Maria Gil shared her remarkable story at PPh’s Founders’ Day on November 20, 2012.
Maria Gil is a survivor.
She was born August 12, 1923, in Ukraine to Eudokia and Konstantin Ripka. Her parents were poor farmers.
When she was 2 years old, her mother passed away, and because her father could not take care of her, he wanted to put Maria in a foster home. Her mother’s parents adopted her and she went to live with them and the three of their nine children who lived at home. They became her sisters and brothers. Maria was the baby and used to sit on her grandfather’s lap and comb his long hair and beard.
Maria’s grandparents never told her about her biological parents, but a next door neighbor child told her when she was 4 or 5 she had been adopted.
In 1932, when Maria was 9 years old, the Soviet leader Josef Stalin unleashed genocide in Ukraine.
Eric Margolis, wrote about what transpired in “Remembering Ukraine’s Unknown Holocaust,” which appeared in the December 13, 1998, issue of the Toronto Sun.
“Stalin was determined to force Ukraine’s millions of independent farmers like her father and grandfather into collectivized Soviet agriculture, and to crush Ukraine’s growing spirit of nationalism.
Faced by resistance to collectivization, Stalin unleashed terror upon Ukraine. Moscow dispatched 25,000 fanatical young party militants – earlier versions of Mao’s `Red Guards’ – to force 10 million Ukrainian peasants into collective farms. Secret police, also known as Chekists, began selective executions of recalcitrant farmers.
When Stalin’s red guards failed to make a dent in this immense number, the Chekists were ordered to begin mass executions. But there were simply not enough secret police to kill so many people, so Stalin decided to replace bullets by a much cheaper medium of death, mass starvation.
All seed stocks, grain, silage, and farm animals were confiscated from Ukraine’s farms. Chekist agents and Red Army troops sealed all roads and rail lines. Nothing came in or out of Ukraine. Farms were searched and looted of food and fuel. Ukrainians quickly began to die of hunger, cold, and sickness.
When the Chekists failed to meet weekly execution quotas, Stalin sent his henchman, Lazar Kaganovitch, to destroy Ukrainian resistance. Kaganovitch, the Soviet Eichmann, made quota, shooting 10,000 Ukrainians weekly. Eighty percent of all Ukrainian intellectuals were executed.
During the bitter winter of 1932-33, mass starvation created by Kaganovitch and the secret police hit full force. Ukrainians ate their pets, boots, belts, bark, and roots. Cannibalism became common; parents even ate infant children.
The precise number of Ukrainians murdered by Stalin’s custom-made famine and Cheka firing squads remains unknown to this day, but legitimate sources estimate between 7 and 9 million people or 25% of Ukraine’s population was exterminated.”
One day, the secret police came to Maria’s grandparents’ farm, searching for her grandfather to arrest him because he had a farm and wealth and the communists wanted everyone to be “equal.” She was sitting on her hope chest, which contained a pair of boots. A policeman threw her off the chest and took the boots.
The next day, Maria was sent by train to live with her biological father, his new wife and their children.
When Maria went to school, she would sometimes go in the same clothes that she slept in. The teacher would monitor what they brought for lunch to see if their families were hiding food from the authorities.
When she was 14, she went to work on the collective farm, where she worked sun up to sun down. In 1933, they had no food, soap or salt and had to register every month for bread, butter and sugar. Once, her stepmother went to the city and traded the family’s pots and pans to a farmer for grain, potatoes, corn and onions. The Communists closed the churches.
In the spring, when the grass grew, they would mix it with water and make pancakes.
Life was not all bad. In the summer she and friend, whose father was a member of the Communist Party and, therefore, was well off, would take a row boat out on the Dnieper River and play the harmonica and sing songs.
In 1941, the Nazis conquered Ukraine and Maria was taken to Germany to work on a farm. After the war Maria was afraid to go back to Ukraine because she could be called a traitor. She heard stories of the police dragging people from trains, forcing them to dig ditches and climb into them and then shooting them. She learned that her father had died in a concentration camp in Germany.
In 1946 Maria went to a camp for Displaced Persons operated by the American Red Cross. She worked in the kitchen, cooking for 1,000 people. They received chocolate and cigarettes, which they traded in town for butter, eggs, and bacon. They learned not to take the ferry across the river because the soldiers would stop the ferry and confiscate the goods for themselves. They received donations of clothing from America.
Wasyl Gil came to work in the kitchen, lifting heavy food containers, and three months later they were married in the local sheriff’s office. Maria learned how to operate a sewing machine and she worked for the Red Cross making children’s clothes. Once they were interviewed and photographed for Life Magazine.
In 1952, Maria and Wasyl received permission to emigrate to America and they went to work for a couple in North Carolina that was looking for a couple without children who had knowledge of farming and housekeeping. The first time the lady of the house put a vacuum cleaner in front of Maria, she had no idea what it was. Not knowing any English, Maria used hand signals to communicate with her employer.
After a year, Maria and Wasyl moved to Philadelphia and got jobs sewing in a factory. They had a daughter and a son David and several grandchildren.
Maria moved to PPh in January 2005. She volunteers in the craft room three times a week and recently made her first quilt with the quilt club. She likes taking the van to go shopping at the mall and the Acme and going on the trips to Lancaster County.
She says that PPh feels like her second family.