Rocking Around the Nazi Christmas Tree: The Invention of National Community

Nazi Germany was not the first radical regime to revolutionise its holidays. Russian Bolsheviks believed church bells represented the “old way of life” and actively sought to destroy them in from the late 1920s (and many didn’t ring again until the collapse of communism in the 1990s!). Even French Revolutionaries changed the entire calendar to reflect its commitment to the separation of church and state; 7 day weeks were replaced with 9 day weeks; saint-days were replaced with names of animals, plants, and farm implements; months were renamed by their seasonal activity (germination, flowering, meadow).  It is astonishing that such a calendar lasted a full 12 years.

As in any dictatorship, Nazi Germany’s control and influence filtered down into all aspects of social and cultural life. But Christmas was a bit tricky. How does an anti-Semitic political party celebrate the birth of a Jew? How does that same violent political party celebrate Christian values of charity, love and forgiveness? And, how does a despot like Hitler share his power with baby Jesus?

But the Nazis were cunning, resourceful and, above all, ambitious. Their Christmas celebrations morphed good ole Christian traditions into a mystifying quagmire of cultish obsession with “Nordic” nationalism. German women became “priestesses” of the home, while rituals like lighting the candles on a Christmas tree came to symbolise the birth of “Germanness.” It must have been effective though, as some Nazi-written carols were still sung until the 1950s (yes, really).

Of course, in the post-war period, Christmas became sanitised and distanced from whatever it had become under Hitler’s reign.  But as one Westfalen resident commented in the 1950s, “family celebration has been degraded into the simple giving of presents, and the mother has been dethroned” (see a fabulous article on this complex topic by Joe Perry, “Nazifying Christmas: Political Culture and Popular Celebration in the Third Reich,” Central European History, Vol. 38, No. 4 (2005), pp. 572-605).

But let us not assume that every resident of post-war Germany was longing for the days of “All I Want for Christmas is Hitler.” Because that’s simply not true. But instead of writing a superficial blog about Christmas trees adorned with swastikas, I shall attempt to delve deeper and do justice to the confusing and desperate Christmastimes that average Germans experienced under Nazi rule.

 “Have a Holly, Golly, Invented Norse/Pagan/Viking/German Christmas”

Before the Nazis came to power, Christmas could be considered a rather unique “German” holiday. This attitude pervades even today’s Germany. In the mid 1800s, German scholars (Paulus Cassel, Johannes Marbach, W. Mannhardt) wrote at length that German-speaking territories celebrated Christmas not only as a Christian holiday, but also a pre-Christian tribal ritual incorporating popular folk superstitions.  What the hell does that mean? Well, think Norse. Think Pagan. Think Viking. While they are not interchangeable words (or cultures, or histories), Germany by the 1900s had embraced a mish-mash of holiday traditions and fused them under the term of “Weihnachten” or “Christfest”.

For example, the Advent Wreath, which is adorned with four candles and lit each Sunday before Christmas, derives from the “ring of light” that existed among Germanic tribes before the celebration of Advent. Apparently, these tribes lit lights to represent the shortening of the days until the solstice, at which time the Julfest celebrated the return of light. (Incidentally, the English word yule is derives from the Germanic Jul). Other traditions, such as Santa Claus (Weihnachtsmann), Christmas markets (Weihnachstmärkte) and Christmas trees (Tannenbaum) share their roots from these pre-Christian and “Germanic” traditions.

As Germany itself was still trying to find its national identity in the wake of its unity in 1871, Christmas traditions – whether invented or repurposed – became essential to the national celebrations the Nazis would manipulate when they came to power.

Pre-1933: “It’s the Most Anti-Semitic Time of the Year”

Before the Nazis came to power in 1933, Christmas was an opportunity to launch attacks against those they perceived to be internal enemies (communists, socialists, Jews, liberals, etc.). Rather predictably, they blamed the erosion of so-called “real” Christmas on these groups. They even justified attacks on Jewish stores as a way to promote Christian harmony and a “good will to all.”

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Hitler addressing a crowd at a Hofbräuhaus in Munich in November 1921, just weeks before his “German Christmas Celebration” speech. (Photo credit)

In 1921, Hitler gave a “German Christmas Celebration” speech at his favourite beer hall in Munich. Four thousand guests applauded when Hitler criticized the materialism that degraded the holiday. He also condemned the Jews who nailed the world’s liberator to the cross (and did not mention the Romans…). By focusing on ideas of “authentic” German community and old pagan traditions (like lighting Christmas tree candles), Hitler and his Nazis pitched Christmas as a German rather than Christian holiday. While it might seem extraordinary that such hateful language could tarnish such a holiday, historian Joe Perry argues that it was “relatively easy for the National Socialists to cast the holiday as an exclusionary celebration of pagan, Volk nationalism, since these ideas had a lengthy popular and scholarly pedigree.” (p. 579).

Post-1933: “Have Yourself a Merry People’s Christmas”

After the Nazis came to power, their approach to Christmas totally changed. While this was strategically beneficial to propaganda efforts and gained mass appeal, it also signified a new wariness towards the Protestant and Catholic churches in Germany.

Religious belief in Nazi Germany was not encouraged. The Nazis would not tolerate being subordinate or accountable to any religious institution, despite the fact that over 95% of Germans in 1939 identified as Protestant or Catholic (Evans, Third Reich at War, p. 546).  For the academic studies and longer discussion, check out Guenter Lewy’s The Catholic Church and Nazi Germany, Hubert G. Locke and Marcia Sachs Littell’s Holocaust and Church Struggle, Donald J. Dietrich’s Catholic Citizens in the Third Reich, Leo Stein’s Hitler Came for Niemoeller: The Nazi War against Religion, and Franz G. M. Feige’s The Varieties of Protestantism in Nazi Germany.

