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 a 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 reconceived food in order to survive 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.

 

Why Save the Children’s Graphic Photos Still Work Today

There is a massive famine and outbreak of cholera currently in Yemen. The United Nations recently calculated that over 20 million Yemenis are in need of immediate assistance. To put this in perspective, Yemen is a country with only 28 million people. That means that two thirds of an entire country are suffering to such a degree to require international assistance. Incredible.

In the background of this massive crisis is a civil war. In January 2015, decade-long tensions erupted between a separatist group named the Houthis (a Zaidi Shia Muslim minority) and the authoritarian president Mr. Hadi. After the Houthis surrounded the presidential palace and placed the government under house arrest, Saudi Arabia intervened and is now leading another eight Sunni Arab states in a bombing campaign to restore power back into the Yemeni government’s hands. And civil war continues to this day.

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The city of Taiz has been ravaged by two years of battles between forces loyal to President Hadi, Houthi rebels and al-Qaeda

Importantly, a major port in the south called Hodeidah was seized by the Houthis. This port supplies Yemen with over 80% of its food imports. The Saudis won’t let relief ships dock there because the supplies would fall into the Houthis’ hands. This has delayed life-saving supplies for months.  Currently, the UN Security Council is trying to intervene to claim the port as strictly neutral. Let’s hope they can succeed.

In the last two years, hospitals and clinics have been destroyed. Government health officials have not been paid in a year. The basic necessities of life, like clean water and food, are a daily struggle to obtain. Cholera, which is spread by contaminated water, can kill within hours if untreated. By August 2017, it has infected more than 425,000 Yemenis and killed 1,900. And the situation is growing so severe that Oxfam calculates those infected with cholera could rise to more than 600,000 (which would exceed Haiti in 2011). The situation is obviously very grim.

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These Yemeni women queue for clean water. Rowa Mohammed Assayaghi, a medical microbiologist at Yemen’s Sana’a University is teaching people how to wash their hands. “Focusing on health awareness is one of the most important measures to follow,” she says.

Calls for relief from various NGOs and charities are spreading throughout the West. I’ve noticed it more recently, even on my Facebook feed. But with more than one million malnourished children under the age of 5 living in areas with high levels of cholera, charities are getting desperate. Pictures of emaciated Yemeni children are now popping up repeatedly on news websites and social media everywhere. It’s heart-breaking to watch, and uncomfortable to see (especially after I Instagram my latest foodie pic).

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A mother carries her son Imran Faraj, 8 year-old, who is suffering from malnutrition at a hospital in the port city of Hodeidah. This photo is from an Independent article in June.

When inundated with these grim photos, it sadly echoes so many other previous campaigns we may remember from past: AIDS orphans, Rwandan genocide victims, displaced children in the Sudan, starving children in Somalia, and so many others. But it’s effective. By pushing the suffering and starvation of the world’s absolute poorest children upon the western world, charities are using a remarkable game-changing strategy first used by Save the Children in the early 1920s. It changed both how we perceive children, and how we perceive ourselves. But first, the history…

Immediately after the First World War began, the Allies/Entente Powers blockaded Germany and Austria, meaning they did not send supplies, exports or any traded goods to their enemy. Much like Saudi Arabia is doing to Yemen today, blockading supplies was an effective economic weapon, especially against countries (like Germany) that depended heavily upon imports to feed its citizens.

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A Berlin butcher’s shop is looted in 1919. A combination of bad harvests and incompetent regulation of food distribution, in addition to the British blockade, made the situation far worse.

The First World War was slow-moving, hard-fought and resulted in massive causalities. An estimated 10 million people were displaced during the war. And despite the Armistice in November 1918, the food blockade against Germany and Austria continued and did not end until Germany signed the Treaty of Versailles in June 1919. That eight month period between the “end of war” and the “start of peace” resulted in mass starvation among the children of Germany and Austria.

For example, a Swiss doctor of the International Committee of the Red Cross, Dr. Frédéric Ferrière, reported that out of nearly 60,000 children examined in 1918 in Vienna, only 4,637 had been in good health. In other words, 93% of children were in bad health. (For more, see André Durand’s History of the International Committee of the Red Cross from Sarajevo to Hiroshima).

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Eglantyne Jebb (1876-1928) spent many years working for charities before founding Save the Children. Despite her good education and well-to-do British background, Jebb found that she was a poor teacher and not fond of children. Ironically, she became one of their chief champions in modern history.

Meanwhile, one of the first women educated at Oxford, Eglantyne Jebb, had worked for charities for years and was growing concerned about the fate of German and Austrian children under the blockade. We must remember that Germans (“the Huns”) were Britain’s national enemy for four long years. Thus, to overlook this and consider the suffering of the Germany and Austria’s children was quite remarkable. Jebb formed the Famine Council on 1 January 1919 with the direct desire to end the British blockade.

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The front page of the Detroit Sunday News on 29 June 1919

But Jebb soon discovered that her new council was not very effective. Numerous British charities were pleading for donations for various causes in 1919, such as for veterans returning home who were disabled and jobless, or countless families that fell into poverty after the war. Distributing leaflets with dense information, and by collaborating with churches and clubs to get members to donate, these various charities relentlessly campaigned for vulnerable groups. Jebb’s message was not only drowned out by the various other charities, but people were not rising above their national interests, their national prejudices, their national perspectives, to care for foreign children. Children, especially foreign ones, were often the last priority.

