102-year-old Holodomor witness Liubov Yarosh: The biggest dream is for the war to end

9 September 2022

The entire complex and tragic history of the 20th century came through the fate of Liubov Yarosh from the village of Khodorkiv in the Zhytomyr region. She survived three man-made famines, the Second World War, the creation and collapse of the Soviet Union, and waited for independent Ukraine. It seems that now, at the age of 102, you can be happy with a large family – three children, seven grandchildren, and seven great-grandchildren. They are the ones who live in a better time, not those that their grandmother used to live. They can work freely on their land, provide for the well-being of their family and country…But, suddenly, new trouble knocked on the door – war.

In 2020, the Holodomor Museum team visited Liubov as part of the “Holodomor: Mosaics of History” project and recorded her testimony. And we were excited to know that Liubov Hryhorivna is still in good health and with a bright memory. Moreover, together with her relatives, she helps the army – weaves camouflage kikimora (Ghillie suits or Kikimora suits of the Ukrainian military) for Ukrainian soldiers.

“This war has been going on for nine years”

Our call caught Mrs Liuba when she went to the house to rest a little. “I sort the bags into threads,” says the woman about her role in making suits. “My fingertips are already hurting, so I came to the house and lay down.” She says that the headmaster of the local school, Tetiana Riabenka, encouraged her daughters, Halyna Romanika and Valentyna Zinchuk, to make protective suits. She also provides the material – burlap – and the basis for kikimora – a specific net. And neighbour Tetiana helps with making it.

“At first, they weave by hand. There are bigger holes at the bottom, then fold the thread in half, push it into the hole and the loop and pull it like that, says Liubov Hryhorivna about the painstaking process of making a camouflage suit. – And here, where the hood is, the holes are smaller, then you need to push the thread through with a hook and tighten it as far as it goes.”

The woman says that her biggest dream today is for the war to end and there to be peace and tranquillity on our Ukrainian land. Therefore, even in her one hundred and odd years, she is ready to do everything possible for this. Her large family donated food, vegetables, and money for the Armed Forces. However, Liubov Yarosh’s family’s greatest and most expensive contribution to the victory is- three grandchildren who are currently serving. Thank God everyone is alive and well! They call, but grandmother’s soul is in pain, and her heart aches for each of them.

“I feel sorry for all the people whose peaceful and calm lives this war came in,” says Liubov Hryhorivna. — I listen to the radio and cry (she starts to sob). I really want this war to end as soon as possible. And that the madman who started all this should go somewhere else. In order not to mock people, not to torture us. There is no rest for us for nine years!”.

Mrs Liubov has already survived one war. “In our village, the Germans stayed, then they did not abuse us like these dogs – can we call them people? Even the Germans didn’t do that! “It used to be that some kid was walking down the street, and the German would treat him with a chocolate candy,” the woman recalls. – I’m not saying that things were good under the Nazis. Enemies are enemies. It happened that even villages were burned by Germans. But here, where we lived, they did not do such damage. And these are banging without end and stop! Entire cities and villages were destroyed. People who worked hard all their lives, built, tried so that there was something in the house and near the house, were left with nothing! It’s still hard to believe that this is happening to us!”.

In the spring, when fighting continued on the Zhytomyr highway, the sounds of explosions could be heard in Khodorkov. Now the village is quiet but still anxious and restless. Although the war rolled back farther, it has not gone anywhere.

Recalling the past, Liubov Hryhorivna says: “No matter how difficult it was, it was peaceful. And when innocent people die, it’s unendurable.”

From the age of 15, she weeded beets on a collective farm

Looking back on her life for more than a century, the woman remembers that it was never easy. In Soviet times, it was constant hard work and trials. From 15 years old, she weeded beets on a collective farm. And when the Second World War began, she worked on the railway. “Since our track is wider, the Germans had to make it narrower in order to use it. There were almost no men – they had been taken to the front, so mostly women and girls did that hard work. Since there was nothing to carry on it, the women mowed, and knitted, and carried the sheaves to the haystack on their shoulders. They took three bundles and carried them. We carried so far. And all by hand and on the back.”

And after the liberation, Liubov Hryhorivna, as a person, who was in the occupied territory, was sent by force to Donbas – “to redeem herself with hard work.” She worked at a sawmill there- it was also hard unfemale work.

The overseers beat my brother to death

And Mrs Liuba, who was born on August 8, 1920, had to experience as many as three famines – in 1921-1923, 1932-1933 and 1946-1947. She does not remember anything about the first famine because she was very young. And the parents did not say anything: “they were afraid to talk about it then.”

Instead, she remembers the Holodomor very well. Liubov was 13 years old then. The family lived in the village of Pustelnyki (later, this small village attached to Khodorkiv).

“What did we eat? Linden, dried nettle leaves, grounded into a powder, and we used little flour and baked such cakes with. There were no potatoes, so we survived as much as we could,” the woman said in her testimony.

