Remembering Food in the Concentration Camps: Interviews with Holocaust Survivors

A few months ago, I came across a second-hand copy of the Forgotten Voices of the Holocaust (Ebury Press, 2005). This is a remarkable compilation of interview excerpts from the survivors of the largest genocide in modern history. Collected by Lyn Smith over decades of work at the Imperial War Museum in London, these testimonies reveal some of the darkest and degrading experiences that victims suffered under Nazi rule and imprisonment. But many excerpts also acknowledge the instances of mutual support, goodness and acts of reciprocity that also characterised life during the Holocaust.

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As a Second World War historian, I have read abundantly on my topic, but very rarely does a book disturb me. In fact, I was so surprised by some of the themes I discovered in its pages, that I contacted a Holocaust archive in London and immediately offered to contribute to their weekly blog. (Hopefully it will be out next month!)

The way this book conveys survivors’ experiences of the Holocaust is compelling. Although Lyn Smith has grouped the testimonies together in mostly chronological order (and a thematic chapter on “resistance”), hardly any historical or geographic context is granted. We simply learn the survivor’s name (i.e. Anna Bergman), her/his background (ie. Czech Jewish university student) and where s/he are discussing (ie. Prague). This lack of superfluous information actually strengthens the words on the pages, they become vastly more poignant.

Some interviews reinforced many well-known facts about the Holocaust – the severe hunger, the bitter cold, the rampant disease, the brutal, nonsensical violence. And death, death all the time. But then some things surprised me, such as the uses and attitudes to food in the concentration camps.

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Maslow’s hierarchy of happiness (1954) argues that the most basic level of needs must be met before an individual will strongly desire higher level needs.

If we assume Maslow’s pyramid to be true, then the basic physical needs of a person must be met in order to feel safe, secure. Once achieved, then humans can begin to feel love and belonging, eventually reaching the top of the pyramid to become self-actualized, in whatever way he/she believes.  Without the most basic need satisfied, then people  struggle to progress, develop and grow. Food, clothing and shelter are the basic needs we all require in order to “move up” to the pyramid of human happiness.

When someone was sent to a concentration camp, food, clothing and shelter were those basic necessities that were immediately confiscated. Upon arrival, inmates were abruptly stripped naked, their heads were shaved, and their possessions were seized. One naked inmate, Zdenka Ehrlich, who had successfully passed through Dr. Mengele’s selection process at Auschwitz-Birkenau recalled:

“They put us in a huge room… Straight afterwards a woman with a whip chased us into the next room, there were mountains, but mountains of rags. Clothing that you had never seen, not even in theatrical wardrobes – Fellini would be pleased to have the imagination to put together the things we saw. Behind each mountain of these rags was a guard, a woman guard, always with a whip. We had to run in front of it, she grabbed something and threw it at you. The next pile were shoes, men’s, women’s, everything together. A pair was grabbed and flung at you. So I finished up with (the) most extraordinary outfit you can imagine: I got an olive green ball gown of light material with pearls on it and an irregular hemline – it was like something from a Chekhov or Dostoyevsky play – and a short coat which had probably belonged to a ten-year-old girl, and shoes which save my life. They were a pair of men’s ballroom black patent shoes, huge. In this outfit I left the building and in this outfit I survived the war.”  (Zdenka Ehrlich, young Czech woman)

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Although this photo was taken in 2011, over 65 years after Auschwitz was liberated, it is evident that shoes on such terrain would have been critical to inmates’ survival (and comfort).

Such unusual experiences epitomize the chaos of the Nazis concentration camp system. Although SS guards generally reinforced strict routines, the inconsistencies mentioned above, combined with disproportionate and cruel punishments, fostered a somewhat surreal environment for victims.

When reading Forgotten Voices of the Holocaust, one of the most repetitive topics raised is food. Understandably, the severe hunger and malnutrition was not only an enormous threat to one’s life, but protecting one’s rations or gaining more food was a massive daily challenge for the inmates. The critical need to get food, eat food, steal food…many of the survivors discuss this at great length.

What did concentration camp inmates eat?

