In 1932 and 1933 in Ukraine, Soviet ruler Joseph Stalin instituted a famine that would kill seven to 10 million people in a bid to quash an independence movement.
Yesterday, in a downtown Montreal church, a choir sang tribute to the victims of the genocide, known to Ukrainians as "Holodomor," or "death inflicted by starvation."
"I'm emotionally distraught with all this, knowing my family's history," said Valentina Kuryliw, a member of the Counterpoint Chorale, a Toronto group that performed at Montreal's St. James United Church.
Her parents survived the genocide, she said.
Kuryliw, a former Montrealer and retired history teacher, read a poem by a Holodomor survivor as part of the tribute that attracted more than 250 people, most of them greying members of Montreal's Ukrainian community.
The concert, which featured Gabriel Fauré's Requiem, was the brainchild of Counterpoint Chorale conductor William Woloschuk, another former Montrealer of Ukrainian origin who started the non-Ukrainian choir group five years ago.
"We proposed this concert as a tribute to the Ukrainian community in Montreal because they helped me as a second family," Woloschuk said.
The Canadian government passed a law in May recognizing the famine as an act of genocide and declaring the fourth Saturday in November every year to be Ukrainian Famine and Genocide Memorial Day.
So while the 75th anniversary of the tragedy will be officially marked later this month with ceremonies, Natalia Huck said she attended the concert as a more intimate way to pay respect to loved ones and friends who were taken by famine.
"I don't know how to express it," she said when the concert ended. "It was beautiful."
Huck, who was 4 years old during the famine, said her family survived but her parents, her brother and an uncle were later arrested. She was raised by her mother's family, which fled to Germany when she was 13. She came to Montreal after she married.
Woloschuk said he chose to perform Fauré's Requiem because unlike other musical services for the dead, it is not about sorrow. It's about deliverance, he said.
"We selected the Fauré to give the audience more the sense of hope, that this will never occur again."
Stalin dramatically increased the Soviet Union's grain procurement quota from Ukraine in 1932 with the purpose of causing shortages. Military troops and secret police used brutal force against peasants who tried to hide grain. Peasants were forbidden to travel in search of food.
"When I awoke before the dawn, I heard my sons weep and cry for bread," Eugene Czolij, a Montrealer who was elected president of the Ukrainian World Congress this summer, told the crowd yesterday, reading a passage from Dante's Inferno.
"Stalin used bread as a weapon of mass destruction," he said. Czolij noted that three million children were among the victims of the genocide.
Kuryliw said her mother, who was 10 years old at the time, still talks about seeing a starving boy beaten to death in a wheat field by the head of the collective farm where she worked for stealing a cucumber.
"One of the reasons I went into history was because of the stories I heard about my father and my mother," she said, noting the Holodomor was largely covered up for decades.
Now 63, she said: "We were always poor, but our table was never empty," Kuryliw said.
"I was brought up to cherish every morsel of food."