Instead of outright condemning Christmas’ religious connotations, the Nazis simply redefined the holidays as annual events of “national rebirth.” Christmas was thus viewed as a superlative opportunity to ritualize and revive the German community in a way that benefitted Nazi politics. This rather clever strategy became another method to politically indoctrinate the masses.

In 1934, the first “People’s Christmas” was celebrated throughout Germany. In Cologne, Hitler Youth brigades held night rallies modelled after solstice pagan rituals. In Hamburg, storm troopers gathered around bonfires on Christmas Eve and sang Nazi marching songs. In Berlin, Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels radio broadcast his speech after a torch-lit parade that “the socialism of the deed as become reality. Peace on Earth to mankind.” And, of course, nothing says Christmas in Nazi Germany without “People’s Christmas Trees” set up in various town squares and public parks.

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This photo from 1937 shows Joseph Goebbels with his daughters, Helga and Hilda, beside a People’s Christmas tree in Friedrichshain. (Goebbels’ wife would later kill their children in the Fuhrer Bunker in May 1945). (Photo credit)

Other initiatives also reinforced the Nazis’ politicization of Christmas. Official Nazi holiday greeting cards pictured blue-eyed, blond-haired families to signify racial purity. Christmas entertainment was also revamped and kicked up a notch. On the radio, broadcasts began in late November and seamlessly blended classical carols, radio plays and children’s shows with party propaganda. On Christmas Eve, a special “Christmas Message” from Rudolph Hess was broadcast at 8pm, while carols sung by children’s choirs were followed by Christmas shows about the army, navy and air force.

Even the cinema did not escape the Nazis Christmas propaganda. Annual Christmas newreels featured reports from Christmas markets, state-sponsored events, speeches from political leaders – literally anything that would “colonise and exalt traditional sacred practices” (Perry, p. 582). As with any mass media campaigns, these Christmas campaigns aimed to create a cohesion among the nation-wide audiences who consumed their messages.

Christmas markets, which had been operating in Germany since the 14th century, were also invaded by pro-Nazi booths and and “brown” trade fairs. School teachers were given a specific nazified Christmas curricula with texts that emphasised the Germanic culture as the epitome of Christmas traditions. Children and Hitler Youth members were recruited to help with the Winterhilfswerk campaigns for those “less fortunate.” No German, whether pro-Nazi or vehemently opposed, could escape the Nazis’ reinvention of Christmas.

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Hitler addresses a crowd of Nazis at a Christmas Party in Munich, 1941. (Photo credit)

“I saw Mommy kissing Nazi Claus….” 

Women’s Christmastime roles were also reconstructed by the Nazis as absolutely crucial to holiday celebrations. According to the director of the women’s division of the National Socialist Teacher’s Union, Auguste Reber-Grüber, the German mother was the “protector of house and hearth.” As a “priestess” of the home, the traditional family holidays benefitted from her moral and physical direction. Broadcasts and Nazi pamphlets provided mothers with directions on how to create home-made decorations shaped like “Odin’s Sun Wheel” or bake cookies in the shape of a loop to imitate fertility symbols.  As historian Joe Perry states, “Traditional women’s tasks… like wrapping presents, decorating the home, baking foods…. now had ‘eternally German’ meanings that linked special, everyday acts of holiday preparation and celebration to a cult of sentimentalised ‘Nordic’ nationalism” (p. 597).

“I Won’t Be Home For Christmas”

Once the Second World War began, Christmas changed once again. It even received a name made popular during the First World War: Kriegsweihnachten (literally, “war Christmas”). With millions of men fighting away from home, new initiatives created Christmas books, magazine article and holiday newsreels that celebrated the “spirit” of German war Christmas. Public drives for food, clothes and necessities also helped in December 1941, when the German army began its retreat from Moscow.

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1944 Nazi Christmas Card (Photo credit)

Radio broadcasts from the front lines reported to families at home how their fathers, sons and brothers were celebrating Christmas in the field.

Christmas cards once again were revamped to show the Christmas unity of the home front with the battlefront. This card to the left shows a woman and child (notice the Madonna-child symbolism) above three soldiers trudging through snow in the East. The images faces a poem by Herbert Menzel entitled “Soldier’s Christmas.” Circulated in 1944, cards like these were meant to reinforce the need for ultimate personal sacrifice to ensure the national victory. For more examples, see Randall L. Bytwerk’s excellent online German Propaganda Archive (Calvin College).

But Christmas gift-giving became increasingly more desperate as the war continued and necessities became scarce. Books, interestingly, were not rationed. They became a popular present in the last years of the war. People scrambled to buy books by weight or attractive covers, rather than by title or content. But as historians point out, reports from Christmas in 1944 were riddled with tales of German housewives fighting over meagre portions of eggs (she got five and I only got two!), and emergency holiday distributions of food and coal were critical to survival. As war dragged on, Christmas celebrations became ever more irrelevant to the overwhelming crisis of total war. Instead, most used the occasion to remember fallen soldiers. As one survivor states, “By then, nobody felt like celebrating.”

So what? 

When I think of the average German Protestant or Catholic family in 1930s Hamburg or Berlin, going to the Christmas markets or singing carols with friends while sipping delicious Glühwein, I can only imagine that many must have felt bombarded by Nazi stalls, Nazi lyrics, Nazi Christmas trees. In some ways, this reminds me of how many Christmases I’ve personally felt overwhelmed by the commercialisation and, frankly, the tacky ways society today celebrates Christmas. Advertisements on the radio and TV harass you by mid-November, and it’s nearly impossible to escape any form of Christmas music once 1st December passes.

