Children of Death

`S isch ka Mudder so arem sie gebbt ihrem Kind warem.

No matter how poor mother is, she gives her children warmth.

Dear brother-in-law, sister, nephews and nieces and godchild!

            God’s greetings to you and may the blessings of the loving Savior be with you in all trials…

            Through tears I have to write to you. It is now 14 years that the loving God took my husband, father and provider, to Himself. The oldest was nine years old and the youngest seven months. I have 6 children, 5 sons and 1 daughter… Here, in Russia, it is impossible to find work. It has come so far that we will all starve to death. I don’t know what will happen. We have bread only for one month, not a day longer.

The elderly and the infants die first, then the men and the children, and finally the women. The ratio of women to men to children who starve to death follows a mathematical progression of one, two, three: for every woman of childbearing age, two men and three children. One plus two plus three makes six: one woman and two men, and three kids. It’s as simple as A,B,C and as inexorable as an eclipse.

The pattern is always the same, no matter where or when or who or even why famine strikes. If a newspaper headline reads, “600,000 Die in Sub-Saharan Famine,” then you know that 100,000 women have died, and in the days before they too drew their last breath, each of them watched two men and three children die: grandfathers, fathers, husbands, sons, grandsons, nephews, cousins and grandmothers, mothers, daughters, granddaughters, nieces. Neighbors and friends.

This morning I stayed in bed until 8:00 am. The children were asking, “What’s the matter? Arise.” But I would rather die than to live. Starvation is a hard death but, if this is God’s will, so be it. If you could see, dear sister, how we are, you would be terrified. Oh, it is impossible that we could come across to you. The way is closed. The foreign countries have no mercy on us. We will all perish and are “children of death.”

Five million people living in the Ukraine starved to death in the famine of 1932-33, that is, roughly speaking, 833,333 women, 1,666,667 men and 2,500,000 children. It was a deliberate famine, created around conference tables in far-off capitals and targeted at a specific group of people, designed to accomplish a set of pre-determined goals. They died from two years of malnutrition followed by starvation. They died from policy and decree, for the sake of ideology and to change the political power structure of the USSR.

It was genocide.

They died amidst millions of tons of grain, much of it rotting away in the open, much of it sold to distant nations while they helplessly watched. Well-fed gangs of Party men searched every house in 20,000 villages, probed for buried grain with long steel rods, left with a handful of dried peas after two hours of searching.

Now I would like to thank you for the 24 dollars which you sent to help us in our need. May God reward you for this. It is written, “Verily I say unto you, inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these, my brethren, ye have done it unto me.” May you be softhearted and help us again, not as a gift but as a loan… We are bare and naked. In Russia there is no material, no sugar, no nothing. Russia was the breadroom now it is the emergency room. I would write you a lot more but it is better not to.

In hundreds of villages mobs of women stormed the kolkhoze grain sheds, beat the Party men to death with sticks and stones and their bare knuckles and bare feet and obtained food for a day. In the morning armed troops arrived, shot a handful of the boldest, arrested others and their families and shipped them off to die in the gulags. New Party men took the place of those who’d been killed.

What can we use to buy things? No earnings, great God, what will happen? Fear grips me when I look into the future. No friend in Russia can help. No one can give a drink of water to another.

They ate the dogs first. The cats were harder to catch but they ate them all too. They ate rats, worms, ants and grasshoppers. They ate nettles, roots, tree bark, grass, straw, dry bones, old shoes. Then many hundreds of them ate the dead.

In some places the entire village died, whole families of corpses lying where they fell, on the floor, in bed, on the doorstep, by the hedge in the dooryard. Days or weeks later, troops gathered the bodies, hauled them to open pits and tossed them in. “Cholera” they were told, an unfortunate epidemic.

In the end, there wasn’t even enough grain left for seed. 350,000 tons of their confiscated fall harvest had to be given back to the emaciated villagers at spring planting time. With the long winter over and the seed finally arrived, living-dead peasants and their skeletal horses stumbled from their homes and stables and died on their way to the newly green fields of the collective farms, simply dropped in their tracks and never rose.

The harvest was poor… this spring we cannot sow anything should we receive no seed. We could buy seed but there is no money… Last fall we butchered two five-month-old piglets. They had no fat, but it was at least some meat. By now it is all gone. We cannot buy anything. It is out of the question. There is only one month’s supply of bread left and nothing else.

The famine didn’t care whether it was the hand of God or the hand of Stalin, or both or neither whom it served. It didn’t matter. It took their lives just the same, 1, 2, 3.

There was the ache at first, and nervousness, a restless compulsion to search for something to quiet the worried belly. The body drew sugars from the liver and spleen then converted body fat. The hunger-ache grew numb. The skin tightened, wrinkled, grew coarse and pebbly over the thin spots on their cheeks, foreheads, elbows, knees and ribs. The gums grew soft, bled from sores, left the teeth loose in their sockets. The breath smelled foul. Sores appeared at the corners of the mouth. Breasts ceased lactating. Pregnancies ended in miscarriage and stillbirth.

Some went mad and turned to murder, killing friends, relatives, their own children. Some were found alive in a house filled with corpses, crawling on all fours, growling like dogs.

Their muscles lost tone, withered. Exhaustion set in, mental and physical lethargy. Their eyes grew large and sunken. Joints swelled, stretching the skin over hands and feet and knees, blisters full of clear watery pus appeared. Nausea and diarrhea set in and the belly ballooned. Their hearts raced and stuttered. The lucky ones fell dead from the simplest exertions, standing, walking, coughing.

Sight grew dim and their eyes stared unmoving, not seeing. The brain slowed to a crawl, withdrew into itself shutting down thought, then awareness, leaving only the brain stem functions of heartbeat and respiration. Coma for a day or two or a week until the heart itself devoured the last of its body’s energy.

Please help us, for God’s sake. Have mercy on us wretched ones and help us in our need, if you can. We have only need and misery. Oh, if I had wings I would fly to you. In my dreams I am on the ship which will bring us to America and I see you standing on the other side of the ocean, but I wake up and I am all alone. *

* Excerpts taken from a letter by Dorothea Eisenbraun Ellwein of Neu Lajunt, Crimea, USSR writing to her sister Rosine in America, March 11th, 1928. Dorothea died of starvation in 1934. Translation by Armand and Elaine Bauer. Copyright 1979, Heritage Review, Germans from Russia Heritage Society, Bismarck, ND. Used by permission.

History: Portland, Autumn 1998, University of Portland, Portland OR; Heritage Review Spring 2013, Germans from Russia Heritage Society, Bismarck ND

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