holodomor advocacy

Holodomor Advocacy, Aid by UNWLA Dates Back to 1933 

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Holodomor90 Staff

Editor’s Note: The Ukrainian National Women’s League of America (UNWLA), the longest-running and largest Ukrainian women’s organization in the U.S., has a mission to “inform the free world about events in Ukraine.” The organization’s advocacy work and support for humanitarian efforts began in 1925 when the organization was formed, and only eight years later, strived to help Ukrainians during the Soviet Union’s genocidal efforts, known as the Holodomor.  

Beginning in 1932, the USSR effectively hid the truth about the unfolding of the Holodomor in Ukraine from the international community. By the second half of 1933, however, the scale of the tragedy became known even in the USA, thanks to the Holodomor advocacy efforts of people and groups like the UNWLA, who were connected to family and friends, and wanted to bring the Holodomor to light in the U.S.  

The following is from the UNWLA’s archives and tells the story of the work they did to help Ukraine during the Holodomor.  

From the 28th UNWLA convention, UNWLA archives: 

On November 13, 1933, the National Board of the UNWLA called a meeting of its Branches in New York and the surrounding areas to form “The Emergency Relief Committee for Starving  Ukrainians.” Dr. Neonilia Pelecovich was elected chair and other UNWLA members were elected to serve on the committee. […] it was further decided that a Committee of Honor should be formed to assist the Emergency Relief Committee’s work.” 

UNWLA Convention Notes, 1933

The committee extended an invitation to individuals outside of the Ukrainian community to join the effort. However, at the time, the international community wasn’t largely aware of the events happening in Ukraine, and most of the invitations were either declined or left unanswered.  

Only two prominent American citizens joined the humanitarian effort – Florence G. Caccisit, a correspondent for the YMCA, and writer Carvet Wells.  

At the height of the Famine, Ukrainian villagers were dying at a rate of 25,000 per day. One in three children perished as a direct result of collectivization and famine. According to one source, “No fewer than three million children born between 1932 and 1933 died of hunger.” Eighty percent of Ukrainian intellectuals were liquidated because they refused to collaborate in the extermination of their countrymen. By the end of 1933, approximately one-fourth of the population of Ukraine had perished from starvation.    

Less than 10 days after forming, on November 21, 1933, the Emergency Relief Committee launched an advocacy campaign. They wrote and disseminated memorandums with a short history of the events and pleas for help to the press, international humanitarian organizations, the U.S. Congress, and U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt and his wife, Eleanor.  

The Memorandum stated, “We beseech your good organization, built upon the humane foundation of relieving human suffering and misery, to give full consideration to our plea by sending a committee to investigate the magnitude of these horrible conditions…  In the name of womanhood, we are asking you to help the nation that is dying of starvation, mothers and children. Their only wish is to live.” 

UNWLA Memorandum to President Franklin D. Roosevelt

Answers began arriving shortly. In December of 1933, a letter arrived from Congressman John Delany, promising to look into the situation. Their investigation resulted in Resolution 399, introduced to the floor in May 1943.  It clearly defined the situation as “Famine as means of decreasing the population of Ukraine, to destroy Ukrainians politically, culturally and to destroy their national rights.”  

It is quite possible that this was the first resolution in which Moscow’s politics were addressed in the U.S. Congress. 

The answer from the White House, on behalf of President Roosevelt’s administration, came from the U.S. Department of State, Eastern European Division, Robert F. Kelly, Chief.  The letter, dated December 15, 1933, stated that at this time, the Administration could not do anything in regard to the Famine.   

The same response arrived from the First Lady of the US. 

International humanitarian organizations were prohibited by the USSR government from entering and providing any assistance to the communities in affected areas. 

For decades afterwards, the UNWLA advocated for official recognition of the Holodomor as a genocide of the Ukrainian people by organizing commemorative annual events and marches, and sending copies of the correspondence to elected officials, media, international humanitarian organizations, and Ukrainian Women’s Organizations worldwide.

Illustration: archived photos of UNWLA-led protests over the years to bring awareness and commemorate victims of Holodomor. 

In its 1988 Investigation of the Ukrainian Famine of 1932-1933, the U.S. Congressional Commission on the Ukrainian Famine concluded that “Joseph Stalin and those around him committed genocide against Ukrainians.”  

Illustration:  A map prepared by Prof. Lubomyr Luciuk in commemoration of the 90th Holodomor anniversary, 2023

In 2007, UNWLA efforts were recognized by then-First Lady of Ukraine Kateryna Yushchenko. She sent a letter of appreciation to the UNWLA for issuing a book by Valentyna Borysenko, “The Candle of Memory. Verbal history of the genocide of Ukrainians in 1932-1933” in English translation.  

The book was presented in 33 countries across the world.  

Our Holodomor advocacy work isn’t done. We will forever keep the victims of the Holodomor in our hearts and will keep working to ensure that the world recognizes Holodomor as a genocide of the Ukrainian people.  

And there will come a day when those behind this crime will be held responsible.

By Orysia Soroka, UNWLA Secretary

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