Prisoners’ rations varied between concentration camps. At Auschwitz, the largest labour and death camp, inmates were fed three meals a day. The goal of these rations was not to healthily sustain the inmates, but to exploit them for labour with the minimal provisions possible. According to the Auschwitz website:

Breakfast: Half a liter of “coffee” (imitation coffee or Ersatz coffee), which was boiled water with a grain-based coffee substitute, or “tea”—a herbal brew, unsweetened.

Lunch: About a liter of soup, the main ingredients of which were potatoes, rutabaga (turnip), and small amounts of groats, rye flour, and Avo food extract. Considered unappetizing, most newly arrived prisoners were often unable to eat it, or could do so only in disgust.

Dinner: 300 grams of black bread, served with about 25 grams of sausage, or margarine, or a tablespoon of marmalade or cheese. This bread was meant to cover the needs of the following morning as well, although the famished prisoners usually consumed the whole portion at once.

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This crude representation of Ersatz Coffee, cabbage soup, and 300g of bread exemplifies how small the rations were at Auschwitz.

This food ration at Auschwitz was extremely minimal, containing almost no protein, hardly any vitamins or fats, and often caused diarrhea. This entire ration contained roughly 800 calories to 1500 calories per day.

Dr. Rudolf Vitek, imprisoned in Auschwitz III (Monowitz) from November 1942 until February 1943, estimated that during that period a prisoner in a heavy-labor detachment had a deficit of approximately 1,100 to 1,200 calories per day. This rate of depletion meant a weight loss of 2 to 4 kilos (4.4 to 8.8 pounds) per week: “the normally nourished prisoner at Buna could make up for the deficiency by his own body for a period of three months.” (By comparison, guards received 1500 calories per day, which is equivalent to what most working adults today will consume with moderate exercise).

The chief problem was that these meagre rations, over time, destroyed the health of the inmates. They then became more susceptible to various diseases and infections. It remained the common goal of all inmates to avoid starvation. As one survivor remarked:

“Hunger and fear are the most fantastic weapons which Hitler was a master of. To be hungry slowly – not just to miss breakfast or to have the day of fast, but to really hungry, to have less and less, day by day, month by month; so that at the end you only think about one thing: to get something to eat.” (Adam Adams, Polish Jewish survivor, UK)

Survival, Commodity and Fantasy

When reading these oral history testimonies, it is clear that survivors remember food in multiple ways. Naturally it’s emphasized as the key to survival. And because of its precious value, food also became a chief commodity on the camps’ black markets (half a ration of bread for a needle and thread, for example). And finally, it also acts as an objectified dream or fantasy. I’ll let the survivors do the talking:

Food as Survival

 “Every four people had a loaf of bread and this had to be divided. We had no knives, only spoons with one side sharpened on stones for cutting. It was always very difficult to divide the bread equally – always quarrels, fighting and screaming. Suddenly I had this idea: a simple, wooden stick arrangement with strings to weigh the bread equally. Everybody used it and things became very calm and quiet. A few weeks later, two SS men came in and asked me if I had made it. I said, yes. I thought they would give me more food because it was such a very wonderful thing. But I had such a beating with a rubber cable, even to this day it still hurts. But the idea was transferred from one camp to another, all the camps used it; it was so simple, anyone could make it.” (Ignacz Rüb, Hungarian Jewish electrician, Buna-Monowitz, Auschwitz-Birkenau)

“Really, it became the law of the jungle, you couldn’t afford to be nice to others. I remember coming across three Greek Jewish brothers and they used to pinch each others’ bread ration. There were no standards; no right and wrong, you just looked after yourself if you could.” (Alfred Huberman, Polish Jewish youth, Skarzysko-Kamienna)

Food as a Commodity

“The organizing of food was the most important thing, I learned a lot from the Polish Jews who were the best organisers in the camp. There was a sort of black market where we exchanged things. I sold a slice of bread for a bowl of soup. With that bowl of soup I went somewhere else and said, “Come on, give me two slices of bread for this.” And somehow or other we organized ourselves in this way.” (Freddie Knoller, Austrian Jewish youth, Auschwitz-Birkenau)