While today’s robust commercialisation of Christmas is obviously not equivalent to the violent and highly politicised nature of Nazi Germany, these two periods do share the similarity that the original Christian connotations of Christmas have been diluted and sometimes even entirely replaced by other political messages. Today, it’s about consuming the materialism of the season, which reinforces capitalist ideologies. But in Hitler’s Germany, the Nazis’ ability to smoothly refocus Christmas on its Germanic rather than religious derivations forced average Germans into unavoidable celebrations of “national community.” By doing so, this allowed the Nazis a remarkable and intimate route into the private and familial traditions of millions of Germans on an annual basis. By extracting the Christian meaning from the holidays, the Nazis could then supplant it with a cultish definition of national identity that was exclusionary, racist and violent.

While many Germans believed in Hitler’s doctrine and supported Nazi initiatives, and although “People’s Christmas” drew large crowds, I do not believe that this necessarily means that those Germans were outright Nazis.  Instead, they were engaging in a tradition they already wished to celebrate, and would continue to celebrate, regardless of the politics that surrounded or infused the occasion. The Nazis saturated every fabric of German life, and Christmas was no exception.

Of course, I write this as peel a mandarin “Christmas” orange and search on Amazon for a Christmas gift for my one-year old nephew (who is neither Christian nor old enough to understand the holidays).

Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays everyone!

 

Hidden Edinburgh: The World’s First School for the Deaf is in my back Garden

A few times a week, I walk down a quiet path through Edinburgh’s residential Southside. This well-used and well-maintained path follows the foot of the Salisbury Crags and offers a magnificent, up-close view of Holyrood Park. It’s also a stone’s throw from my flat.

This path borders one of the largest council-built estates in southern Edinburgh called “Dumbiedykes.” (Pronounced as dumm-ee-dykes). While this is a strange name, I had once been told that it derived from the fact that there was once an old school for the “deaf and dumb” nearby. (Of course, no one in modern PC language would ever call it that nowadays).

A tall stone wall separates this walk path from Queen’s Drive, the road that skirts the Salisbury’s Crags and is annoyingly closed every Sunday or during major events to all road traffic. (Often due to royal events at nearby Holyrood Palace, an inconvenient reality for us plebs who live so close to royalty).  Thus, a walker such as myself must walk along this wall when using the path. Here’s a crude representation:

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Upon closer inspection of this marvellous stone wall, you begin to notice the remnants of fireplaces, walls, and numerous inexplicable nooks and crannies that have no logical order.

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Can you spot the fireplace? Can you spot the commemorative plaque?

Every time I pass this wall, I try to imagine the stone cottages or stables that might have been attached to it so long ago.  Of course, just like so many other parts of Edinburgh’s dark grimy history and confusing urban landscape, I merely shrug my shoulders and continue my walk.

 

Not today, I vowed myself. Not today! 

After an afternoon of researching my local area, learning about this deaf school, its founder, and discovering British Sign Language’s status in Scottish society,  I thought a blog post would be a perfect forum for my findings.

Who founded this “deaf and dumb” school? When? And, why? 

Born in 1715 in South Lancashire, Thomas Braidwood studied at the University of Edinburgh and began a career in education to the children of wealthy families. At his home in Edinburgh’s Canongate, Braidwood privately instructed local students and especially enjoyed teaching mathematics. However, this changed in 1760 when a wealthy Leith wine merchant, Alexander Shirreff, asked Braidwood to teach his 10 year old deaf son, Charles, how to write.

Evidently, Braidwood was eager for the challenge. In 1764, he founded Braidwood Academy just south of the Royal Mile along a street called St. Leonards. The building, which came to be known as “Dumbie House,” was the very first (private) school for deaf children in Britain and, some claim, in the world.

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This drawing (1885) depicts Dumbie House (later named Craigside House), and it can also be seen on 1820s maps from Historic Environment Scotland.

Despite Braidwood’s good connections and enthusiasm towards this untapped educational market, Charles Shirreff (who would become a celebrated painter and portrait miniaturist) was his only pupil. However, soon enough, Dumbie House welcomed other wealthy pupils, including astronomer John Goodricke (1764-1786), Governor of Barbados Francis McKenzie (1754-1815, also Clan Chief of Highland Clan McKenzie, British MP, and a botanist with the Royal Society of London), and Scottish biographer John Philip Wood (1762-1838).

Remarkably, Braidwood became a pioneer in sign language. During the mid-18th century, deaf education mostly comprised of teaching how to speak clearly enough to be understood. But Braidwood’s new technique was unusual; he combined the vocal exercises of articulation with lip-reading and, for the first time, hand gestures that we recognise today as sign language. This combined system became the forerunner of British Sign Language (BSL).

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Dr. Samuel Johnson (1709-1784) suffered from poor health himself having contracted scofula (a form of tuberculosis) as a child. Despite hearing loss and bad eyesight, Johnson had a remarkable career as a writer. According to the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations, he is the second-most quoted Englishman in history.

Braidwood Academy also received attention from famous contemporaries. Sir Walter Scott mentioned Braidwood Academy in Heart of Midlothian (1818) and even the famous author, Dr. Samuel Johnson, described the school after a short visit en route to the Western isles: “There is one subject of philosophical curiosity in Edinburgh which no other city has to show; a College for the Deaf and Dumb, who are taught to speak, to read and to write, and to practise arithmetic, by a gentleman whose name is Braidwood. It was pleasing to see one of the most desperate of human calamities capable of so much help: whatever enlarges hope will exalt courage. After having seen the deaf taught arithmetic, who would be afraid to cultivate the Hebrides.”

