When I visited the Russlander exhibit at the Steinbach Heritage Village Museum recently I saw this photo of children being fed during the famine of 1921-1922. This reminded me of an interview my aunt Mary Fransen did with her parents, my grandparents Diedrich and Margareta Peters. She asked them about their families’ experiences during the 1921 famine in the village of Gnadenthal in Ukraine where they lived at the time.
Gnadenthal was an offshoot settlement about two hundred kilometres from the Mennonite village of Nikolaifeld. Nikolaifeld, where my great-great-grandparents lived, was part of the Yazykovo Mennonite settlement which had been purchased by the Chortiza settlement about fifteen kilometres from Nikolaifeld. So Gnadnethal was a bit of an outlier community but my grandparents talk about how Mennonite Central Committee reached them there and set up a feeding and provision station in the schoolhouse in their village.
Mary: How did you survive in the famine of 1921 and the 1922 famine?
Grandma: In our family, no one starved to death, but many in the village did. All-day hungry people stood at our windows begging for food.
Grandpa: Very secretly my father poured wheat among the chaff when he realized hard times would come. Daily he would separate just enough wheat from the chaff to bake our bread.
Mary: Did you see people starve?
Grandpa: Yes in the herdsmen’s hut and there were dead people along the road and in other places.
Grandma: My Dad’s brothers Daniel and Henry found a poor child in their barn who had starved to death. Poor thing it was just lying there in the granary and no cared about it. No one knew how the child got there. When we ate we had to close the blinds. It was too hard to see the poor Russians with their swollen bellies begging. They had already butchered and eaten all the village cats. Others went into the fields and caught the field mice for food.
Mary: Did you have a cow for milk?
Grandpa: Yes but nothing to feed it.
Mary: Did you have to be careful so others wouldn’t realize you still had food left?
Grandpa: Not particularly. They had already taken so much away. When the famine came we had enough wheat to feed everyone in the area. But then the government came with wagons and took it all. It was during this time my father hid the wheat among the chaff. We had an attractive farmyard in the middle of the village. A nice brick fence surrounded it and so the soldiers thought our place would be a good place to get goods. But because of my father’s wise decision to hide some wheat we had enough bread. I always had to help my mother with the baking.
Mary: Was this before you were drafted.
Grandpa: Yes the famine was before I was drafted. My father made the decision that we would bake three bread loaves a day. Two were for our family. With his sharp pocketknife, which he always carried with him, he cut the third loaf into thin slices and then into smaller pieces. But before noon he had always distributed the whole loaf to the beggars at our door. He always said that if only all the families would give each starving child some bread, they would survive. After our bread was gone he would send the starving children to other homes to ask for bread.
Mary: Had the parents of these children starved to death?
Grandpa: Yes of course. We were all starving. But then came the great miracle from America. They set up a kitchen at the school and we called it the Mennonite Central Committee Centre. From here all the poor people began to get food supplies.
Grandma: My mother took some white flour but not much because we had enough to stay alive.
Mary: Was it intended for the poor Russians?
Grandpa: No. It was intended for us Mennonites but the village congregation got together and we decided we needed to give it to the poorest people.
Grandma: We got sugar and everything from the Mennonite Central Committee.
Mary: That was in 1921 and 1922.
Grandpa: Yes but by the time I left for the army in 1922 things had gotten a little bit better.
You can learn more about the Russia famine of 1921-1922 here.
You can learn more about the famine and the relief effort in this excellent article called The Politics of Food.
You can learn more about how Mennonite Central Committee provided relief during the famine in this historical document Feeding the Hungry – Russia Famine.