Switzerland’s No-So-Secret Wartime Weapon: The Case of the Swiss-led Child Evacuations

Last month, the BBC published an article “Is this Switzerland’s Schindler?” about a Swiss man named Carl Lutz who used his position as an envoy for neutral Switzerland stationed in Budapest to issue letters to thousands of Hungarian Jews during the Second World War. These special letters extended Lutz’s diplomatic protection to those targeted for deportation. Lutz saved an astounding 62,000 Jews from being sent to the concentration camps.

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Crowds expecting to be deported gather outside Carl Lutz’ office in Budapest to get protective letters in late 1944 (photo credit). Notably, Carl Lutz not only issued letters to individuals and families, but also 76 buildings that housed these groups. The Glass House survives today as a result of Lutz’s intervention.

It’s a very remarkable story. Not only does it demonstrate the extent to which people in positions of power could sacrifice their own safety for the survival of total strangers, but it also exemplifies how Swiss citizens could mobilise their government’s neutral status in WWII to help victims of persecution.

Shortly after this article was published, a friend contacted me and, knowing that I studied Switzerland during the Second World War, asked me about Switzerland’s wartime humanitarian efforts: But Chelsea, didn’t the Swiss create the Red Cross? And weren’t they neutral during the war? If so, did they help protect Jews during the war through the Red Cross? And what about refugees fleeing the Nazis? Honestly, why didn’t every single person just pack their bags and move to Switzerland during the war?

These are all excellent questions. Switzerland’s neutrality certainly means that it had a unique position in wartime Europe. Combined with its history of humanitarianism (yes, it did create the International Committee of the Red Cross), and its convenient geography in central Europe (bordering Austria, Germany, France, Italy and Liechtenstein), Switzerland appears to be perfect hiding spot from the Nazis, and a country that could manoeuvre through tense wartime diplomacy to help victims of war. Well spotted, my friend.

Added to all these facts was (and remains) Switzerland’s strong legacy of banking (supported by valuable privacy laws). Foreign investors still flock to Swiss banks because of its centuries of neutrality (and thus financial stability during war), including foreign governments.  In fact, some scholars argue Switzerland’s ability to financially shelter governments’ investments was the single reason that it was not invaded during the war – Swiss banks were just too valuable to both the Allied governments and Nazi Germany’s financial health to even consider crossing one platoon into its little alpine territory.

So really, we have three non-negotiable factors that influenced (and continue to influence) Switzerland’s political actions: neutrality, humanitarianism and banking. Remarkably, Switzerland protected its geographic borders from invasion in both World Wars due to its ability to maintain amicable relationships with belligerent nations. It provided them with a neutral trading centre (ie. banks and foreign currency), as well as becoming an intermediary for international organizations, such as the League of Nations. This tradition still stands today.

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Today, if you’re lucky enough to be able to afford a trip to Geneva, you can walk past the United Nations (above), the headquarters of the World Health Organisation, the International Committee of the Red Cross, the International Labour Office and the World Trade Organisation – all a stone’s throw from the same street! (And you’ll have to walk because you won’t be able to afford anything else).

Although Switzerland’s neutrality, humanitarianism and banking can be seen as massive opportunities and methods to help others, they were often used as excuses by Swiss authorities to limit, evade, or reject multiple initiatives that would have saved countless lives during the Second World War.

However, in keeping with the optimism and sacrifice that Carl Lutz has shown the world, I will write about one extraordinary example where Swiss citizens overcame these limitations to provide refuge and relief to one of the most vulnerable groups suffering under Nazi rule – children.

Why would the  Swiss government reject humanitarian initiatives?

Ultimately, Switzerland feared being overrun by refugees. As Switzerland depended on warring countries for its imports (about 55%) and exports (about 60%), there was simply not enough resources to ensure its national survival if thousands of foreigners (even refugees) came to stay. Over half of the coal in Switzerland, for example, originated from Nazi Germany’s monthly shipments. Thus, Switzerland had to balance national survival with shrewd financial decisions. (For more on Swiss wartime economy, see Herbert Reginbogin’s [2009] Faces of Neutrality, and Georges-André Chevallaz’s [2001] The Challenge of Neutrality, Diplomacy and the Defense of Switzerland).