Dumbie House eventually boasted 20 students, including women (Jane Poole, for example, set a major legal precedent when a court accepted her last will as valid, even though she had communicated her wishes to the drafter exclusively by fingerspelling as she was both deaf and blind – a massive victory for legal rights of the disabled in Britain). By 1780, Thomas Braidwood moved to London to begin a new school in Hackney. Notably, his three daughters also became teachers for the deaf and continued to practise his combined approach to new generations of pupils. Dumbie House continued to operate as a school until it was shut in 1873 and Dumbie House was demolished in 1939.

But Braidwood’s Influence Spreads Across the Seas….

Another very important Braidwood Academy pupil was Charles Green. Born deaf, Charles was the son of fourth-generation American and Harvard graduate Francis Green (1742-1809). Just prior to the American Revolution, the Green family moved to England and in 1780, Charles was enrolled at Braidwood Academy in Edinburgh.

Francis watched his son learn how to communicate orally, but was astonished at the speed of which sign language could allow his son to communicate with other students. He was so impressed, apparently, that Francis published a book anonymously that praised Braidwood’s work called “Vox Oculis Subjecta: A Dissertation on the most curious and important art of imparting speech, and the knowledge of language, to the naturally deaf, and (consequently) dumb; With a particular account of the Academy of Messrs. Braidwood of Edinburgh” in 1783. “Vox Oculis Subjecta” translates to “voice subjected to the eyes.” Francis wrote in the introduction that:

 “Man as a social being has an irresistible propensity to communicate with his species, to receive the ideas of others, and to impart his own conceptions.”

The first half of Vox Oculis Subjecta surveys the natural capacity of humans for language (quoting various famous authors extensively), and then describes Braidwood’s methods. As Braidwood himself never wrote about his own teaching practises, Green’s Vox Oculis Subjecta (1783) is invaluable record of deaf education.

Although Charles tragically drowned at age 15 while fishing, Francis continued to take an interest in deaf education. According to historians Melvia M. Homeland and Ronald E. Homeland, in the 1790s, Francis visited Paris and London to see how other institutions taught deaf students to communicate (The Deaf Community in America: History in the Making, p. 31). He eventually returned to the US. Before his death, he not only advocated through his writings for free education to all deaf children in America, but in 1809, had collected the names of 75 deaf individuals in Massachusetts (the first ever census of the deaf) with plans to start a school.

In 1812, just three years after Francis Green’s death, Col. William Bolling, who was a sibling to some Braidwood Academy’s pupils who studied alongside Charles Green, and himself a father of two deaf children, attempted the first US school for the deaf. Even Thomas Braidwood’s grandson, John Braidwood II, who had moved to America by then, assisted with the school. Although the school closed in 1815, it just two year later when another educationalist, Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet, successfully started what is considered today to be America’s first school for the deaf in West Hartford, Connecticut.

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This road sign, which serves history more than a practical purpose and is just meters from the remnants of Dumbie House, has a great deal more meaning for me now.

So What? 

It seems rather odd that such an instrumental school for deaf education and British Sign Language is so little acknowledged. When I stride past its demolished foundations and the fireplace in the stone wall, I note that its commemorative plaque was not installed there until 2015 (admittedly with a great turn out by the Lord Provost, British Deaf History Society, Deaf History Scotland, and multiple Scottish officials). But this delayed promotion of deaf history is inconsistent with the remarkable work of Edinburgh’s numerous charities and societies (Historic Scotland, National Trust, Old Edinburgh Club, Lost Edinburgh, etc) that are outstanding in their ability to conserve, protect and promote local history…

So perhaps my perception of Braidwood Academy’s neglect speaks to some of the larger attitudes towards disability. Of course, during the 18th Century, deafness – like all disabilities – was poorly understood and it wasn’t until institutions like Braidwood Academy that some began to realise that intellect was not affected by disability. Being deaf was certainly not synonymous with being “dumb.” Compounding this ignorance was the issue of class. Initiallly, only the rich could afford to educate their children at Braidwood Academy. Fortunately, in 1792, the London Asylum for the Education of the Deaf and Dumb Poor at Bermondsey, became the first public Deaf school in Britain. Again, Braidwood’s influence was also felt there too – it was one of his previous employees, Joseph Watson, who founded it.

British Sign Language (BSL) was not recognised as an official language by Westminster until 2003.  Ironically, Braidwood Academy’s Dumbie House is just half a mile from where the British Sign Language (Scotland) Act was passed unanimously in 2014 by MSPs in the Scottish Parliament – giving BSL the same legal protection as languages such as Gaelic. In Scotland today, an estimated 12,500 people speak BSL. However, in Wales and Northern Ireland, BSL has no legal status or protection.

While I’m pleased that BSL is legally protected and that a commemorative plaque was mounted on the original foundations of Braidwood Academy,  I do not believe that deafness, or disabilities in general, are given the recognition they deserve. But Braidwood’s remarkable influence on language, teaching and disabled rights is at least an excellent starting point for repositioning deafness as a critical aspect of Scotland’s broader history.  As Ella Leith, secretary of Deaf History Scotland, said at the unveiling of the plaque in 2015:

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“It’s partly about pride for the deaf community in seeing their history recognised, but also about raising awareness among hearing people that Scotland’s heritage should include deaf people too. Their heritage is as much part of Scotland as general heritage.”

