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18 January, 2012  ▪  Sviatoslav Lypovetsky

Christmas Kutia Behind Bars*

Defying prohibition, Ukrainian political prisoners celebrated Christmas in Polish, Nazi and Soviet prisons and camps


Polish prisons once kept their inmates in some of the harshest conditions, but political prisoners found opportunities to maintain their religious and national identity even there. This became possible primarily when they reached significant numbers. For example, nearly the entire OUN leadership, including Stepan Bandera, found themselves behind bars in 1934. On Christmas Eve, they were all in solitary confinement cells and were strictly forbidden for talking with their neighbours. So they started singing carols by whistling. First, they whistled “Boh predvichnyi” (God eternal) and followed it with a whole bunch of Christmas carols.

Two years later, the same inmates celebrated Christmas in the Holy Cross Prison, one of Poland’s highest-security prisons. As a priest was to pay a visit, the prison keeper permitted forming a choir. Bandera put his talents to work  and arranged inmates in a choir that sang a church service in four parts.

When the priest started the carol “Dear Jesus, we are not rich and have no gold to offer Thee,” Mykola Klymyshyn, who was serving a lifelong sentence, noted in his memoir: “It was the first church service after three years in which we came together, and singing the service, capped with a carol that fit our situation so well – all of that stirred an incredible feeling inside.”

The Bereza Kartuska Prison was a lot less conducive to celebration. This concentration camp was set up in June 1934 after a Ukrainian fighter assassinated Polish Minister of Internal Affairs Bronislaw Pieracki. The inmates suffered from beating and humiliation on a daily basis in this “place of isolation” (the official designation for this camp where persons disloyal to the Polish state were placed) and more so than in other prisons. Singing carols was out of question there. So the prisoners came up with a special arrangement. On Christmas Eve in 1935, the wardens left cell doors open in order to be able to “pacify” inmates, and two prisoners lay on the floor to watch the wardens. When they walked way, the cell quietly sang carols but would stop whenever they came closer.


When the Bolsheviks came to Western Ukraine in 1939 (they were labeled “first Soviets”), they made an unheard-of number of arrests. According to some sources, in less than two years, i.e., by June 1941, they repressed over 500,000 people, or one in ten residents of Galicia. In the face of a common enemy, Ukrainians and Poles who found themselves in prison showed some brotherly treatment of each other. For example, on Christmas Eve in 1941, the Ukrainians kept in the Lviv Prison invited the Poles to join their meal and a Catholic priest to bless the food, which he did in Polish. Another story, one from the trial of 59 OUN members and sympathizers in January 1941, seems almost surreal. The second day of the trial was Epiphany Eve, and the OUN members managed to celebrate this big religious holiday even on the dock: “My neighbor gave me a nudge, gingerly put a piece of white kalach in my hand, whispered a Christmas season greeting into my ear and added, ‘Pinch off a bit and pass on’,” Luba Komar, one of the defendants, later recalled. “I figured out that it was Epiphany Eve, broke off a tidbit and handed the kalach over to my neighbor on the other side. And so it made a round, uniting all of us, just like at the table for an Epiphany Eve meal.” During this trial, 42 of the 59 accused were sentenced to capital punishment.


“Death mills” was the name historians gave to Nazi concentration camps which killed millions of people. Survivors said that in a number of these camps entire groups of inmates were able to avoid repressions for quite a while and make their everyday conditions at least tolerable.

Memories of Christmas celebrations show that the Nazi’s attitude to prisoners changed over time. For example, in 1943, in Auschwitz, the Ukrainian nationalists (also called “the Bandera group”) managed to obtain a beetroot from which they made borshch for Christmas Eve. The festive mood was evoked by a Christmas tree borrowed from Catholic inmates who had already celebrated their Christmas.

The situation was totally different in 1945. Ukrainians had more contact with other prisoners, including those who worked in the kitchen for SS men from which they were able to procure canned sardines and some vegetables.


Soviet camps were not much different from Nazi ones – set up in large numbers and based on lawlessness and extreme forms of prisoner harassment. Prisoners often called them the “small prison zone,” implying that the Soviet Union was the “big prison zone.” This allegory was not an exaggeration, because “the small prison zone” was bigger than many countries in terms of population and size. In the 1940s through the 1950s, 17-22 million people went through the Soviet camps, according to various estimates. The infamous GULAG, set up to coordinate the entire penitentiary system and produce an economic effect, united 230 camp administrations. Each of them had authority over 5-20 concentration camps. The biggest camps had up to 250,000 prisoners, which is more than the population of some regional centers in Ukraine today.

Ukrainians were able to organize despite the lack of any restraint on the part of camp administration and convicted criminals. They successfully confronted imprisoned criminals, held protests and, in 1950-55, staged uprisings in concentration camps, all of which helped normalize conditions. Celebrating Christmas was one of the biggest events for Ukrainians. In 1955, Mykhailo Soroka, the “patriarch” of Ukrainian political prisoners who died while serving his 36th year, wrote in a letter to his son, describing Christmas celebrations in his camp: “We, too, rejoiced that we marked this date following our ancestors’ custom. For who are we if we are weaned from the traditions, customs, thoughts and aspirations of those who lived for centuries before us?”

His wife Kateryna Zarytska, who headed the Ukrainian Red Cross during the national liberation struggle and was sentenced to 25 years in prison, wrote about Christmas celebrations in 1959 – camp prisoners “cooked a pudding stuffed with mushrooms, make a cake and had a great time.”

However, not always did prisoners have an opportunity for Christmas festivities, such as when they were transported between camps. One such case was described by UPA captain Myroslav Symchych. He was one in a group of prisoners who were being transported by plane when the crew had to make an emergency landing in Komsomolsk-on-Amur. On the ground, Ukrainian prisoners started singing carols, and a group of civilians who were present at the site joined in. Finally, one of the escorting soldiers exclaimed: “These are my compatriots!” and, as Symchych recalled, “prodded our shackles with his big palm and readjusted a submachine gun, which was totally out of context, on his broad shoulder.”


A Christmas meal recipe from camps, 1941

The plan was for everyone to save a portion of bread and four portions of sugar by Christmas time. We had a small reserve of sugar which a Belarusian engineer brought from the outside and gave us when he joined our Ukrainian team.

I also asked fellow inmates to pick out grains from boiled pearl barley, if we were served any, and put them in a separate bowl. It was quite a challenge to fish out a dozen grains from a bowl of murky, watery mass. Nevertheless, about 60 people in our group collected about 1.5 liters of barley grains. We were sad to see that one bowlful of these grains began to turn sour, because we were still several days away from Christmas Eve.

Our treasure grew by leaps and bounds, and we had to put the grains in other bowls, but it did not stop our plan. On the morning of Christmas Eve, we added sugar and bread crumb, mixed it well together and made kutia out of it. Our Belarusian friend also had a dry roll, which he brought from the outside. I broke it into small pieces, burned sugar on a metal spoon and dripped melted sugar, instead of honey, onto these pieces. That was our communion bread.

(Bohdan Kazanivsky, Christmas of 1941 in the Lviv Prison)

*Kutia is a sweet grain pudding, traditionally served in Ukraine, as a part of twelve-dish Christmas Eve supper. Kutia is made of wheatberries, poppy seeds, honey (or sugar), various nuts and sometimes raisins.

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