By Lisa Boonstoppel-Pot
Everyone has heard of the Holocaust but have you ever heard of the Holodomor?
Recently, I became aware of the Holodomor in the Canadian Museum of Human Rights in Winnipeg where exhibits are fashioned to generate ideas and capture the stories of people whose human rights have been violated in Canada and across the world. From Viola Desmond who challenged racial segregation by refusing to leave a whites-only area of a Nova Scotia theatre to the Red Dress Project, an aesthetic response to the more than 1,000 murdered and missing First Nations women, one floor is dedicated to human rights struggles in Canada.
Moving upwards, another floor is dedicated to human atrocities across the globe. There are many disturbing images from the Holocaust, visuals that never fail to make one question, “how could this have happened?”
On this same floor is a panel of facts about the Holodomor, a genocide that I’d never heard of in school. Holodomor means “to kill by starvation”. It was acknowledged in 2006 that the Soviet government, under the leadership of Joseph Stalin, created a man-made famine to kill ethnic Ukrainians between 1932 and 1933. Death toll estimates vary greatly from 3-10 million people. Other estimates say there were approximately four million famine deaths with a further six million birth deficits.
There is debate on whether it was an actual genocide versus a tragedy or poor planning during the country’s industrial revolution, suggests material I researched. What is certain is that millions upon millions of people died within two years in a country that would not accept foreign aid, prevented migration, enforced resettlement and exported tonnes of grain leaving none for its citizens. With a death toll approaching the number who died during the Holocaust, the Holodomor is a horror story that is being unravelled as details kept hidden by corrupt governments come to light. Until recently, references to the famine were controlled and even forbidden. Historians were only allowed to speak of “food difficulties”. It wasn’t until Glasnost in the late 1980s that the word Holodomor was officially used. The word didn’t become part of the Ukrainian dictionary until 2004. The cover up has been long and sustained, which explains why the Holodomor isn’t as well known as the Holocaust.
I can’t stop thinking about it. There are many things I don’t know, of course. Yet this seemed like one world event that should be on the radar. As the expression goes, “don’t let history repeat itself” and it’s only when these events are brought to universal light, and mourned, and researched as part of the moral development of society, that we can become aware of illogical prejudices that can lead to hatred and death.
Despite the depressing content, I want to read more about the Holodomor. Maybe think a little more about war in general as Remembrance Day approaches. I don’t always make much effort to be ceremonial on Remembrance Day; it seems so distant from my everyday life.
Perhaps that’s why this Holodomor exhibit made me pause. It contained a photo of a family with children. Thin. They, like the Jews and the Tutsis and the Japanese and the Chinese and the First Nations (all of whose painful history was revealed in the Human Rights Museum) were just trying to live their everyday lives. Working, caring for children, enjoying nature … just wanting to live and love as we get to do here in the safety of Ontario, Canada.
The floor above the Holodomor exhibit had a counter full of Imagine Cards with titles like: “Respect is...”, “I imagine...”, “I believe...”, and “I will...” to name a few. The idea is that you fill out a card and hang it on a wall to become a powerful visual of intentions. It’s a reminder that once we are aware of human rights issues, we can act. We can honour those who died or fought for their, and our, rights.
This is all timely, as Remembrance Day approaches. It’s good to note that since 2006, Ukraine has officially observed a Holodomor Memorial Day on the fourth Saturday of November.
I’m not sure how I can do anything about the Holodomor but if you are Ukrainian, I want to tell you that I now KNOW. I grieve for this sadness in your history. And on this Remembrance Day, while I honour the soldiers and families who sacrificed to keep Canada safe, I will remember to honour your people too.◊