 

 

 

Opportunities in Oral History Research: Guest Blog with Dr. Jane Judge

Have you ever asked a friend about “what happened!” on his/her latest date? Or listened to an interview with your favourite actor about their upcoming movie? Or asked your mother how on earth she baked her Yorkshire puddings so golden, puffy and gorgeous, while yours simply collapse in on themselves?

Believe it or not – so long as these events occurred in the past – then you’ve just conducted the impressive method of “oral history,” albeit very informally.

Oral history includes both the process of collecting testimony from living, breathing human beings, as well as the product itself, the narrative of past events.  

And although oral history, as both method and output, is the latest trend among historians, it can’t actually be confined to the study of history alone. Key witness testimonies in high-profile murder cases rely enormously on oral history.  Medical practitioners exploring the effects of new drugs, treatments and therapies rely enormously on oral history. Social workers and psychologists helping survivors of traumatic events often rely on the memories produced through oral history. As oral historian Lynn Abrams argues, “oral history has become a crossover methodology, an octopus with tentacles reaching into a wide range of disciplinary, practise-led and community enterprises” (Oral History Theory, 2010, p.2).

Although oral history is a vastly rewarding and highly deployable tool for nearly any discipline or purpose, it also comes at a cost. Professional scholars must often submit enormous ethics approval applications to their institutions or governments before even approaching a potential human subject for interview. Many aspects of interviewing can be volatile, emotional, and even dangerous (for example,  Dr. Erin Jessee’s fieldwork included gathering testimonies from Rwandans convicted of genocide while they were detained in Rwandan prisons!) And what happens to the interviewee if researchers ask unsettling questions – is there post-interview psychological support for the subjects (or even the interviewer) for example? These calculations of risk are absolutely essential to the ethical responsibility of any oral history project. And, of course, the goal is to cause minimal harm, which is often the general outcome (And for Dr. Jessee’s helpful tips about about managing risk, her advice here).

Despite some risks, oral history remains an invaluable tool.  Findings can influence new policies and initiatives, while researchers can harness its power as a versatile method to record history in action, bolster an organisation or government’s ethos and contribute to an initiative’s influence. In this sense, oral history can be one of the most dynamic instruments in a researcher’s arsenal, and profoundly utilised by multiple interdisciplinary stakeholders.

Dr. Jane Judge, a postdoctoral researcher in early modern history at the KU Leuven in Belgium, recently experienced the exhilarating power of oral history. Although the majority of Jane’s historical research has permitted her into fabulous dusty old libraries and national archives housing original sources with elaborate 18th Century handwriting, Jane has not been required to conduct interviews with real, living humans – until now!

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Dr. Jane Judge in her natural habitat of Leuven, Belgium.

Jane currently volunteers at the Fulbright Commission in Brussels, which is an independent body that, along with the US Embassies to Belgium and Luxembourg, as well as the Belgian and Luxembourg governments, administers the US State Department’s  Fulbright Scholarship Programs for Belgians and Luxembourgers going to the US, as well as Americans coming to these two countries. Since 1948, the Fulbright Commission in Brussels has connected and supported over 4,000 students, researchers, and teachers, while promoting international educational exchange and mutual understanding. 

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The Fulbright Program awards approximately 8,000 grants annually.  Approximately 370,000 “Fulbrighters” have participated in the Program (over 4,000 through the Belgium Commission) since its inception in 1946. For more information, visit www.fulbright.be 

Recently, Jane has been tasked with gathering stories from alumni of the Fulbright Commission in order to record and promote the program’s overall mission for the 70th anniversary celebrations that will take place next year. The idea is to highlight that it is the people that make Fulbright what it is as they engage in immersive experiences abroad and make human connections. This means that she has met over 15 very interesting people–and plans to meet at least 15 or 20 more–who, at some point in their lives, benefited from a Fulbright grant and the program’s international networks, financial support and scholarly community. 

In Jane’s quest to gather data from real human beings, various unanticipated surprises allowed her to discover a few crucial things about oral history, interviewing techniques and the value of human input. After musings over some of her most interesting findings, we both thought it would be highly appropriate to share some of these gems in a guest blog! Here are Jane’s discerning observations about this often-tricky but fruitful research method:

Before you began interviewing, what perceptions did you have about oral history in general? 

Jane: My perception of oral history generally was that it was messy, fraught with ethics issues and required intensive training to do well. As far as the Fulbright project itself, I didn’t have much choice in doing interviews. Because of the many stakeholders in this Fulbright Commission (there are commissions around the world implementing the Fulbright program in their locations), the office here already knew they wanted to focus on alumni and not the nuts and bolts history of the program. So, I didn’t really chose oral history, it chose me. That being said, the archives here are very rich, containing midterm and final reports from every grantee, as well as commentary from the offices here on American grantees that came to Belgium and Luxembourg until the 1980s. The project could have been done by just going through these and piecing together stories, pulling out interesting anecdotes. Given my background, that was much more in my wheelhouse and so I was a little apprehensive about doing interviews, especially with my rather negative preconceived notions about oral history. But I decided to see it as an opportunity rather than a challenge–an opportunity to learn and enact a new methodology, to travel throughout Belgium, and to meet lots of new people in new fields!”

Can you comment about the interview process – who, where, when, how?

Jane: Sure. The who should be fairly obvious at this point—Fulbright alumni! (Haha.) The first thing I did was go through the archive of somewhere between 3,000 and 4,000 alumni that past interns have digitized and picked out people who had dynamic profiles, represented diverse backgrounds, fields of study, and programs (undergraduates, graduates, research scholars, teachers, visiting professors, and newer summer programs). To the list that I compiled, we also added some notable alumni and some who had volunteered or been quite active as alums in the past. These included people from walks of life as diverse as being Deputy Prime Minister for Belgium or a Spanish Linguistics teacher. We have been in touch with alumni from every decade of Fulbright’s 70 years so far, so that’s quite exciting.  

