Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Food was always an issue

 (16th in a series)
      Many people who knew my parents knew this: They loved to eat.
      They loved to eat at home; they loved to eat out; their tastes were diverse. My mother loved to cook and -- yes, I'm biased about this -- she was good at it. My wife says "good" isn't a strong enough description ... "she was an excellent cook."
      We rarely lacked for good meals, and what my mother really loved was sweets -- especially pastries, the cookies and cakes she learned to make in Holland. Beatrice's opinion again: "She was a superior pastry chef."
       And here is my theory: When you go basically three years without much to eat and when what you are given to eat is basically crap, if you survive this ordeal, you appreciate whatever comes afterward.
       Three years away from home, most of it spent at the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp or the satellite camps near it, left my parents -- like the millions of other Holocaust prisoners -- famished.
        I know I'm repeating myself here -- and I probably will write this several more times, but how did they survive, how did they deal with this, how did they find their way out, how did they rebuild their strength, and their lives?
        Watching my Dad's 1996 USC Shoah Foundation interview, he repeatedly makes reference to food -- or the lack of it -- and how the prisoners bargained for it, traded for it, tried to keep their meager rations hidden, and how grateful they were when someone -- such as the Dutch boxing champion Leen Sanders who I wrote about it in the previous chapter of this series -- provided them with extra helpings.
      Dad (Louis Van Thyn) mentions some of the specifics -- the black bread, sausage and leftovers from the kitchen. My mother (Rose) always talked about the "soup" that was served. "They called it soup," she would say. "I called it mud."
      This is a description of the food from the web site of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum:
Examples of the type food the Holocaust prisoners were
fed -- the brown bread, a pat of margarine, the "soup" or as
my mother called it, the "mud." (from webflakes.com)
      "Inmates were always hungry. Food consisted of watery soup made with rotten vegetables and meat, a few ounces of bread, a bit of margarine, tea, or a bitter drink resembling coffee. Diarrhea was common. People weakened by dehydration and hunger fell easy victim to the contagious diseases that spread through the camp."
      More about that from a web site entitled webflakes.com, describing a present-day trip to Auschwitz and the food regimen there:
      "-- Breakfast included a coffee infusion, something insipid and bad.
       -- Lunch consisted of rotten vegetable soup that most said tasted like vomit.
       -- Dinner was a piece of bread (made mostly out of sawdust) and margarine or butter. Every now and then there was sausage made with the excretions of the prisoners, which is why they always had diarrhea."
      Just as he talked in awe of Leen Sanders, my Dad remembered a couple of others in the camp who did favors for the prisoners.
      In his Holocaust interview, Dad said, "There were two gentile butchers -- their name was Bateman, they were in Auschwitz, and after the war, I saw them again in Amsterdam -- and they did many people favors. We brought them socks from the tailor shop, we smuggled socks out, and we exchanged [for food].
      "There was one boy there, his name was Rabi -- and I know him later in Amsterdam -- and he had a job in Auschwitz feeding the pigs," he added. "And he took the food from the pigs; that was good food, and [gave] it to us."
      Pig food ... better than what the Nazis provided the prisoners? Hard to imagine. But when you're really hungry, slop will do.
      Leen Sanders, given special privileges as a noted boxing champion in Europe and made a block "elder," credited what he did -- regularly stealing food and goods from the Nazis right there in camp -- to being "an organizer." And Dad uses the same term in describing how the prisoners did what they could to survive.
      "We were off [work] at about 5 or 6 o'clock, and we'd go walking for an hour [when] I was still in the tailor shop [in the main Auschwitz camp]," he said. "One [person] helped the other one. You could not help everybody, and nobody could help you all the time. You had to organize many things, and we worked good together. That was one of the benefits I got in the camps."
      (Next: Everyday life in the camp)


  1. From Sid Huff: What an incredible story. It is still hard to imagine one group of, supposedly, HUMAN beings treating another group like that. I don't have to tell you the danger of "history" glossing over this horrible time. I admire greatly your parents who gave a new definition to the word "persevere."

  2. From Joe Raymond Peace: Amazing, that is hard as it gets. Can't imagine how they survived. I know many did not.

  3. From Karen Dye (and Bill): We are both reading the accounts you are sharing of your parents with great interest. This should never be forgotten, and I'm so glad you are sharing it.

  4. From Sylvia Pesek: I can never wrap my head around what people are capable of doing to each other. I often think the word "humane" is the most inappropriate word in the English language, for what other species is as capable of conducting such deliberate atrocities against others of its kind? Only our closest evolutionary kin, the apes, seem to come close. Oh, I know every species seems to fight for territory or food or whatever necessities are in scant supply, but I can think of no other one that simply decides for no good reason to exterminate others of its kind. I think this planet would have been bereft of life long ago if that was the case.

  5. From Tim Hall: I've enjoyed your series on your Dad's experiences. As many of us have, I studied the Holocaust in history classes, but this series has brought a new level of understanding to the inhumanity of it all.