Children in Nazi horror: "I'll give you my bread, mom"

"Man does not live by bread alone", says the Bible.

Oliver Thansan
Oliver Thansan
25 May 2023 Thursday 22:25
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Children in Nazi horror: "I'll give you my bread, mom"

"Man does not live by bread alone", says the Bible. This is the quintessential symbol of our livelihood. And of life and death. The Bible also says: “You will earn your bread by the sweat of your brow until you return to the same land from which you came. Dust you are and to dust you will return. In World War II it was very clear that a simple loaf of bread could be a lifeline. That is what this chronicle is about.

About that and about the thin line that sometimes separates life from death. And also of human beings, who are capable of the best and the worst. Can you imagine an 11-year-old boy abruptly separated from his family and subjected to a thousand cruelties? And can you imagine that the same child was only worried about one thing: trying to save bread and deliver it to his mother? Don't imagine it. Has occurred.

Yad Vashem, in Jerusalem, is a museum about the Holocaust and the World Center for the Remembrance of the Shoah. His records include hundreds of thousands of examples of struggle and hope, of death and survival. Endless families destroyed by barbarism defy oblivion here, such as those of Yehiel Mintzberg, Marina Smargonski and Valentina Zbar (the portraits of the three child victims of Nazism that open this chronicle).

To browse the Yad Vashem website is to peer into the abyss. Let's take a random example. For example, the Rapaports, German Jews from Hanover. The father, Moritz-Moshe, was imprisoned and later deported to Eastern Europe, where he lost track of him; his mother, Miriam, fell ill and was hospitalized. Resi, one of her daughters, was sent to England in the hope that her siblings would soon join her.

But the rain washed away the dream of England, like so many others in that storm of steel. One of the sons, Paul, ended up in Auschwitz, where he died. The mother and her two other little ones, Paula and Siegfried, were sent by cattle train to the Stutthof concentration camp in Poland, the last one liberated by the allies, on May 9, 1945. At least 85,000 of the 110,000 deportees received did not come out of there alive.

Siegfried, who was 11 years old, was separated from his mother and sister, but kept in touch with them through clandestine mail. One of his letters is kept in the Yad Vashem archive: “Dear Mom, how are you? I'm fine. I received your two letters. I hope your stomach doesn't hurt anymore. I think you need bread. I'll go to block 3. I have enough, so don't worry. When I get some bread I'll send it to you."

The boy only asked for one thing in return: that his mother send him paper so that he could write more. His barracks were to be fumigated and the cracks in the doors and the cracks in the windows were sealed with strips of gummed paper. Siegfried tore off one of those long, narrow strips. He used it to send his message in a childish handwriting unbecoming of the man that adversity had already turned him into, so untimely.

The letter ends like this: “Mom, I send a kiss to you and Paula. Soon we will be roasting potatoes again in sewing workshop number 3”. Neither did those hopes come true. As the thousand-year Third Reich crumbled, many deportees were sent to Germany on what were known as death marches. One of the protagonists of this series, the boxer Young Pérez, died in one of those marches.

That little 11-year-old man, the anonymous hero of Stutthof, also died of exhaustion in another of those long human columns. Her mother died of typhus two weeks after the liberation of the camp, on May 13, 1945. Paula, who outlived her mother and her brother, treasured the letter. Before she died, she gave it to her sister Resi, who in turn donated it to the Jerusalem Holocaust Museum.

A child and a bit of bread sum up the best of the human being. It is not necessary to go far to find the opposite face. Yad Vashem also contains the testimony of Sephardic Robert Bonfil, who lived in Greece under a false identity during the first months of the occupation. On a train ride, he and his parents saw some Jews doing forced labor and a loaf of bread was thrown at them. A Nazi officer killed the bastard who picked it up.

Does that officer represent the worst of the human being? It is terrible, but there are still greater examples of dehumanization. Readers of historian Raul Hilberg (1926-2007) will find plenty of examples. Two of the main works of this researcher, about a Polish-Romanian Jewish family that was able to flee to the United States in time, in 1939, are The Destruction of European Jews (Akal) and Executors, Victims and Witnesses (Arpa).

The Nazis studied what rations to provide to the inhabitants of the Warsaw ghetto, the largest in Europe: more than 400,000 people at its peak. This was one of the proposals per inhabitant: “1,050 grams of bread a week, 300 grams of sugar a month, one egg a month, one hundred grams of jam a month, 50 grams of butter a month, a dozen potatoes a year . And fish and vegetables when possible.

Does the person who wrote that list represent the worst of human beings? Neither. The situation in the Warsaw ghetto became so bad that bread became the most prized item on the black market and ended up being sold by slices. There was not enough money to buy groceries. As long as they could put something in their mouths, the luckiest got rid of everything they had: jewelry, furniture, mattresses, pans and pots...

The rules changed suddenly in the ghettos. In Kaunas, Lithuania, a truck with a loudspeaker announced in March 1944 that anyone loitering on the streets without justification would be executed. “The children!” the mothers shouted. Una arrived in time to see her three children taken away and begged for mercy. "Choose one," she replied. This one yes. This is, without a doubt, the worst vileness to which a human being can reach.