Hunger (or what I inherited from my grandmother)

Joseph Stalin made my grandmother hungry all her life. A childhood survivor of the Soviet Holodomor famine (1932–33), part of Nadia Iltschenko became frozen in time, trapped in survival mode against the threat of starvation and unfreedom.

Since her death I’ve begun to interrogate the past, and myself, and recognise what it means to inherit a history fractured by genocide. Historians and social scientists have only comparatively recently studied survivor stories from the Holodomor, to understand how intergenerational trauma echoes through families and community. In trying to reclaim my cultural identity, I face a legacy of sorrows and incomplete lives, and must come to terms with the persistence of trauma in a diaspora.



We piece together the Ukrainian history of my father’s family from fragments. There’s documentation for their arrival as refugees in 1950. Before that we have legend, stories recalled, a few photographs. We have a video from 2010 of Nadia retelling her life, in the vivid, fractured remembrance typical of many Holodomor survivors. [1] She follows a dementia-fragmented narrative of digressions and misunderstandings amid powerful memory, bubbles of anger and sorrow bursting in the midst of recollection.

Nadia was born in 1928, in a village now forgotten. On video, she waves it away: ‘Is nothing now.’ She had two older sisters: Maria, the eldest, and Shura (Alexandra), who would be lost forever at 19. Nadia was only four or five when the Holodomor began. She remembered people starving to death, children abandoned. Her grandfather wanted to let her die, and for that her mother, Domna, cast him out and never forgave. Then timelines become unclear, chronological threads unravel. Nadia’s father Andrei, a peasant farmer, was denounced, his family dispossessed and begging. When he was released from prison, they fled to Makiivka, then Kiev. Nadia remembered four years of ballet; the German invasion; a mysterious woman who visited Domna, speaking in hushed Moldovan; an escape by horse-and-buggy, another by train; as well as ‘barracks’ and ‘camps’. Nadia met my grandfather, Wasily Pawlutschenko, who she loved, and would hate and divorce decades later. They were stateless in Munich when the war ended. She never returned to Ukraine.

And so, we were scattered.



Even before I was born, we had sustained cultural wounds that kept us from Ukraine. Genocidal suppression, assimilationist Australia and a Soviet iron curtain split us from language, family and country. Dad’s name was changed when they came to Australia. Nadia was still angry about it: Genadi, her favourite name, became Henry, which was not the same – ‘You have Genadi, you stay Genadi.’ Growing up a refugee in western Sydney, Henry shared the ‘wog’ identity of many non-Anglo migrants. Australians don’t deal well with difference. He resisted the ethnic signifier of piano-accordion, bought plain ham rolls for lunch, and slowly forgot Ukrainian.

Unsurprisingly, my father anglicised his surname. You can’t blame the migrant for wanting to disappear. He saw it as an act of mercy to spare his children the burden. When I changed my name as an adult, I made no effort to reclaim Pawlutschenko. I had no language, a fractured history, a country I’d never been to. I’d have felt like an imposter. Cultural rupture and the slow loss of names made us at once diaspora and removed from it.

We, diaspora, find ways of coping with this distance, we look for routes back. In 2012, young and in London with my new name, I sought Shura. She was a teenager when she met Yakov. When the war ended he returned to Russia and she followed. The rest is silence. I met with the Red Cross, but I had so little information to offer. No records, no photos, and by then Nadia’s memory was deteriorating. I never told her that I tried and failed. Jonathan Safran Foer was 20 when he looked for answers in Ukraine. Finding only a ‘landscape of total absence’, he wrote Everything is Illuminated as the journey of discovery that could have been, a false history to fulfil the yearning. Those contending with the chaos of wartime and Soviet record-keeping are plagued by fruitless searches, gaps patched only through fiction.

For me, academia offered a way to conceptualise my place and that of my family. Reading histories and social studies, I found patterns to lay across the cycles of dysfunction that had plagued us like bad blood. It was cathartic, to see us fit within that web of survivors and descendants. In looking for the roots of sorrow, I walk a line between pathologising transgressions and recognising the ways that trauma can make us the people we shouldn’t have been.

Within studies of intergenerational Holodomor trauma, I found parts of us: anxious mistrust, broken communication, ‘risky health behaviours’, food obsession, stockpiling, terror of enfeeblement, mental illness, parents who loved their children but alienated them with the irrationality of their fear and rage.[2] Our history is a litany of the unforgiven, and the ferocity, illness and sorrow that links us is also what drives us apart.

