The Hunger

The grain had run out. Yuri slowly and dejectedly walked back to the dormitory. A look of sadness, discomfort, and resignation subtly emanating from his light blue eyes. The rations had been cut down to half a serving of porridge per day. An occasional mouse, rat, or dead bird was a welcome relief, but any such discoveries were immediately swarmed by the other children. 

Kyiv had been especially cold this winter. It was December 1932, and the Soviet authorities had been traversing from house to house, pillaging and confiscating whatever hidden supplies of grain they could find. The authorities didn’t really need it, they were well fed, it was the message sent to the population that was important. 

A hand touches Yuri’s shoulder, he quickly turns around and stands face to face with Father Symon, a tall, skinny, and ever increasingly worn Catholic priest who spent time between the church of St Nicholas, and an orphanage located a few city blocks westward. An ever so slight hint of Vodka permeated from Father Symon, Yuri had noticed this smell more and more among the adults. The hunger had forced them to drink, it was the only way to keep the stomach pains at bay. 

“Yuri, do you remember what I told you last week?”, asked Father Symon. 

“Yes”, replied Yuri.

 “Just because we are physically hungry, does not mean we must be spiritually hungry.”, Yuri added. 

“Good”, replied father Symon. 

Father Symon reaches into his pocket, and takes out a small portion of grain. He discreetly gives it to Yuri, and walks away. Yuri noticed that father Symon had been losing weight, in addition to walking with a noticeable limp. Yuri didn’t pay this any attention though, everyone had been losing weight.

Father Symon had taught Yuri to read and write, after his parents succumbed to an outbreak of Typhus five years ago. Yuri had been a gifted student, and father Symon’s favorite pupil. Symon had hoped that Yuri would consider a religious life if the opportunity presented itself; unfortunately, the Soviet purges did not seem to be waning. A sad reality of the time and place in which they both lived.

Father Symon had once told Yuri small details concerning his past. He had been born east of Kyiv to a bourgeois family of merchants and had been due to enter the seminary before falling victim to the madness and fervor of the revolution. He spent the majority of the twenties as a true believer of the party before suddenly abandoning his political comrades and taking up the cloth. Father Symon never did tell Yuri why he had left the party as quickly as he had joined it, but it seemed to Yuri that a particular event had led to a change of heart.

The months wore on, and the hunger pains increased. The Soviet authorities had been longer and longer in disposing of and burning the bodies that lined the streets. In the beginning, the bodies had been elderly adults and infant children, but now; men and women in their twenties and thirties began to litter the carts that ran back and forth day and night. Rations were no longer a daily occurrence, and many of Yuri’s younger friends had succumbed to their hunger. Many of his friends were taken away in broad daylight by groups of men and women who promised them food. Yuri didn’t want to believe the stories that he heard, but the rumors of horrible things being done by hungry and desperate citizens made their way around the city.

Yuri had been lucky, father Symon had continued giving him daily rations of grain, Symon had told Yuri to keep it a secret, as people were desperate, and any talk of food would send once kind and rational people into a sort of quasi madness. Father Symon was very thin now, his face shallow and sunken. Yuri wondered if father Symon had been giving him his own daily rations. Yuri dared not ask. 

It was the winter of 1933. Many or all of Yuri’s friends were dead, father Symon began to appear less and less, but the times that he did leave the rectory, it was to give Yuri his daily ration. One day, Yuri was summoned by one of Father Symons cohorts and told to proceed to the rectory. Father Symon was bed ridden, his skin pale and his eyes completely sunken. The smell of death permeated the room. Father Symon motioned Yuri to come closer. 

“I’m going to tell you now why I left the party Yuri”, uttered Father Symon. 

“It was 1923, and the civil war was at an end, we had beaten the white’s. Only a few small bastions of resistance remained in Siberia.”, he said.

“We came across a fortified village, a large detachment had entrenched themselves there. We decided we didn’t want to waste ammunition or personnel for a direct assault, so we starved them.”, Father Symon said

“They lasted one month, at the end of it all, they began eating themselves, including the local children in the village.”, he painfully revealed

“This is my gift to you, my daily rations of grain which I gave to you, so that you would live are an atonement for my past sins.”, he said

“I once told you that one can be physically hungry and spiritually full, at this moment, I lay here in great pain, but I feel great joy and spiritual fullness”, Father Symon uttered

“Take the last of my grain and survive Yuri, go forth to glorify God”, he said

The next day Father Symon passed away, a content smile and a discrete heavenly glow emanating from his body. 

Years later after the great Ukrainian famine had come to an end, Yuri, who had since been ordained, would tell the children at the orphanage the story of Father Symon. In the hopes that they too would emulate him, and come to know the same spiritual fullness that transcends the physical hunger of our bodies.

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