“The cooks would dole out the soup from barrels and as you got to the bottom of the barrel, the soup got thicker; people would play these strategic games to position themselves in the line in order to get the soup at the bottom of the barrel. You then came back with your soup: was it thick or was it thin? How many pieces of meat did you find? Now some orthodox Jews would take out the pieces of meat and give them, or trade them, with somebody else; from the kosher (ritually clean) point of view it made no sense because the fact that meat had entered the soup meant it was no longer kosher.” (Kurt Klappholz, Polish Jewish youth, Blechhammer)

Food as a Fantasy

“I would take the crunched up paper from the mattress we had, and smooth it out and draw on it. And I would draw a plate of food and someone would say, ‘Oh, can you draw nice sliced bread?’ They were going crazy for food. It was always in your mind. Or an apple, I would draw that if they wanted. We were constantly thinking about food.” (Clare Parker, Hungarian Jewish child, Mauthausen)

“In Czechowice there was a man, a Czech, and he and I got to be very good friends and we would be talking about food and why we wanted to survive. And my brother and I would be making recipes. I said, ‘Well, when I survive, we’ll cut a skinny slice of bread with a huge piece of butter, and we’ll have breakfast and cook eggs and ham…’ And he would scream, ‘For Christ’s sake, stop talking about food, I can’t stand it any longer.’ But I said, ‘But we have to talk about something, a dream, something we will have when we get back from this horrible camp.’ And we did it day after day until he said, ‘I can’t take it any more, I don’t want to live.’ And he just dropped dead. And I tell you, it’s the will to live that kept you alive, it really was that fragile.” (George Hartman, Czech Jewish youth, Czechowice)

The Fate of the Muselmann:

The concentration camps created their own vernacular and vocabulary. It was often a combination of Polish, Yiddish and German. One of the terms invented at Auschwitz that spread to other camps was Muselmann which was used to describe someone on the verge of death. But it was not simply used for those who were weak or emaciated (as so many were). Instead, this term also meant that that person was hopeless, or accepting of their fate. Those who failed to tie their shoe, or wear a cap, or clean their food bowl were considered Muselmann:

“After typhoid fever, I couldn’t walk, I couldn’t hear, I was really just bones – bones and boils. I knew I was muselmann. I didn’t wash, the place where we could wash was far away and I had those ten toes with chilblains full of pus. I used to pee in the same bowl I ate from. How did I do that! I didn’t kill the lice anymore, there were too many. I was a muselmann. It would have been a blessing if I could have gone.” (Helen Stone, young Polish Jewish woman, Auschwitz-Birkenau)

These testimonies demonstrate that beyond the obvious connection between food and survival, food was also used to survive. Obviously, inmates consumed the food as nourishment for their bodies, but they also traded and bartered it as an substitute for currency in the camps. Even discussing food as a fantasy, an ultimate wish for a better future, became so essential to their survival that the absence of that hope, that dream, was to become muselmann, the precursor of death.

So what? 

Let us return to Maslow’s pyramid.  If food, clothing and shelter are the absolute basic necessities to gaining the higher level of happiness, then how these inmates survived was truly remarkable. The pain from prolonged hunger must have been overwhelming. But the fact that some Holocaust survivors could fantasise about food to such an extent as to will themselves to live. In this sense, food thus transforms from being a basic physical necessity into a meaningful representation of hope.

In the Epilogue of the Forgotten Voices of the Holocaust, one woman’s respect and adoration of food summarises many of these ideas:

“For me bread is the most important thing, still is. Bread is Holy. Do you know, if I drop bread on the floor, I pick it up and kiss it. It is like a religious Jew: if you drop a prayer book you kiss it. For me it is the bread I kiss if I drop it. I will cross the road if I see on the other pavement a piece of bread. I will pick it up and put it on the fence so that birds can have it, so that people can’t walk over the bread. Bread is Holy.” (Helen Stone, Polish Jewish survivor, UK)

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Auschwitz, 2011.

 

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