As for the interviewing itself, I started with in-person interviews with people here in Belgium. Funnily enough, the first interview was actually an American alumna and her husband who happened to be here on holiday, but the others have all been Belgians that had Fulbrights to the States at one time or another. I go to them, meeting them either at their homes, offices, or a quiet comfortable cafe they know, at a time that’s mutually convenient. I record the audio of our conversations with my phone, so that part’s pretty straightforward, easy, and compact! We set the interviews up by first having either the Executive Director or the Program Director for Students get in touch via email, explaining the anniversary and the project, and then I follow up with an email about logistics. If they are up for being interviewed, I take it from there as far as setting up a time and place. For the Americans and Luxembourgers (and one very busy Belgian), I will and have done the interviews by phone or internet call. The interviews themselves are pretty organic. We want to cover their personal experience, how Fulbright has impacted their lives, and what they think the program can continue to offer. So I start by just asking them to introduce themselves and explain their relationship to the program (how are they “a Fulbrighter”?) and then I really let them go, guiding them if there’s dips or when we need to get back on track.

Were there any challenges in the interview itself that you had not predicted? If yes, how did you overcome them? 

Jane: I wouldn’t say there were challenges in the interview, as such. Everyone’s pretty enthusiastic and already very willing to talk about their experiences. The only things I could think of would be technical. One of the interviews took place over lunch, for example, so I worried that it wouldn’t record clearly in the cafe–this didn’t end up being a problem though, and the recording is crystal clear. I have had some trouble with the recordings of Skype interviews, but that’s, again, technical. With those interviews it’s also harder to have an official start and end of the recorded interview, since people feel like they’re chatting with me and so sometimes they start asking me questions about my experiences!

In your opinion, what was the best thing about interviewing your subjects?

Jane: Oh, by far hearing first-hand stories. I love the narrative that comes out of it. In much of my past work, I’ve had to piece together the story from snippets I’ve found in the archives. Here, I get to ask a question and then sit back and listen to a whole answer.

What would your top tips be to anyone about to conduct an interview?

Jane: Definitely get in touch with a modern historian (if you’re not one yourself), preferably someone who is already a trained oral historian. Check out the wonderful (credible!) resources available online, especially the Oral History Association and the Southern Oral History Program at UNC Chapel Hill. You were my first port of call, Chelsea, as a trained historian who was a member of the OHA, and you came through with aplomb. Definitely the best decision I made before embarking on this research adventure.

Would you ever volunteer to do it again?

Jane: Absolutely. I’ve had a complete blast doing these interviews. Even the transcriptions, though sometimes tedious and always time consuming, are fun. Since these people have fascinating stories to tell about travel, research, and all kinds of different experiences, it’s a pleasure to interview them and even to then relive that through transcription.

Finally, as a historian, what do you think that oral history achieves that archival research cannot? 

Jane: Follow up questions! This is by far my favorite part of oral history to this point. When you’re working in an archive, you can pose pointed questions, go searching through piles of papers people might never have wanted to see the light of day, and uncover secrets unabashedly. However, you cannot ask a single follow-up question or check with your subjects/sources that you are interpreting them correctly. In my own research into 18th-century revolutionaries, this means that there’s never any certainty that the way I interpret how some reacted to a given decree, for example, is the way they actually felt about it. With oral history, I can follow up when someone says or writes something that’s not entirely clear. I can ask them to connect dots and even answer an explicit question, rather than trying to figure out what they were implying later when I’m trying to write my analysis.

So what?

Jane touches on a great many qualities of oral history research that traditional archival research does not possess: listening to the “whole answer” rather than piecing together small fragments of history from a dusty archive, or understanding some of the emotional reactions behind certain people’s experiences, or verifying your own analyses of history by asking follow up questions, or even anticipating and minimising risks when interviewing in a café – these diverse observations demonstrate what we can gain from oral history and the multiple opportunities oral history presents to those wanting to learn from people who experienced the past.

How about a round of applause for Dr. Jane Judge’s perceptive analysis of her oral history experience? Many thanks, Jane!

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Surely Belgium’s world famous frites (or frieten in Flemish) are one of the best reasons for Fulbrighters to study in Belgium?

 

(Disclaimer: The views, thoughts, and opinions expressed in the text belong solely to the authors, and does not reflect any official opinion of Fulbright, EdUSA, or the US State Department or other groups or individuals).

The Battle of Vimy Ridge: History, Myth, Memorial and Remembrance

The Battle of Vimy Ridge was one of the costliest and most successful military engagements in Canadian history. Due to the extraordinary bravery of thousands of Canadians, the Battle of Vimy Ridge was hard-won against great odds. Today Vimy Ridge is commemorated in Canada as the defining moment when we shed the cloak of the British Empire and defined our own identity on the world stage as a victorious nation.

But.

History really is not the same as remembrance, as I discovered last June when I visited the battlefield. The Vimy Ridge memorial, built in 1936 on land donated by France to “all Canadian people,” has become enshrined in a national narrative honouring Canada’s “coming of age” and “birth” as a nation. With every new busload of Canadian tourists, British schoolchildren, curious Germans, this memorial perpetuates this narrative, while reminding us both the astounding scale of the First World War, and Canada’s role in that international conflict.