On our first date I told my future husband that my great-grandfather was a murderer, ‘but he didn’t make a habit of it or anything’. This is true, but there was still more to Andrei: father and wife-beater, saviour and survivor, killer and suicider. I don’t know how much we are destined to inherit from ancestors. My marrying a baker, for instance, is probably not the culmination of Ukrainian post-traumatic intergenerational bread-reverence.[3] But genocide has shaped our lives in different ways.



In 2017 I returned with my husband to Australia, the hungriest I’d ever been. Had Nadia still been able to recognise me, she’d have repeated with horror the old refrain, ‘Eat! Eat! Eat!’, the one shared with fellow survivors.[4] My relationship with hunger had gradually become warped, unsustainable. It is a masochistic force making me leaner, harder, pushing to breaking point like I’m on that survival-high. Controlling food, I had become sharp and brittle, digging at an unfillable emptiness. Maybe I can’t blame Stalin for my disordered eating, but I think we must allow for unexpected ways that trauma persists – the cycles and resonances following the wandering migrant; the lost community, incoherent and unpredictable.

I wonder what it even means to carry a space in your heart for a country you’ve never seen. Diasporas are strange beasts: they ‘mediate, in a lived tension, the experiences of separation and entanglement, of living here and remembering/desiring another place.’[5] Vic Satzewich describes diaspora as inhabiting ‘host societies’: like visitors always on the verge of return.[6] We have that otherland, a collectively imagined cartography of identity that collapses time and space. Here, the past is never finished. I saw how Nadia still wept for Shura, and ‘how they kill her’; that present tense of the imperfect migrant tongue. Always present, always tense.



The place of Ukraine, the nation and its edges, is still fragile and tenuous. Only recently, we all watched as Russia pressed and broke the borders of this neighbour; I face the possibility of losing a country before I can know it. I hear an anxious ticking clock for this permeable, still-imagined place.

By then, Nadia was in a high-care facility, and no longer knew Crimea. She smiled but spoke little English; in dementia, many revert to their mother tongue. She was going back to Ukraine, in her own way, a mind-territory equally imperilled as the one menaced by Russian tanks.

Nadia’s face persists in mine. I have the Slavic chin and cheekbones you could crack rocks with. There’s no other exact source for these fierce blue eyes, the ruddy cheeks. When we were younger, she’d gaze at me, kiss my hands, and call me ‘so beauty’. The diaspora recognise me: men in bars and boys at gigs, fellow waitresses, a sad, smiling woman who touched my back gently, asked me my people, showed photos of her daughter to illustrate our same eyes. They tell me their stories and the journey of their blood, reaffirming our connections to that far country.

Natalia Khanenko-Friesen writes about the yearning the diaspora have for each other, and the longing of the homeland for these ‘other Ukrainians’.[7] They reach out, trying to pull me in. I have always been wanted, and never felt Ukrainian enough: always not-genuine, too-Anglo.

I carry this dual tension within the borders of my body. As I work to gather these parts of me, I find unexpected conflicts. Ukraine is often positioned as non-west, and there is still suspicion, even among diaspora, that the west ignored or permitted Stalin’s Terror-Famine.[8] My ancestry of Holodomor survivors has made me increasingly uncomfortable with the ‘sassy’, Soviet-inflected rhetoric and memes of my fellow leftie-millenials. When you’ve seen the hunger that never dies, Nadia’s fear and anger when people refused food, and how this trauma shaped her whole life, it’s hard to deify Soviet leaders and laugh about gulags. The humour falls flat when it was your family jailed, your grandmother escaping a country where millions were starved to death. Not that proximity should be necessary for empathy. Although I am culturally embedded in the west, I have become wearied, and angered, by its short, selective memory. For those who lived, the hunger did not cease.



When I returned to Australia with my hunger, I also brought Mamushka, by Olia Hercules. For Hercules, chef and London-based member of the diaspora, the Russian conflict spurred her to collect Ukrainian family recipes, to preserve against cultural threats and forgetting. In my life, Ukrainian food had become like a language I had heard and could not speak. We carried the hunger but could not feed it. Now I am ‘relearning’ what I was never taught, however I can. Like Safran Foer’s author-insert, I work through the cultural incongruity of vegetarianism. This Easter, exactly 18 years since Wasily’s death, we made paska. Food is a link between me and the people who came before: when I cook, I make the same motions my grandmother’s hands might have made, I taste the flavours they would have experienced. Food, as much as the persistence of old hunger, collapses the barriers of time.