Similar to today, Europe was overwhelmed with refugees still displaced by the First World War, the Turkish-Armenian War, the Russian Civil War, and the impact of famines gripping eastern Europe. Similar to today, refugees were not simply a passing trend.

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Multiple charities helped refugees in the wake of the First World War. By 1921, when the Russian Civil War had produced countless refugees and starving children, the Save the Children Fund had found it’s stride. It campaigned on the big screen by showing films of the conditions children faced to British audiences. For a brief history, see here.

By the end of 1933, the first year of power for the Nazis, some 37,000 Jews had voluntarily emigrated from Germany as a direct result of increasing violence and persecution (RJ Evans, Third Reich in Power). With Germany’s introduction of the Nuremberg Laws in 1935 – stripping all Jews in Germany or Austria of their citizenship and thus making them stateless refugees in their own country – the world began to realise it had a growing refugee crisis on its hands, especially if Hitler’s militarisation of Germany continued to go unchallenged.  Despite this, countries like France and Britain were apathetic to the plight of these refugees, instead being more concerned with unemployment or other domestic issues (Claudena Skran, Refugees in Inter-war Europe). Sounds like the recent situation in Calais, no?

But refugees had protected rights. In 1933, refugees gained internationally recognised rights (to passports, for example) for the first time, granted by the League of Nations (which, notably, Germany withdrew from in 1933). But this did not equate to decent treatment or immediate asylum for refugees worldwide. In fact, it still doesn’t. (See how refugees today are treated in Libyan detention centres).

In 1938, President Roosevelt’s administration organized the Evian Conference in France to help coordinate efforts to facilitate the emigration of refugees from Germany and Austria.  But the conference was unsuccessful, because most participating nations seemed more concerned with turning the refugees away from their own borders or, in the case of Britain, by simply refusing to contribute to it (Skran, Refugees in Inter-war Europe, 280).

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Lord Winterton, the English representative at the Evian Conference, gives a speech to attendees (photo credit). TIME reported on 18 July 1938, “Britain, France, Belgium pleaded that they had already absorbed their capacity, Australia turned in a flat ‘No’ to Jews, and the U. S. announced that she would combine her former annual Austrian immigration quota with her German to admit 27,370 persons (who can support themselves) from Greater Germany next year.”

Switzerland’s delegate, Heinrich Rothmund (the Chief of Police and responsible for Swiss borders and immigration), argued that larger countries, such as the US, should absorb large numbers of refugees so that European nations could operate as merely transit countries. Seems logical, eh? However, this line of policy was not accepted.  By the time the Second World War broke out, very few legal stipulations existed which governed the admission and rejection of refugees, and, instead, refugees had to rely upon the decisions made by individual countries. The League of Nations, and the international community, had ultimately failed to protect refugees in time for war.

By late 1938, Rothmund’s idea to treat Switzerland as a transit country had failed.  Escalating Nazi persecution (and the annexation of Austria) caused more fleeing Jews to congregate at Swiss borders. At this point, Rothmund decided that all refugees without visas, especially Jews, would be rejected from Swiss borders. Switzerland then implemented a new, discriminatory method of stamping all Jewish passports and visas with a large J (J for “Jude” meaning “Jew”). This “J-stamp” method to clearly distinguish Jews from other refugees was recommended to Nazi officials by a Swiss legation in 1938. Unfortunately, the Nazis adopted this into their own immigration and deportation protocols. (For a collector’s example, see here).

Amidst public outcry, Switzerland closed its borders in August 1942, justified by Swiss authorities due to an alleged lack of resources. The border closures remain one of the darkest chapters of Swiss history as Swiss actions directly impacted refugees, forcing many refugees to face persecution and death (This was a major finding of a large 25-volume Swiss government-commissioned study in the 1990s, see here). And, in November 1942, when Germany invaded southern unoccupied France, fresh waves of refugees fled to Switzerland’s strictly controlled borders; most were turned away, resulting, for some, in eventual deportation to mass extermination camps. By late 1942, Swiss refugee policies slowly changed, but it was not until July 1944 that the border opened again fully to Jewish refugees.

