‘The Couple in the Woods: Fragments of a Memoir’

Kindling Volume II, published by Writer’s Edit, is filled with over 30 deeply personal and inspiring works of fiction, creative non-fiction, poetry and industry advice from Australian and international literary artists.

‘The Couple in the Woods’ is my contribution to the book. It is a nonfiction story about my grandmother’s brush with cannibalism during the Holodomor in 1930s Ukraine, when millions of Ukrainians starved to death. Throughout the story, the process of uncovering and writing the story runs parallel to the story itself.

It is a difficult thing to write a memoir. Memory is never a reliable mechanism. The history books give us accounts of an event that fit together to create a greyscale version of history, while our memories breathe life into it, filling it with colour. As writers, we seek to recreate history as accurately as possible. We do our research. We write. We share our stories with our loved ones. We rewrite. Share. Write again. We dig deeper and deeper, until all the different stories unite to create a complete narrative (Lopez 2015, ‘The Couple in the Woods’, p. 1).

I grew up with the stories of my grandparents’ experiences. They were like fairy tales, so unlike my own world and so seemingly unrealistic. But none so much as ‘The Couple in the Woods’, which brings the sinister story of Hansel and Gretel to life within the bleak context of the Holodomor.

Maria was only six years old when she had a brush with death. It was not her first; she was almost eaten by a wolf when she was an infant and starvation was knocking on her door constantly, as it did every door at that time. But this time was different. This time was so horrible, so unspeakably terrifying, and yet Maria had no idea what had almost become of her (Lopez 2015, ‘The Couple in the Woods’, p. 1).

In this story, Maria is lured into the woods where the couple live and almost captured, as many children were, to be made into pies and sausages. She only discovers the existence of cannibalism after her escape. The story brings together a first-hand account from my grandmother, as well as secondary accounts from other family members.

Cannibalism was not an uncommon occurrence at the time of the Holodomor, when such a large proportion of the Ukrainian population was suffering from starvation. There were people who turned on their own families in desperation. First-hand accounts can be found in Pidhainy et al.’s (1955) The Black Deeds of the Kremlin Vol. II and Miron Dolot’s (1985) Execution by Hunger. Further information on the Holodomor can be found in Robert Conquest’s (1986) Harvest of Sorrow.