Nov 29, 2022
Liubov Yarosh survived Soviet dispossession, the Holodomor famine and World War II. At 102, she is living through war once again, supporting Ukrainian troops in their fight against Russia’s war of aggression.
She sits on a sofa in her house, unravelling one thread after another. While she may have trouble seeing and hearing, Liubov Yarosh is full of energy, tirelessly weaving camouflage nets for the Ukrainian soldiers fighting against Russia’s war of aggression. The 102-year-old lives in the village of Khodorkiv. She was born in 1920 in the neighboring village of Pustelnyky in the northern Zhytomyr region.
Yarosh’s family was quite prosperous at that time, as they had chickens, pigs, cows and horses. But their livestock and household items were all confiscated by the Soviet Union and taken to the collective farm, as the communist regime’s large agricultural enterprises managed by the “socialist collective” of members were called.
When the Holodomor famine began, Yarosh was just 13 years old. The intentionally induced mass famine was organized in Ukraine in 1932-33 by the Soviet leadership to force Ukrainian peasants into collective farms and crush the national resistance movement.
As early as 1931, tens of thousands of intellectuals were also deported to Siberia, among them the country’s most important poets, writers and artists. It wasn’t until the Soviet Union collapsed in the 1990s that public discussion about this persecution and the Holodomor could begin.
In 2006, the Ukrainian parliament classified Holodomor as a genocide against the country’s people. According to Ukrainian historians, nearly 4 million people perished in the 1930s as a result of the famine.
“The old bread wasn’t enough and there was no new bread. Those who had potatoes peeled them so that the sprouts were left intact. These peels were then planted so that there would be potatoes. That’s how we tried to grow potatoes,” Yarosh recalled with sadness. “There was nothing to eat.”
To survive, people picked linden blossoms and nettles, ground them up and baked cookies from them. Tea was made from turnips. “We ground up a little wheat and made a thin soup out of it, sipped it just to ingest something and laid back down,” she said.
The sustained malnutrition caused Yarosh’s hands and feet to swell. “I had bad, painful sores and couldn’t walk. My father carried me outside,” she said. At night, she had hallucinations and her parents feared she wouldn’t survive.
Yarosh said many children died of starvation. “Children were dying in the houses. Men who still had some strength went from home to home and saw that some of them were lying on the stove,
some elsewhere. They gathered them up, put them on a cart, then dug a big hole. There were 10 or even more children. They were all buried in this way.”
Yarosh grew up with five siblings. Her older brother Michaylo was caught by a patrol and beaten to death when he went to another village to look for turnips for his family. And their younger sister Olya died of hunger.
Yarosh’s father had to bury his children alone. “We had a cemetery very close nearby. My father took his oldest son there and buried him,” she said, adding tearfully that her brother and 4-year-old sister were buried naked, without coffins. “My mother then found another cloth to wrap Olya in.”
Yarosh said all the cows died in the collective farms at that time because no one could lead them to the fields. But people were not allowed to take the meat from the dead cattle, either. It was even deliberately poisoned by the communists, she said.
“[The poison] was in bottles and was called creolin. They slit open the cows and doused them with it.” For decades, Ukrainians didn’t dare speak about these horrors, for fear of ending up behind bars, she added.
Yarosh survived the Holodomor, but World War II soon followed. Twice the Nazis tried to deport her to Germany as a forced laborer. But she managed to escape both times.
“They took me to Germany, but I ran away. When they tried to take me away from home again, I took a knife, wounded my hands and chest and put salt in the wounds. I inflicted such wounds on myself,” she said. The injuries prevented her from being taken by the Nazis.
When World War II began, Yarosh was a young woman. She worked in a collective farm and a sawmill, even learning how to cultivate the fields with a tractor because all of the men in the Soviet Union had been drafted to fight Nazi Germany.
Now, at her very advanced age, she is experiencing war yet again — this time an all-out war by Russia against Ukraine. “This is the worst war,” she said. “God forbid, such a war shouldn’t be wished on anyone.”
Three of Yarosh’s grandsons have volunteered to serve on the front lines. Meanwhile, their grandmother weaves camouflage nets with her daughter. They’ve already sent nine nets to the Ukrainian military. “The boys hide underneath so that no one can hit them,” she said.
Each day, the 102-year-old listens to the news and hopes that the soldiers return home alive. She also hopes to survive long enough to see a Ukrainian victory.
“We have already been through so much — hunger and cold. And we must suffer still,” she said. “We are still waiting for a victory, but I want to witness this victory.”