the Holodomor & Ukrainian Jews


The Holodomor (Голодомо́р), also known as the Terror Famine and the Great Famine, was a man-made famine in Soviet Ukraine during the rule of Stalin between 1932 and 1933, which resulted in the death of 3.5 million to 12 million people, mostly ethnic Ukrainians (because the Soviet authorities hid their crimes, it’s nearly impossible to know the exact figures for certain). The word “Holodomor” is derived from the Ukrainian phrase meaning “to kill by starvation.”

The Holodomor had far-reaching implications for the Jewish population of Ukraine. The impact is still felt to this day.



In 1928, the Soviet government started a policy of collectivisation, where individual privately-owned farms were absorbed into larger, state-owned farms. Farmers were forced to work impossible hours and would receive payment in farm product. Because of these impossible hours, farmers were not able to work enough to feed their families. In the 1930s, Ukrainian farmers resisted the Soviet regime’s policies. In response, the Soviet leadership enacted a reign of terror, during which mass arrests took place. To weaken the Ukrainian sense of nationalism and resistance, Stalin carried out the genocidal extermination of Ukrainian peasantry.

To do so, Stalin placed unrealistic quotas on the farmers, demanding the export of more food than Ukraine could possibly produce. Soviet officials were well-aware of the famine, as documented by over 400 official documents, and did nothing to stop it, even going so far as to vehemently reject all forms of international aid.



In August of 1932, the Soviet regime passed a resolution known to the people as the “law of spikelets,” which declared all collective farms state property. The law severely punished people for the “theft” of farm product, thus punishing starved farmers and peasants for trying to harvest crop leftovers. The punishments ranged from 10 years of imprisonment to execution. In other words, not only were the farmers not paid for producing food, but they were also forbidden from harvesting food using whatever leftovers were left. This law essentially made it illegal for Ukrainians to have any food. The government organised a police-like group that performed food searches, terrorising the Ukrainian people with physical and psychological abuse.

The Soviet regime then established food fines, which made it legal for the Soviet government to take away not just farm crop, but all food or things that could be exchanged for food. This law was only passed in Ukraine, despite the collectivisation of the other Soviet republics. In 1933, Stalin made it illegal for Ukrainians to leave the territory of Ukraine, trapping the people in a loop of starvation. By the spring of 1933, nearly 30,000 Ukrainians were dying every single day. On top of this, Ukrainian culture was heavily suppressed; for example, you couldn’t teach Ukrainian in schools. This act of cultural suppression, as well as the laws criminalising the possession and harvest of food, make the Holodomor a deliberate act of genocide.

The starvation reached such extreme heights that some people were forced to turn to cannibalism. There are photographs of parents selling the body parts of their deceased children for food.

The Soviet Union hid its crimes for the remainder of its existence. To this day, Russia denies that the Holodomor was an act of genocide.



Prior to the Holodomor, about 20 percent of the Jewish population of Ukraine lived in small shtetls (villages). Between 1918-1921, caught in the midst of the Russian Civil War, Ukrainian peasants, townspeople, and soldiers scapegoated the Jewish People and enacted a wave of pogroms (anti-Jewish massacres) that took the lives of 30,000-100,000 Jews in Ukraine. Some historians have described this violence as nothing short of genocidal. 

The Holodomor prompted much of the Jewish population in shtetls to flee to the bigger cities, particularly Kyiv, hoping to receive some aid. However, the cities were experiencing severe overcrowding and this sudden migration of Jews to Kyiv was not well-received. As is common during times of chaos and crisis, antisemitism surged, with Jews becoming an easy scapegoat, especially as many conflated the Bolsheviks with the Jewish People. What shred was left of Ukrainian Jewish-gentile relations, the Holodomor completely decimated.



In 1966, Russian writer Anatoly Vasilievich Kuznetsov clandestinely published an account of his time in Kyiv during World War II in an acclaimed book titled “Babi Yar: A Document in the Form of a Novel.” He theorised that the Holodomor directly impacted Ukrainian attitudes toward the Holocaust. Some factors to keep in mind:

(1) after the Holodomor and the subsequent Soviet oppression of the Ukrainian People in the decade that followed (for which Jews were, as usual, scapegoated), many Ukrainians, particularly in Western Ukraine, sided with the Germans, considering them their liberators. It’s important to note, however, that over 4.5 million Ukrainians joined the Red Army to fight the Nazis. Nevertheless, Ukrainian nationalist groups, most notably the Ukrainian Auxiliary Police, actively collaborated with the Nazi regime.

(2) because antisemitism thrives in times of chaos, the Holodomor caused antisemitic attitudes in Ukraine to spike exponentially. By World War II, Jewish-gentile relations in Ukraine were as bad as they had ever been.

(3) because of the Holodomor, the Ukrainian people had become so desensitised to pain and suffering that they were indifferent to the suffering of Jews and Roma during the Holocaust.



The misplaced antisemitism that followed the Holodomor has had far-reaching implications that are felt to this day. Ultranationalist, far right, and neo-Nazi Ukrainian groups commonly blame Jews for the Holodomor and in 2021 even demanded that Israel apologise for perpetrating a genocide against the Ukrainian people (never mind that in the 1930s, there was no sovereign State of Israel and what is now Israel was under British occupation).

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