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Friday October 2, 2009

She lived through the Ukrainian famine, and never forgot what hunger felt like

After eating worms, grass and bark in the 1930s, she kept her home in Canada well-stocked with provisions

Special to The Globe and Mail

Nina Dejneha led an ordinary life in Kingston, quietly cleaning hospitals. But against the great thrust of history, the very fact that she was alive was remarkable: She survived one of the most brutal periods of Stalin's tyranny, the Great Famine of 1932-1933, as well as labour camps in Nazi Germany.

She was born in 1924 in rural Ukraine, the breadbasket of the Soviet Union. Her father, Hryhory, was a relatively well-off peasant, and a nationalist who resisted Soviet power. He and other kulaks - deemed exploiters and class enemies of the poor - were targeted by the Stalinist regime for imprisonment and deportation to Siberia. His property was seized, and he went into hiding.

When he later returned, young Nina was told that he was an uncle to protect his identity.

Before she was 10 years old, Stalin began requisitioning grain and other food from the Ukrainian peasantry.

While the famine was first attributed to failed economic policies, it is now understood that Stalin's government deliberately caused much of the suffering in part to punish Ukraine for its independent streak.

Government officials emptied peasants' cupboards and tore up floorboards to check for hidden food.

"This was done to break the back of Ukrainian nationalism, humiliate and disable them, and to generate money, which they traded in the West for agricultural goods," said Aurel Braun, a political science professor at the University of Toronto.

"Nina told me stories of the hunger, of eating wheat, eating anything," says Lubomyr Luciuk, Mrs. Dejneha's godson and a professor in political geography at the Royal Military College of Canada.

She buried food scraps and exchanged valuables for rations at government-run stores. She found nutrition in grass, earthworms, and tree bark. It is well documented that some Ukrainians resorted to cannibalism, though she never witnessed this first-hand.

All around her, people were dying from hunger. Streets were littered with bodies. Entire villages starved.

At the peak of what is now known as Soviet Ukraine's Great Famine, or Holodomor (meaning death by starvation), it is estimated that 25,000 died each day. Some estimates place the total death toll as high as 10 million.

But Mrs. Dejneha survived, which Mr. Braun describes as "virtually miraculous."

In 1941, Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union, and Mrs. Dejneha was one of many Ukrainians sent to slave labour camps in Western Europe.

By the end of the war, she found herself a Soviet citizen in Germany, destined for forcible repatriation to the Soviet Union. To resist this fate, she disguised her identity by pretending to be a Ukrainian who had lived in prewar Poland.

Mr. Luciuk says, "She was coached by other Western Ukrainians in rules of behaviour, history, daily life, and routines." She memorized the details of a fabricated Polish town - the prices of grain and milk, where there was a bar or shop. Once again, Mrs. Dejneha survived, but her sister stayed behind. Her friends said she suffered the irrational shame of survivor's guilt for the rest of her life.

By 1948, Mrs. Dejneha had taken asylum in Canada as a "domestic," working in private homes in Kingston, then as a cleaner at the Hotel Dieu and Kingston General hospitals. She soon married Mike Dejneha, a cobbler who had been a supporter of the resistance against both Nazi and Soviet rule in occupied Ukraine.

Maria Luciuk, Mrs. Dejneha's former colleague at the hospital, remembers her friend to be amicable and quiet. At lunch, the two would sit outside and talk about their lives.

"I was from Western Ukraine, she was from Eastern Ukraine," Ms. Luciuk said. They were under communist rule, and I was under the Polish rule. Two girls growing up in different environments, now both in Canada."

The Ukrainian community in Kingston was small and tight-knit. They formed organizations, such as Kingston's branch of what was known as the Canadian League for Ukraine's Liberation, and the Ukrainian Canadian Club of Kingston. Together, they would go for picnics, and gather to remember important dates in Ukrainian history.

Mrs. Luciuk's son, Lubomyr, adds, "All of them were hard-working refugees who came to rebuild war-shattered lives and did so, never forgetting who they were or where they had come from, but always recognizing that Canada had given them asylum and another chance."

The Dejnehas would spend weekends at a cottage on Howe Island, east of Kingston, fishing and barbequing. "Life was very quiet, very pleasant," says Mrs. Luciuk. "They were not demanding. I think they were very pleased with what they had, and what they had accomplished in Canada."

Her house was always stocked with non-perishable items, such as bags of flour and sugar. "It was as if the experience of deep hunger and starvation in her youth made [Mrs. Dejneha] want to be sure her larder was full," Mr. Luciuk said.

As a young man, Mr. Luciuk would frequently visit his godmother's house, which was filled with stacks of books: genre fiction as well as histories of Ukraine. She would lend reading material to the boy, and tell him about her life in Europe.

While in high school, Mr. Luciuk wrote an essay based on Mrs. Dejneha's books and tales, and received a poor grade because the famine was not yet recognized as historical truth. She told her godson: "There's a lot of things that aren't in the books that haven't been told yet. And you should always remember that. People will tell you things didn't happen because they don't want the world to know."

Mr. Luciuk later became a scholar in political geography, and led the international campaign to have the journalist Walter Duranty's Pulitzer Prize revoked for covering up Stalin's abuses. Mr. Luciuk was also instrumental in the Ukrainian community's request that the government acknowledge the internment of Ukrainians and other Europeans around the time of the First World War.

When Mrs. Dejneha's husband became ill and bedridden, she went to the hospital to stay by his side every day for nearly four years until he died. In the week before her own death, she spent a day shopping for clothing to send back to relatives in Ukraine.

"She is one of the last one's in this [Ukrainian] community in Kingston, and she will be remembered by all of us who are still here," Ms. Luciuk said.

Nina Dejneha Nina Dejneha was born on May 31, 1924. She died in her home in Kingston on Sept. 20, 2009. She leaves her sister-in-law, Inna Dejneha, and Inna's children Nadine, Natalie, Ihor and Oksana, as well as sister-in-law Anna Donowska, and her children, Victor and Rita.

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