Hanna Romanenko has lived to celebrate her ninetieth birthday. For nearly 65 years she has not tasted pork gelatin. A pig’s trotter brings back to her memories of the severed arm of a child. It had been brought to the village council head, Prokop Romanenko, old Hanna’s husband, as evidence of cannibalism. This came to pass back in 1933 in the village of Sosenka in Vinnytsia oblast. Nothing short of a horror story, you might say, but then in many villages hunger-stricken people were wasting away, eating corpses and their own children. There is no denying that, but Sosenka is reportedly the only village in Ukraine where vital statistics reflected what actually happened.
The Vinnytsia Communist Party archives preserved the minutes of meetings held throughout 1933. Famine figures in them as “food supply difficulties,” which made people swell up and die at home, in gardens, and the fields. Cannibalism was also mentioned and a decision was made to instruct village councils as to what causes of death they should cite in the records. Secretaries of village councils complied and wrote: “Cause of death unknown... Died of tuberculosis... Unknown. Swollen all over.” Deaths from hunger were couched in similar terms in Sosenka, but ever since April 1933 the cause of death was spelled out clearly: “Died of hunger,” or “Romanenko Hanna Mykytivna, aged 3, cause of death — slaughtered by father for food.”
Mykyta Romanenko and his mother butchered a boy from Sosenka and later another one from a neighboring village. The old woman coaxed him into the house with a promise of candy. When he stepped inside she hit him with an ax. Later Mykyta’s mother slaughtered his three-year-old daughter Hannusia. Her mother, Mykyta’s wife, caught her red-handed. She worked in Vinnytsia. One day she returned home from work only to find the child missing. Her cannibalistic mother-in-law said the girl had died, but a child’s arm was sticking out of a kettle in the oven. Memories of this arm conjured up at the sight of pork gelatin nauseate Hanna Romanenko to this day. Fellow villagers tied the old cannibal to a horse and dragged her to the village council together with the evidence of the crime. Farmers were about to lynch her, but the local authorities stepped in. The Romanenkos were given to the police. The old woman tried to escape and jumped headfirst from a bridge into the river but was rescued. No one at Sosenka knows what befell them. Only Mykyta’s wife, who had not been involved in the crime, returned to the village. She married again and gave birth to two girls. They moved to another house and she told them to keep clear of the house, in which her husband and mother-in-law had eaten their first child.
Old-timers tell similar stories in almost every village, since in those years, according to Illia Shulha, a professor at a local pedagogic university who investigated the manmade famine, some 1.5 million people died in Vinnytsia oblast alone. Statistics in archival records are somewhat different. At that time Vinnytsia oblast comprised 69 districts. The records suggest that a total of 350,000 people died of hunger in 16 districts. Such a disparity in statistics could have been caused by false reports on the causes of death entered into official records. There is still some doubt as to who dared to write the truth in Sosenka. Word has it that village council head Prokop Romanenko, his predecessor, Oleksandr Kovalchuk, or secretary Semen Moroz could each be credited with being the Sosenka chronicler. One thing is clear. What he did was a real feat. Vinnytsia historians have used these and other archival materials to organize a mournful exhibition dedicated to the seventieth anniversary of the manmade famine.
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