Switzerland’s Wartime Dilemma: How to Help Refugees when Limited by (an anti-Semitic and anti-refugee) government?

Similar to so many countries today, private citizens vehemently disagreed with their government’s restrictive border controls to limit the intake of refugees. This friction provoked Swiss civilians to turn to non-governmental organizations to help victims of war they deemed worthy of their donations, relief and aid.

One key example is the “Swiss Coalition for Relief to Child War Victims” (Schweizerische Arbeitsgemeinschaft für kriegsgeschädigte Kinder, or Le cartel Suisse de secours aux enfants victimes de la guerre). A mouthful, I know, but let’s call this group the “Swiss Coalition.”

The Swiss Coalition was an alliance of seventeen Swiss charities that sought to evacuate children from war-torn Europe to Switzerland. Although it had operated successfully during the Spanish Civil War (evacuating over 34,000 child refugees of the Spanish Civil War to multiple host nations), this “new” Swiss Coalition was bigger, prepared and practiced. Importantly, remaining funds from its Spanish operations were liquidated and added to the new coalition’s purse.

In 1940, the Swiss Coalition began its remarkable work. Raising over 700,000 Swiss francs in one year alone, the Swiss Coalition appealed to the humanitarian spirit of the Swiss people. One initiative encouraged thousands of Swiss families to voluntarily host children from southern France (then unoccupied by Nazi forces) for three months in their own homes. This ingenious method bypassed Switzerland’s strict immigration controls, as the children would not be a perpetual national burden, as well as appearing more attractive to Swiss hosts, as the children would not be a permanent family commitment.

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When children arrived, they gave their information to Red Cross workers who then compared it to the transport manifest and reported it to immigration authorities. After medical screening and delousing at Swiss train stations, they received their first warm meal in Switzerland. (Photographer Hans Staub. Basel train station, circa 1942. CH-BAR J2.15 1969/7 BD116, Belgische Kinder kommen (nach Basel), circa 1942).

The measure was extremely popular among the public, and by November 1940, when the first evacuations from unoccupied France began, the number of families volunteering to host children actually outnumbered the children selected for evacuation. Thousands of families offered spots for French children; over 2,000 were offered in Geneva alone. By December 1941, the Swiss Coalition hosted more than 7,000 children in Switzerland, the majority of them French (Swiss Federal Archives, CH-BAR E2001D 1968/74 BD 16 D.009 14 and Antonie Schmidlin, Eine andere Schweiz, 137).

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Notice the fatigue from this little Belgian boy. The captain reads “Arrival of Belgian child convoys in a Swiss train station. The children have travelled all night, have slept little and are now hungry and tired.” (Photographer Kling-Jenny. CH-BAR J2.15 1969/7 BD116, Belgische Kinder kommen (nach Basel), circa 1942).

The success continued and operations enlarged. Surprisingly, Nazi authorities agreed to temporary evacuations from their occupied zone, as it was hardly an inconvenience for them; the Swiss operated and funded the evacuations and – crucially – Switzerland was neutral. In February 1941, child evacuations from German-occupied northern France began, and the Swiss Coalition was the first foreign agency allowed into blocked areas, such as Dunkirk, Calais and Boulogne.

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Medical assessment was the chief criterion for selection. Due to the typhoid epidemics in late 1940 and summer 1943 in northern France and rampant diphtheria during the winter of 1942-43, it was necessary to protect the children, and the Swiss hosts, from such diseases. (CH-BAR J2.15 1969/7 BD 114, Kindertransporte aus Frankreich, March 1942).

In 1942, Belgian children suffering under Nazi rule were now evacuated. Generous donations from Swiss citizens continued to pour in and the Swiss Red Cross joined the operations. This was an important moment because it meant that the national Red Cross infrastructure (and doctors) could be utilised. This was certainly a formidable humanitarian operation.