She recalls that when the collective farm was formed, people had to give their livestock there. “First the cows were being grazed, and then there was no shepherd anymore, then the cows stood in the cowsheds, died of hunger, and were taken to the cemetery,” the woman says. — And people came and asked: “Give us that meat.” They did not give to anyone! They poured such a red liquid on this cow and left. And people gathered that meat, cooked it and died from it. I had an older brother Mykhalko. “Dad, you should go and bring a piece of that meat,” he said. “No, children, we’d better eat linden…”

The famine in the family of Hryhoriy and Yevdokia Lysenko, Mrs Liuba’s parents, took away two of their children. “There were six of us: the eldest Mykhalko was fourteen, Mykola was seventeen, then I, then Anton (he died at the age of six before the Holodomor), Vasyl at twenty-five, and Olia at twenty-nine,” Liubov Hryhorivna clearly remembers everyone and even their birth years.

The youngest sister Olia, who was just four years old in the harvest of 1933, died of exhaustion. And the eldest brother of the 18-year-old Mykhalko was beaten to death by the overseers for a few beets.

“He went to the other village – Yaropovychi, he wanted to take beets. And he was caught there and beaten. The father came and said: “Give me my child”, and they: “We won’t give him, give us half a pound of flour, then we will give you the child.” The father went to the collective farm, asked the head: “Write out”, he wrote out… For this torment, the father took away his son. Mykhalko lived for two weeks and died… He did not go to collect the crop, but he only wanted to bring beetroot home to cook something to eat.”

In August 1932, the Soviet authorities passed the infamous law on five ears of grain, according to which all collective farm property was equated to state property. So, even children were mercilessly punished for a beet or a few ears of grain found in the field.

“We had wheat across the river, it was a harvest. My brother Vasyl and I went to pick up wheat. We collected those spikes in a bag, and the overseer saw us… We already came home, poured those spikes on the stove, and dried them. He came to the sieve standing on the stove, took the spikelets and took them home with the sieve. We cried, and begged: “Give it back, we want to eat, so we collected them s our mum to cook soup.” And he took it and didn’t give it back,” Liubov Hryhorivna recalls her hungry childhood.

During the famine, children were the most vulnerable. According to Mrs Liubov’s memories, many of them died in the village. “Families were big, not like now with one child, but six or seven. And there were ten children each. One or two remained, and others died,” she says.

They were buried in common graves without coffins… Mrs Liubov’s father was such a collector of the dead from house to house. “The foreman said to go to the houses where children died, to pick them up and carry them away. Dad brought five or six children and threw them all into one pit. And so every day. Whatever they were in, he brought them on some kind of carriage.That’s how my father took my brother and sister, whatever they were in, he threw them into a pit and that was it. And then he said: “Oh, if someone told me that I would bury my child naked…” and cried.”

Liuba was also one step away from death – she was all swollen and could hardly walk. “I was very weak,” the woman recalls. – Both the legs and arms were swollen. Dad brought something to eat, then he went to the house and said to mom: “Yavdoho, probably our Liuba will not survive- she is lying and talking to herself.” (Crying). But I survived, and I am still living as if my brother and sister shared their unlived years with me. I live for myself and them.”

The famine in 1946-1947 was no longer so terrible, the woman says. People had potatoes and other supplies. Something could be bought, exchanged, or obtained. It was hard and hungry but without such hopelessness as in the 33rd.

Family keeper and village elder

In 1948, Mrs Lyubov got married and moved to Khodorkiv. She and her husband, Volodymyr Yarosh, gave birth to and raised four children: Vitia, Valia, Halia, and Lionia. Viktor is a constant mother’s pain. He was not yet thirty – he went to the Czech Republic to earn money and returned home in a coffin. It is a wound that still has not healed in the mother’s heart. Therefore, a woman understands mothers who today lose their children in the war like no one else.

She says that today, she is the oldest resident of Khodorkiv. This village, by the way, has been known since Cossack times – it was here that the Ukrainian Hetman Ivan Samoilovych was born in the priest’s family.

“My mother lived for 70 years, and my father died in 1945. I wasn’t even married when he passed away. But my mother had a sister in her family who lived longer than I am now,” says Liubov Hryhorivna about the long-lived woman in the family.

Mrs Liuba has no secrets about longevity. Constant work, love for life and people, and sincere prayer are all the recipes for her longevity. And the support of a large family adds strength.

While these lines are being written, somewhere in Khodorkiv, 102-year-old Liubov Yarosh is taking a piece of burlap and sorting it into bundles of threads. The hard-working hands of Ukrainian working women who all have held the sky above Ukraine during their long lives — growing bread and raising children, continuing to bring Ukrainian Victory closer. Thread after thread. Piece by piece. She is preparing her “business cards”, which make the enemies speechless at the mention of the surname “Yarosh”. If her kikimora saves even one life, she adds, she is ready to continue making them as long as she has the strength.

“I dream of living untill Victory,” says the woman and continues her work.

Health to you, Mrs Liuba! And may your sincere maternal prayer protect your family and all of Ukraine!


Photo of the Holodomor Museum, by Tamila Yakovenko and Liubov Yarosh’s family archive.