Once the feelings of overwhelming awe towards the immense bravery of all soldiers fighting in the First World War passes, and once you dig deeper into Canada’s exact reasons in 1917 for attacking this dreadful graveyard in France, and once you actually question what the hell so many young men were doing in such a devastating conflict, you begin to realise that the way we remember battles has become more important than the reality of what actually happened.

 The “Facts” that Fuel Canada’s National Narrative

Vimy Ridge was a heavily fortified seven-kilometre ridge in northern France that held a commanding view over the Allied lines. Previous attempts by the French to secure the ridge resulted in over 100,000 causalities, who lay in the open graveyard between the lines.

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Vimy Ridge on April 9, 1917. Canadian troops seen here advancing over no man’s land and through the German barbed wire whilst under fire. (Photo: Huffington Post).

The Canadian Corps spent weeks practising the attack. After the disaster at the Somme, British tactics were forced to change. Instead of relying on officers for leadership and strategy (many of whom had been slaughtered at the Somme), regular soldiers were now equipped with enough tactical details to adequately survive if their leader was killed in action.  For the first time, regular infantrymen were briefed on the terrain and maps, and encouraged to think for themselves. They were also armed with machine guns, rifle-men and grenade throwers, giving them more versatile tools to overcome obstacles.

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Prior to the Canadian attack on April 9th, 1917, the Canadian Corps had around 1,000 men working on 12 underground passageways. Each of the tunnels housed soldiers, ammunition, water, and communication lines, and most were lit by electricity.  See Valour Canada website for more details.

Elaborate tunnels in the rear lines (the longest being 1.2km in length) allowed for quick communication between rear and front line trenches. This also allowed for critical supplies to reach all the troops in the weeks leading to the attack.

But the chief reason for success was the devastating artillery barrage that isolated German trenches and forced German machine gunners to stay in their deep dug outs. A week before the attack, more than a million shells were fired at the German lines, and even targeted at the villages in the rear. The Germans called this “the week of suffering.”

The new artillery fuse (called 106) meant that shells detonated upon impact, rather than burying themselves in the ground, which meant that hard defences could be more easily destroyed. One Canadian observer recorded that the shells poured “over our heads like water from a hose, thousands and thousands a day.”

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British General Sir Julian Byng and the commander of the Canadian Expeditionary Force, warned before the attack on Vimy Ridge, “Chaps, you shall go over exactly like a railroad train, on time, or you shall be annihilated.”

On the morning of Monday, 9 April 1917 at 5.30am, four Canadian divisions, attacking together for the first time, overran the German line. Over 15,000 Canadians accompanied by one British division captured the highest part of the ridge (Hill 145) and within three days, the Canadians and British had won the ridge.

But Vimy Ridge was only victorious at a great cost. Nearly 4,000 Canadians were killed and 7,000 were injured.

The Facts Excluded from the Canadian Narrative

The Canadian War Museum website, the Vimy Foundation website, and the Veterans Affairs website of the Canadian government fail to mention German casualties or prisoners, or even recognise Britain’s involvement as anything but ancillary.

Exact figures for German casualties are unknown due to the destruction of records in the Second World War. But we know that 4,000 Germans were taken prisoner, while the Canadian Encyclopaedia estimates that 20,000 Germans were killed or wounded at Vimy Ridge.

One of the reasons for German defeat was the German Commanders’ failure to adequately use a newly introduced defensive tactic called “defence in depth.” Rather than stubbornly defending every foot of captured ground, German armies would allow attacking troops to probe into their territory just far enough to be beyond their supply lines — and then destroy them in a counterattack. The strategy was very effective, but the German defenders of Vimy were given the traditional order to “hold the line” at all costs. The German commander, Ludwig von Falkenhausen, was promptly reassigned after the defeat.

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Captured German prisoners after the Battle of Vimy Ridge, 1917. Photo credit: the National Post and Library and Archives Canada.

In the aftermath of Vimy Ridge, German soldiers were photographed smiling after being taken prisoner. This, despite the fact that Canadians had earned a grim reputation for killing those who surrendered. (For an excellent article on this, see Tim Cook’s The Politics of Surrender).  But smiling for the camera was no coincidence. A year previously, Germany had suffered through the “turnip winter”, when adults were living on just 1,200 calories a day. So, becoming a POW often meant receiving better rations. Also, the Germans had just undergone weeks of night attacks and raids on their trenches. They were obviously exhausted and relieved to be no longer fighting.

Despite Canadian proclamations of victory, Germans viewed Vimy Ridge as a draw rather than an outright defeat. Historians, such as Andrew Godefroy, admit that due to a lack of sources, it is difficult to fully reconstruct events on the German side. But he revealed that although General von Falkenhausen was assigned most of the blame for losing the ridge, other commanders including General Georg Karl Wichura and Oberstluetnant Wilhelme von Goerne, received medals for their leadership. Also, because the Canadians took the ridge but failed to break the German line, the Germany army recognized, to some degree, that Vimy Ridge had not entirely been a defeat.

Most importantly, the Battle of Vimy Ridge was strategically insignificant to the outcome of the war. Other battles, such as Amiens and Cambrai had far greater impact. As historian Andrew Godefroy writes in Vimy Ridge, a Canadian Reassessment: “To the German army the loss of a few kilometres of vital ground meant little in the grand scheme of things.” After Vimy Ridge, the repute of Canadian troops was certainly increased, especially as elite shock troops in 1918, but Vimy Ridge itself was not strategically important.

Commemorating Vimy Ridge: Let’s Build a Memorial!

