holodomor tragedy to be acknowledged by as many Americans as possible as a genocide against the Ukrainian people. 

"More than 4 million people were killed just because they were Ukrainian. We are standing here at the Holodomor Memorial, honouring the victims of the Holodomor and pledging to not just remember, but to make their memory eternal. And to proclaim on this 90th anniversary of the Holodomor genocide: ‘Holodomor then, Genocide now, Justice… when?’" declared Michael Sawkiw, Chair of the US Committee for Ukrainian Holodomor Genocide Awareness 1932-33.

Svitlana Kramarova is a historian. When she was studying the history of Ukraine at university, one of her tasks was to collect people’s memories of the Holodomor. She remembers talking to those people and asking them about it; they couldn't hold back their tears. It was something impossible to convey, Svitlana recalls. 

"Most of them were children at that time, yet with tears in their eyes, fear in their eyes, they spoke, they remembered. Even my grandmother, who passed away 15 years ago, remembered how they gathered scraps of potatoes, how they survived solely on that. And this was in Western Ukraine, where they claimed there was no Holodomor. Throughout Ukraine, people felt the incredible oppression of the local authorities during that period," Svitlana said.


Advocacy for the Holodomor to be acknowledged by the US

On Remembrance Day, the White House published a statement by the US president marking the solemn anniversary of the Holodomor as the brave people of Ukraine continued to defend their freedom and Ukraine’s sovereignty against Russia’s brutal war of aggression. 

"Ninety years ago, the inhumane policies of Joseph Stalin and the Soviet regime created the ‘death by hunger’. Millions of Ukrainians – men, women, and children – suffered and starved to death between 1932-1933 because of a manmade famine. Stalin and his regime systematically seized Ukraine’s grain and farms and transferred Ukrainian grain to other parts of the USSR as a tactic to repress Ukraine’s national identity," the statement said. 

Ambassador Oksana Markarova's words echoed the profound impact of the Holodomor, recognising it not as a mere historical event, but as a grim consequence of Ukraine's struggle for independence.

"The Holodomor signifies what transpires in Ukraine when our independence is stripped away," she asserts, grounding the tragedy within the broader context of the country's history. She explains that the 1932-1933 famine occurred a mere decade after Ukraine's brief period of sovereignty – a time when Ukraine, as a young republic, was beginning to assert its autonomy, establishing its own institutions and asserting its national identity, only to be once again subjugated by Soviet Russia.

"This assault on our civilians, families and farmers in Eastern and Central Ukraine aimed to terrorise and commit genocide," the ambassador emphasises, highlighting the deliberate targeting of priests, scientists, cultural leaders and influential figures who symbolised Ukrainian identity and autonomy.


"Thanks to the resilient Ukrainian diaspora in the US, the memory of the Holodomor persists," she acknowledges gratefully, highlighting the crucial role of those who have worked tirelessly to ensure that the truth prevails, advocating not just for remembrance, but for global recognition.

Svitlana Kramarova brought her ten-year-old daughter to the Holodomor Memorial last Saturday, 25 November 2023. She stressed that telling children the true story of the Holodomor gives us a chance to prevent the tragedy from happening again in the future. 

"Such genocide should not be repeated in the future, neither with our children nor with any other nations. It was incredibly inhumane, very heartless, what happened, and the people who lived through it deserve immense honour and respect."


Author: Uliana Boichuk

Editing: Teresa Pearce