Strict immigration controls still existed though. By mid 1942, Kinderzüge, or special Children’s Trains, were only allowed to travel one day per week. It had to be the same day every week. Maximum 830 per train. Only 1 adult per 30 children. According to Heinrich Rothmund’s office, there was to be absolutely no deviation from the following criteria:

  • Only children with appropriate identity papers (passports) that allowed them to return to France or Belgium could be selected. This was difficult for stateless groups, such as Jewish families who had left fled Germany or Austria for France. Importantly, this meant that no German-Jews could be evacuated. This also ensured that no child became a responsibility of the Swiss government.
  • Poor health was the sole criterion for selecting children (secondary to having the correct identity papers, of course).
  • Children had to be selected by Swiss Coalition doctors and medically screened upon arrival in Switzerland.
  • Children had to be 4 years to 14 years old.
  • Swiss Federal Police have the full authority to reject children upon entry on any grounds for any reason.

Once the children arrived in Switzerland, there was a host of additional criteria they had to follow while residents in Switzerland. While you could argue that these pedantic rules prevented children from becoming lost or abused by their hosts, it also meant that no one could abuse this temporary system of asylum. No Swiss host could extend a child’s stay, for example.

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Rothmund specified that Medical Corps of the Swiss Frontier Guards (above) had to deem the children physically poor in order for admission into Switzerland. If entry was refused, then children were not to cross the Swiss border and were immediately returned to their home country. I’ve found no direct evidence to reveal that children were rejected. (CH-BAR J2.15 1969/7 BD116, Belgische Kinder kommen (nach Basel), circa 1942).

Despite the impressive enterprise, the Germans terminated the evacuations from Belgium in May 1942 and from France in October 1942. Their justification was based upon the belief that children in Switzerland would become politically incited with anti-German sentiments. (Yep, really).

The Nazis’ termination of these three-month evacuations coincided with Swiss border closures in late 1942. (But it is important to point out that some children gained entry into Switzerland, including those admitted due to tuberculosis and others sent through another initiative led by Pro Juventute). It was not until July 1944 when the Swiss Coalition resumed the three-month evacuations.

In total, over 60,000 French and Belgian children benefitted from these temporary child evacuations (including some from Yugoslavia) during the Second World War. In the post-war period, this was expanded to other war-stricken nations and an additional 100,000 children were welcomed to Switzerland from 1945 to 1949.

So what?

While I discuss Switzerland at length here, the obligations among so-called “neutral” nations to help refugees is not just about Switzerland. If we put any nation under a microscope, we will discover many unwelcome truths about its immigration policies. Assigning responsibility (and culpability) for who did or did not protect refugees, including Jews, is a tricky exercise, especially when discussed on such a large, international scale.

Perhaps Swiss historians say it best. When ascribing responsibility for Switzerland’s lack of action to protect vulnerable groups, notable Swiss historian Edgar Bonjour argued that the entire generation of Swiss made it possible for the democratic government to create such refugee policies. Historian Stephen Mächler (Hilfe und Ohnmacht, 440) pushes this further to criticize “the entire globe,” as everyone opposed welcoming refugees, especially Jews, making it nearly impossible for Switzerland to do anything but to create similar refugee policies. However, as Georg Kreis argues (Switzerland and the Second World War, 113), if all are responsible, then ultimately no one is responsible

Let’s return to our “Swiss Schindler”. As a diplomat working from a Swiss consulate in Budapest, Carl Lutz was protected by international law and granted immunity to local conflict, as any diplomat should be treated. But, importantly, only neutral governments during the Second World War could act as protective powers. As Lutz was the citizen of a neutral government, this meant that his Swiss embassy in Budapest acted as an intermediary and/or protective power for other warring nations without diplomatic representation in Hungary. (This system still operates today; a Canadian pastor was recently released in North Korea via the Swedish embassy because Canada designated Sweden to be its protective power). Therefore, Carl Lutz’s citizenship to neutral Switzerland played an incredibly critical role in the lives of 62,000 Jews.

Remarkable initiatives like the Swiss Coalition, and the actions of Swiss citizens like Carl Lutz, Paul Grüninger, Hans Schaffert, Roslï Näf, and so many others, deserve great attention. They not only sacrificed their own personal comfort, safety and even careers, but they discovered cunning ways to capitalise on their Swiss neutrality for the protection of thousands of people. In this sense, their humanitarianism (and courage) seems amplified. Neutrality was not a limitation or excuse to not intervene, but actually an influential weapon that could be used, if in the right hands.

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.