After the First World War, nations devastated by conflict erected thousands of monuments (both large and small) to acknowledge those who died. France and Belgium donated sections of land to its allies for the purposes of commemoration. And Vimy Ridge was one of eight battle sites (five in France and three in Belgium) awarded to Canada.

In 1920, the newly established Canadian Battlefields Memorial Commission organized a competition for a Canadian memorial to be erected on each site. Walter Allward, an experienced sculptor and a well-known designer of memorials, won the competition in 1921. Due to Vimy Ridge’s vantage point, accessibility and significance, the Canadian Battlefields Memorial Commission decided that Allward’s memorial would be built at Vimy Ridge (although it did take 2.5 years to clear the 100 hectare land of unexploded bombs, some of which still remain there today).

After ten years of construction (it took two years to find a suitable quarry for the limestone, which, ironically, was located in Sarajevo, Yugoslavia where the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand and his wife had started the First World War), the memorial was completed in July 1936. 6,000 Canadians were given “Special Vimy” passports by the Canadian government to make the “pilgrimage” to the unveiling.

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Over 100,000 spectators attended the unveiling. His Majesty King Edward VIII and various Canadian representatives met with mothers whose sons had died. One veteran remembers: “The service lasted only an hour but never had anyone experienced one more solemn or moving” (Saburo Shinobu, Japanese Branch of the Canadian Legion).

Adorned with twenty sculptures, Allward’s memorial is topped by figures representing the universal virtues of faith, justice, peace, honour, charity, truth, knowledge and hope. The Christian symbolism is obvious and clearly references “traditional images of the Mater Dolorosa (the Virgin Mary in mourning), while the figure spread-eagled on the altar below the two pylons resembles a Crucifixion scene.”

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“Between the pylons stands a figure holding a burning torch. Entitled ‘The Spirit of Sacrifice’, it is a reference to one of the most famous poems of the Great War, ‘In Flanders Fields,’ by the Canadian Army Medical Corps officer, Lieutenant-Colonel John McCrae.” (Canada War Museum)

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Although not a part of the original design, over 11,000 names of all the Canadians who had died with no known grave are etched into the base of the monument. (Photo from Amerique Francaise)

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A maternal figure at the base of the memorial. Note the engraved names around the base.

In 1940, as German armies swept through western Europe, destroying many of the First World War monuments in its wake, Vimy Ridge was exempted. In fact, Hitler visited the monument and was so impressed that he apparently assigned Waffen SS guards to protect it. This prevented regular soldiers of the German army from defacing the monument.  As most of the Australian WWI graves and memorials had been destroyed by advancing German troops, this likely saved Vimy Ridge from a similar fate.

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Although saving the memorial was also a propaganda stunt to demonstrate Hitler’s goodwill to the conquered French people, perhaps we should all be a little more in awe of a structure that even Hitler himself wouldn’t destroy.

Although the sculpted figures need repair throughout the years, and the monument undergoes regular cleaning, even today the Vimy Ridge memorial looks brand new. Its white stones contrast the blue skies and rolling hills in the large valley below. Just a kilometer away, a new visitor’s centre offers tours to over 700,000 people a year by real Canadian guides. They take groups through the trenches, preserved as they were a hundred years ago.

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After the war, the trenches were preserved by pouring concrete into the original sandbags.

Myth Making of a Nation

While I would never minimise the great cost of human life associated to any battle, Vimy Ridge, as a cornerstone of Canadian national identity, is perpetuated by this imposing memorial and its regular commemoration. According to the Canadian Encyclopedia, the choice to build this memorial at Vimy Ridge “was a less a result of the battle’s importance than of Vimy’s extraordinary geographic location – a high vantage point with a commanding view, visible from miles around.” And, to be fair to the Canadian Battlefields Memorial Commission in 1920, it really is a glorious view.

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Canadian historian, Tim Cook, claims that Vimy Ridge was elevated above other Canadian battles, at least partly, for political and national purposes. He addresses the divergence between history and mythmaking in his new book Vimy: the Battle and the Legend (2017):

“Canada is a country – like most – that places little stock in its history, teaching it badly, embracing it little, feeding it only episodically. As Canada developed over time, we cast aside much that grounded us in the past; yet there are some ideas, myths and icons that persistently carry the weight of nationhood. Vimy is one of them.”

The meaning behind Vimy Ridge – whether a bloody sacrifice of countless young men in a war forced upon them by an outmoded commitment to Empire, or perhaps a remarkable story of miraculous nation-forging against all odds – is evolving through a process of forgetting and remembering. With every new busload of Canadian tourists, British schoolchildren, curious Germans, and bewildered Americans, Vimy Ridge is reinterpreted and reconceptualised again and again to the waves of spectators in awe of its remarkable history.

But what I asked myself, one hundred years after the Canadians had won this beautiful vantage point in France, while standing under its majestic pillars on a sunny day in June 2017:

What would we remember of Vimy Ridge if it wasn’t for this impressive memorial?

Vimy Ridge is both a lesson in history and a lesson in remembrance. While Vimy Ridge might unify the two in one immaculate feat of human creation, they are not synonymous. The Battle of Vimy Ridge was an epic victory, where men from each corner of Canada joined together for the first time in a victorious campaign against their sworn enemy. But it wasn’t entirely Canadian – it was led by a British officer and supplied by British provisions. And it wasn’t entirely a victory – it had no decisive impact on the war and the German lines remained intact. Despite those important details, remembering Vimy Ridge at this grand memorial is a testament to a country mourning the great loss of its youngest citizens.

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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. (See my blog “Dignity in the Holocaust: Themes of Resistance in Oral History Testimonies” on the Weiner Library‘s website).

 

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 saved 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.