Peter and Natalka Tymoshchuk survived Stalin's starvation policies in Ukraine and Hitler's invasion of the Soviet Union. And then Natalka went in search of the exiled father she had not seen for 17 years. She tells Mark Patterson how she is still trying to clear his name of the crimes he was accused of 60 years ago
HER eyes turn wet when she rememembers her grandmother and father and the years of famine. "You just can't imagine what it was like," says Natalka. "You tell children what it was like and they don't believe it." Her husband, Peter Tymoshchuk, could say the same thing. He also has a survivor's story to tell - of deportation to a concentration camp from his native Ukraine by the invading German army, of escape and recapture by the Gestapo and his eventual move to Britain after the war was won.
Natalka, 18 years her husband's junior, was only three when the Germans invaded the Soviet Union. Yet it was Josef Stalin's Communist regime which sent her father, Marian Pankiw, to a labour camp in Siberia as punishment for his Ukrainian nationalism. She was not to see him again for another 17 years. And now, 60 years after these events, she is fighting to get his name cleared.
In different ways, Peter and Natalka's lives have been altered irrevocably and dramatically by political ideology; he by totalitarian Nazism, she by totalitarian Communism.
More specifically, their lives were and still are deeply affected by the large and tragic forces of history which have overtaken their Ukrainian homeland. Chief among these is the artificial famine which was engineered by Stalin in 1932-33. Anywhere between five and eight million Ukrainians are estimated to have died under Stalin's forced farm collectivization policy.
The former USSR never admitted its responsibility for the tragedy and the full story has only been finally revealed through the work of diligent historians scrutinising former classified Soviet documents. No wonder Natalka says the younger generations don't believe her. It's been a long road from those times to the life she and Peter share in retirement in an unassuming West Bridgford semi.
November 23 is a day of remembrance to Ukraine and the 1,000-strong Ukrainian community in Nottingham. It is the day set aside to commemorate what they call the Ukrainian Holocaust, a human catastrophe which had its origins in Stalin's drive to collectivise agriculture.
This year, on November 23, Peter, who is 80 and worked as charge nurse at the old Saxondale Hospital in Rushcliffe for 36 years, joined his wife and around 100 other Ukrainians at the Ukrainian Catholic Church in Sneinton to hear Mass and light candles for Stalin's victims.
Peter in particular harbours an intense desire to ensure that the world never forgets the Ukrainian Holocaust. He and Natalka, whose passive participation in the convoluted history of Eastern Europe is revealed by her being fluent in four languages, fought for two years to persuade the BBC to screen a documentary about the atrocity.
This human disaster had its origins in 1930, when the Politburo declared that agricultural collectivisation of the Soviet Union would only be achieved by overcoming the opposition of the kulaks - the wealthier farmers. In fact, what the Politburo called for specifically was "the liquidation of the kulaks as a class".
This was translated into turfing them off their land and deporting them to distant regions. Those who opposed were executed.
But Ukraine was a special case. Here, in this vast region of fertile black soil, which was known as Russia's Granary, there had long flourished a tradition of nationalism and resistance to Soviet rule. Stalin's method of breaking this spirit, and of breaking the opposition of the kulaks to collectivisation, was to increase Ukraine's grain quota to the central government by 44 per cent.
Since no grain could be returned to the Ukraine peasants before the Government's quota was filled first, this meant sure starvation for the Ukraine. This policy was reinforced by laws banning any men, women or children from taking grain for themselves. Anybody caught stealing or hoarding grain was liable to be deported or shot.
The result was one of the biggest cases of genocide in history. Photographs from the period show emaciated corpses stacked up like firewood, reminiscent of, scenes from the Nazi death camps in the next decade.
Peter was around nine at the time and living in the unaffected western Ukraine, then under Polish rule. "My family knew what was going on in eastern Ukraine," he says. "But they couldn't send anything because the Russians wouldn't have accepted it. We couldn't do anything."
Although Natalka was not born until 1938, she experienced identical strict policing of food under the collectivisation programme in 1947-48 when she was living with her grandmother. Her mother, Fedora, had died of pneumonia in 1941.
"We experienced a very similar type of tragedy, although it's not been written about so widely," she says. "I remember vividly my grandmother telling us stories about 1932 and '33, but obviously we children wouldn't believe them. We suffered a lot of hardship because farmers were persecuted.
"Then it came to 1947 and '48 and we had a good harvest. But I couldn't understand why we had to give it all away There was nothing left for us. I saw people outside the gate, begging. "I remember one winter evening, my grandmother had some corn and we had a stone grinder and made some flour. Then there was a knock on the door and some people came in. My grandmother put a blanket on top of the grinder and told me to sit on it. I couldn't understand why. When these people came, they were looking everywhere, in the oven...We had a guinea-pig and had a potato to eat. The people asked, ''where did you get that?"
She remembers a sarcastic children's song from the time about 'Father' Stalin. Translated roughly it went: "Father Stalin, give us soap Because the lice are eating us. Father Stalin said, take the hammer and sickle And kill the lice on the stone".
By that time, 1947, Natalka's father, a Ukrainian nationalist who ran their town's cooperative society, had already been sent to Siberia by Stalin's police. She was only three when he disappeared in 1941 and couldn't remember anything about him.
That was also the year that Hitler's troops invaded the Soviet Union. When the Panzers rolled across the Ukrainian steppes, some peasants regarded them as liberators from Stalin's tyranny.
They greeted the Germans with salt and bread, traditional Ukraine tokens of welcome. But Ukrainians were soon to be deceived by promises of better treatment and partisans ended up fighting on two fronts - against Germans to the west, Russians to the east.