But Jebb and her sister, Dorothy Jebb Buxton, found a remarkable solution. They took to the streets of London and circulated a graphic “Starving Baby” leaflet. Instead of using dense text to explain her campaign to readers, Jebb plastered a large photo of a starving, desperate and pitiful 2-and-a-half-year-old Austrian baby on her leaflet. This image was haunting and even caught the attention of the local police. Although they were both arrested for spreading “unpatriotic propaganda,” Jebb (acting as her own attorney) argued the leaflets were not political, but humanitarian. The judge gave her a light fine of £5 and she reportedly felt victorious.

This was the beginning of a new type of campaigning. This was a new type of humanitarianism.

Starving Baby Leaflet

This leaflet was an unconventional way to provoke attention and revolutionised how charities campaigned for children. You may notice that Jebb does not identify the child as Austrian.

On 15 April 1919, Jebb founded the Save the Children Fund. This charity was the first to promote an abstract image of a “child.” It was the first charity to present children a symbol, an universal archetype, which were worthy of humanitarian relief, irrespective of race, nationality or creed.

Meanwhile, various noteworthy international organisations gathered in Switzerland.  They adopted neutrality and impartiality as a key strategy to facilitate relief and prevent further war. Even Save the Children moved its headquarters from London to Geneva symbolise its separation from political powers. Humanitarian historians Emily Baughan and Juliano Fiori claim that Save the Children’s apolitical approach meant that the “innate innocence and value of children (prevented) popular opposition to its humanitarian activities.” (“Save the Children, the humanitarian project, and the politics of solidarity,” in Disasters, 39 (S2): 132). For who, indeed, would oppose such humanitarian action for children?

Herbert Hoover’s relief programs, which had been incredibly successful in Belgium, also provided American food aid to Austrian children. However, relief was given in exchange for gold in 1919, which drained what little remained in Austria’s coffers in the aftermath of the war (see William E. Leuchtenburg’s Herbert Hoover). But Save the Children channelled its relief towards those same children without compensation or political gain.

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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. It was unlike anything else seen at the time.

By depoliticizing the Save the Children charity and the concept of suffering children, the response for famine relief for children was considerably successful, especially in Russia. Although no humanitarian organisation can ever be entirely apolitical (!!!), Jebb and Save the Children had found a way to overcome the nationalist and prejudiced perceptions of its donors. The archetypal child had been born.

The idea of the “universal child” was also strongly defined by the Declaration of the Rights of the Child in 1924. Much like Moses descending from the mountain, the story goes that Eglantyne Jebb returned from a walk in the hills around Geneva and wrote five famous articles:

  1. The child must be given the means requisite for its normal development, both materially and spiritually.
  2. The child that is hungry must be fed; the child that is sick must be nursed; the child that is backward must be helped; the delinquent child must be reclaimed; and the orphan and the waif must be sheltered and succoured.
  3. The child must be first to receive relief in times of distress.
  4. The child must be put in a position to earn a livelihood and must be protected against every form of exploitation.
  5. The child must be brought up in the consciousness that its talents must be devoted to the service of its fellow men.
Declaration of Rights of the Child

Jebb’s Declaration (1924), pictured here, also formed the basis of the ten-article Declaration of the Rights of the Child adopted by the United Nations on 20 November 1959, some 40 years after the foundation of the Save the Children Fund.

On 26 November 1924, this Declaration was approved by the League of Nations. The members of the League were not obligated to integrate the Declaration into their own national legislation, so it did not guarantee any changes to national laws. But historian Bruno Cabanes (The Great War and the Origins of Humanitarianism, 1918-1924) argues that the 1924 Declaration singled out the protection and welfare of children as priorities for the international community and, ultimately, was more significant for its moral import than for its legal weight.

So what?

The methods of Save the Children really has saved the children. Due to the Jebb’s honest, graphic but highly impartial approach, children from all over the world are valued, regardless of their race, class or religion. Although this may not guarantee that everyone generously donates to children’s charities, it does, at the very least, overcome many nationalist and racial prejudices. And, what’s incredible is that it’s still effective today! Whether it’s a starving Austrian child due to a blockade, a African orphan of AIDS,  a drowned Syrian child on a beach, a war-stricken bombed out boy in an ambulance in Aleppo, or now Yemeni children with cholera in the midst of civil war, we can go past many labels and prejudices to see them for what they are – children.

To a certain extent, this also changes how we perceive ourselves. By promoting the concept of the “universal child” it also simultaneously reinforces the concept of a “universal guardian.” Human cultures fundamentally protect and provide for society’s most vulnerable members.  By reacting to these images of starving children with dismay and shock, and by feeling a sense of injustice, then the viewers are also imparted with a sense of responsibility. Children cannot protect or provide for themselves so we – the guardians – must intervene.

Children’s rights today are still evolving world-wide. Over 100 million children work in hazardous conditions and have no access to education. Thousands are child soldiers. Some states imprison children as young as 12 years old. Over half of today’s 65 million refugees are children.

Although Eglantyne Jebb may have been discussing starving German and Austrian children, her words are still present in today’s campaigns for Yemeni children: “The only international language in the world is a child’s cry.”