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When the hunger began, Peter Velechko ate grain meant for horses. When the horses died, he ate horse meat. When the meat was gone, he clawed the farmers’ fields with his hands and ate the seeds. When the seeds were gone, he found the holes of field mice and ate their stores of grain.

VIOREL FLORESCU/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER
Patriarch Filaret of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church and Ukrainians from Clifton and Passaic gathering at the Ukrainian Cathedral to mark the Holodomor.

When the hunger lifted in 1933, Velechko looked like a skeleton. But he was alive.

“Even if the grain was bad, we ate it,” said Velechko, 89, a survivor of the Holodomor, the famine forced upon Ukraine by the Soviet Union in 1932 and 1933.

“Everything we ate was illegal. If they found us, they would have shot us,” Velechko said. “But nobody in my family died.”

Velechko was one of a handful of people with memories of that awful time who gathered Saturday night to commemorate the 80th anniversary of the Holodomor at the Ukrainian Orthodox Holy Ascension Cathedral in Clifton. The ceremony was led by Patriarch Filaret, worldwide leader of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church.

Nearly 4 million people died of starvation during the Holodomor, according to new research by the Harvard Ukrainian Research Institute.

“These people were deliberately starved,” said Olena Lenczuk, a member of the church who helped organize the event. “We want the world to remember the fact that the Soviets took the bread away.”

For decades, the Holodomor has been a matter of international dispute, as the Soviet Union maintained that the process of forcing peasants to live and work on collectivized farms accidentally resulted in a famine that killed millions of people across the Soviet Union, not just in Ukraine.

This remains the official position of the Russian government. In August 2012, the Voice of Russia, the government’s official media company, published a story admitting the starvation was “a terrible tragedy” but accusing those who label it an intentional genocide as advancing “Russophobic historical myths.”

But scholars say there is little doubt that Soviet dictator Josef Stalin was responsible for it.

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development - priest Oleksii Holchuk