Peter was 17 at the time. He was taken by the Germans to work in a coal mine in the industrial Ruhr region, but escaped with a colleague and took a train to Dresden. "But on the way to Dresden, the Gestapo were checking documents and we didn't have any documents, so we were arrested when we got to Dresden," says Peter. "We were put in a prison. We were there for two weeks and interrogated every day. After that a lorry transferred us to a concentration camp in what is now the Czech Republic."
Peter and the other inmates were put to work ten hours a day in a stone quarry Anyone caught resting was struck by the guards with sticks or rifle butts. Peter was eventually released from the camp and taken back to Germany "I was just skin and bone," he recalls. "It took me six months to recover my health."
After the war, like millions in Europe he was classified as a DP - a Displaced Person - and, like many other Ukrainians and Poles, travelled to England to work at a time when the nation, short of manpower because of the war, badly needed workers.
In 1951, he started to study English formally in London. He became a nurse, initially working in Shrewsbury. That year was also the year that Natalka and her brother Volodymyr went to live in Poland with two of her father's sisters.
One day when she was still at school in Ukraine, she and her brother were called to the school director's office. He said: "There is a man here - he is from the Red Cross and they have been looking for you'," she recalls. "They say you have family in Poland and they want to take you over there.' But we resisted because we didn't want to go. We didn't know Poland."
A few months later, the same man returned. He asked whether Natalka and Volodymyr would go to live with their father's two sisters in Poland. This time she said yes. "Grandmother was getting old," says Natalka . "And it was difficult to survive." So they moved to Poland.
And it was only then that Natalka and Volodymyr were told their father was alive and living in England. They also learned that it was he who had asked the Red Cross to find them.
Although life in Poland was materially better than in Ukraine, Natalka felt forced to hide her Ukrainian nationality by learning to speak Polish. Polish hostility to the Soviet Union meant many Poles were unlikely to distinguish between the Ukrainian and Russian languages. The hostility dated back to 1939, when Poland was invaded by both Germany and Soviet Russia. Stalin subsequently had thousands of Polish officers murdered.
After leaving school Natalka gained a job in a tax office in Poland. By the mid-1950s, Poles were starting to get the freedom to travel. Natalka applied for a passport. It took two years.
In 1959, with just few pounds in her pocket, she set out for England to meet the father whom Father Stalin had sent to Siberia in 1941. The only description she had of him, given to her by his two sisters, was that he was 'a tall, handsome man'. It wasn't much to go on and when she stepped off the train at Liverpool Street Station, nobody who could have been her father was there. She stood around waiting for a while. When he still didn't show up, she decided to get a taxi to his home in Whitechapel.
"But as I stood on the platform, a conductor or porter came up to me and said: 'Excuse me young lady, are you looking for someone? There's a gentleman standing there who is looking for someone.' I looked and looked at this man - and something told me it was my father. He walked up to me. We just cried."
Later, he took her back to his rooms in the East End where he told his daughter his story.
In 1941, he was put on a train to Siberia. "This I will never forget him telling me," says Natalka. "People were pushed into cattle wagons with no windows. There was no air so eventually when the train would stop, someone would open the door to let air in. They would also clean up the carriage because there was no toilet.
"But before the train moved off, they would chuck in boxes of salted fish to feed the people. This made them very thirsty, so at the next stop they would get lots of water. Some couldn't control themselves, drank too much and died. The rest went to a labour camp."
Natalka's father was put to work chopping trees in the taiga, the vast area of coniferous forest which stretches across northern Russia. He finally escaped what could have proved a death sentence by joining Lt-General Wladyslaw Anders' 2nd Polish Corps, a unit largely made up of Poles who had been originally captured by the Russians.
He travelled with the Corps to the Middle East and then to Italy, where he saw action at the bloody battle for Monte Cassino in Italy, in 1944. When the war finished, he travelled to England. Like most of the Polish veterans, he stayed.
By the time Natalka met him, he was working nightshifts in a biscuit factory. But she didn't see the 'tall, handsome man' she'd been told to expect. "He was a tired looking man," she says. Natalka was also saddened, and remains so today, for she found it hard to speak to her father because she had forgotten much of her own Ukrainian.
"There was a barrier between us because I couldn't answer his questions the way he wanted me to. He was talking Ukrainian, but I had lived in Poland and had put my past behind me. It was difficult for me to talk to him. All the suffering he had gone through...and now I could`t understand his language."
Natalka had originally planned to stay in England for two weeks. But she stayed, working for the John Lewis Partnership for many years while her father lived with her for the rest of his life. He died in London in 1993, aged 84,11 years after Natalka had met Peter at a Ukrainian centre in London.
So that's the end of the story? Hardly. Natalka is now 'rehabilitating' her father's name. She has employed a solicitor in Ukraine to help clear Marian Pankiw of a criminal charge made by Stalin's police in 1941 which convicted him of being an enemy of the state because he was a Ukrainian nationalist. The process could take three years. Archived documents from 60 years ago will have to be produced to clear his name.
"It will give me peace of mind," says Natalka , wiping away tears. "And I think it's what my father would have liked."
One sad note is the fact that Natalka today finds her home town, Zalyshchyky, on the border with Romania near the Carpathian mountains, practically unrecognisable from the place she remembers as a young girl. It used to be a spa town popular for its swimming in the River Dniester. "Now it's all deserted," she says. "It's overgrown and neglected and obviously, the Chernobyl disaster finished the swimming off because the water was polluted."
On top of this, she doesn't recognise the population either. Jews who lived there before the war were killed by the Nazis and the many people of Polish origin were forcibly resettled in western Poland after the war. The town was re-populated with Russians and people from central Asian republics such as Uzbekistan.
"It's my home...but it's not there," Natalka says. "My home has been taken away from us. It's like we are orphans. We have not done anything wrong, but it's been such a long time that the people there don't want to know you. They don't want to know our language." Post Weekend December 7, 2002
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