I am discovering, slowly, the responsibilities and joys of being diaspora, and what it means to carry stories from a history of struggle. Genocide does not end with the survivors. We inherit it from them, we carry it. They are the lives and stories we are called to remember. Nadia’s wounds also became our strengths: she begat survivors hungry for life. In the ways that I am broken and the ways that I am furiously strong, I see her.

On New Year’s Day, Nadia died. Her passing reunited her sons after almost 20 years of silence; we are prodigiously skilled at grudges. Speaking to my uncle, I found more mysteries. Shura went to Poland, Nadia told him. I saw the IRO resettlement forms for the first time. Nadia’s birthplace is given as Inhulets, Kirovohrad, her name, ‘Natalia’. Romania features impossibly. Wasily and Nadia both worked forced labour for the Deutsche Reichsbahn. It seems they met in Munich, not Ukraine.

My father feels a new grief of lost opportunity, questions we could have asked when there was time, if we’d had more words and less silence. Still we sorrow, and we search. Our dead are permitted no rest. The memory of the migrant is long, and its shadow is cast over us.


[1] Lesa Melnyczuk, Silent Memories, Traumatic Lives (Welshpool, W.A.: Western Australian Museum, 2012), 198.
[2] Brent Bezo and Stefania Maggi, ‘Living in ‘survival mode:’ Intergenerational transmission of trauma from the Holodomor genocide of 1932-1933 in Ukraine’, Social Science & Medicine, 134 (2015), and Melnyczuk, Silent Memories, Traumatic Lives.
[3] Bezo and Maggi, ‘Living in ‘survival mode:’, 91-92.
[4] Ibid, 92.
[5] James Clifford, Routes: Travel and Translation in the Late Twentieth Century (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1997), 255.
[6] The Ukrainian Diaspora (London; New York: Routledge, 2002).
[7] Ukrainian Otherlands (University of Wisconsin Press, 2015), 8.
[8] The Ukrainian Diaspora, 178.


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SM Monteith is a copywriter and recovering quasi-academic living in Melbourne. You can read more work at her website.

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  1. Thanks for this thoughtful post Stephanie. I guess you are familiar with works that look at intergenerational transmission of trauma in European genocides that support your own description of patching together family traumatic history.

    Perhaps family trauma didn’t dictate you marrying a baker, but the thing about bakeries is the comforting warming penetrating smell of fresh bread, something that I guess has been a major signifier in your family history. So maybe you are carrying something hopeful there into the future: the always-fulfilled promise of fresh bread! Thanks again.

  2. I Know how you feel I’m part of the Latvian exile commuinty in the US I sadly lost several relatives during the war at the hands of the Russians (One was tortured to death his widow was sent to Siberia she never came back and my grandma would lose too of her cousins when the Russians had sunk the refugee boat they were on) My Grandma and her parents and her two little brothers fled from Latvia in 1944 when the Russians came back due to the fact that had they stayed in Latvia her father would have either been shot or tortured to death and Omama her brothers and her mother would have been sent to Siberia I acyually got to go to Latvia in the summer of 2018 due to my older sister was partcipating in the big song and dance festival and 1 year on it feels in a away creepy because I had done a tour in the KGB meuseum which both creeped me out but also really depressed me and I also had trouble separrating Latvia during the occupation/war to modern day Latvia

    Up until my first trip to Latvia one of the only things that kept me close to my heritage was going to Latvian camp during the summer

    Before my family went to Latvia my Omama said that she was afraid that the Russians would invade Latvia and have Me My Mom and my older sister deported to Siberia

  3. This hit very close to home. My mother’s name is Nadia she was one of the luckier villages in WW2, from Mokryska. They were deposed and deported of and from their 100 hectar farm property.
    It’s amazing what research is bringing up to the light, in the realm of epigenetics and generational trauma.
    Thank you so much for your offering here. It actually gives me hope.


  4. How beautiful is this story. How true it is that when we write our own we are more often than not writing the tales of others. A lovely gentle meditation on the triumph of time over the twin (not so gentle) ravages of savagery and neglect. Thank you.

  5. I, as a remnant of the now extinct East Pomeranian and Old Slavic Prussian communities wiped off the earth by the Reich’s eugenicists and Stalin’s Red Army, I have never felt more seen or understood. My life experience almost precisely parallels yours, and I’ve never been able to put it all the pain and silence and loss into words before.

    Thank you.

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