The following article is written as a follow-up for the 4th edition of ‘Elie Wiesel Study Tour’, project organised by American Councils in Romania.

Smuggling for survival

-Methods of infiltrating illegal food in jewish ghettos and concentration camps-

The destruction caused by the German army and its allies to the Jews in the European space, during the Second World War, brings to the surface the immeasurable acts of discrimination that this people faced. One of the main methods by which the Jews, as well as the other oppressed minorities, tried to survive another day under the German administration, was smuggling of various vital objects, especially food.

The year 1941 marked the beginning of the Holocaust, Shoah in Hebrew, the greatest genocide of all time that targeted the Jewish population. With the establishment of Adolf Hitler as Chancellor of Germany in 1933, the consolidation of a well-structured system of ghettos and concentration camps gained momentum. 6 years later, the start of the war facilitated the expansion of this system in countries, thanks to allies and the dominance of the German army. Countries included are Poland, Czechoslovakia, Austria, Hungary, Romania and others. The following process led to the loss of about 6 million Jewish lives, two-thirds of Europe’s total population.

Children in concentration camp liberated by Red Army

For 5 years they were persecuted, discriminated against and treated in the cruellest ways, but these sufferings did not take place with the seizure of power by the German Nazis, but there is a whole history of anti-Semitism. With the crucifixion of Jesus in Jerusalem, the Jews were blamed for this deed, repudiated last century in the 1960s by the Second Vatican Council. But for almost 2 millennia, the guilt of this people has spread many disastrous events. Of note are: The exile of Jews in England in the late thirteenth century, by order of King Edward I, the blame for the bubonic plague in the fourteenth century, or “black death”, the construction of the first Jewish camps in Germany in the fifteenth century for subjugation and exclusion: “Frankfurter Judengasse”, but also the countless pogroms: Odessa 1821, the first event of this kind marked as “pogrom”, Iasi 1941, over 8000 Jews killed under the command of General Ion Antonescu.

Undoubtedly, World War II caused the greatest suffering to the Jewish people. The camps and ghettos concentrated whole masses of people without any possessions, exploited to the point of exhaustion and supported by a very poor ration of food. Rationalization, a key part of the Holocaust, is a method of subjugation adopted before the genocide began. The diet in Polish ghettos did not exceed 250 grams of bread a day, 250 grams of sugar per month, a few potatoes or, from time to time, beets, based on a ration card. At the same time, soups that did not exceed more than a few dozen calories were distributed. However, not even 10% of the required daily diet was covered. Thus, the Jews could either chose to sell everything they had at minimal prices to German soldiers, or smuggle from abroad, with considerable risk.

Over time, many stories of Jewish survivors about how they brought various foods into the ghettos have gathered. Flora Singer, a survivor of German command in Belgium, writes for the ‘United States Holocaust Memorial Museum’ about the beginning of rationalization, an experience lived at the age of 10. The Jewish ghettos were closed with high fences which were built with their money. One of the few sources of food, apart from the Germans, was across the French border, in Lille. The process of obtaining supplies was facilitated by several people so that Flora and her mother would not be discovered. Once arriving at the last train station to France, they crossed the border on foot during the night. The next day they reached Lille and managed to buy supplies from several places. The return was much harder. The help of German soldiers was crucial. At the request of Flora’s mother, whose husband became a prisoner of war, they accepted the transfer of the food bag, which was possible because the soldiers’ bags were not checked. Not every time they could take advantage of the goodwill of some soldiers. In one of the tensest experiences, they had to cross the border with supplies, but in a moment of pressure, Flora managed to cross without being checked, due to her childish behaviour.

From another perspective, the life of Tibor Max Eisen is also considerable. He spent part of his adolescence in the heart of the German camps: Auschwitz I, Auschwitz II-Birkenau, but also in Austria at Melk and Ebensee, where he was released. The experiences are recorded in his book, ‘By chance alone’. In his case, the food of the concentration camps was radically reduced. In Auschwitz I, they were greeted by the camp gate, with the message “Arbeit Macht Frei” (Work frees you), and by a men’s orchestra. As a result, they were taken to a barracks to explain the horrible punishments for disobeying orders. After the distribution of the clothes and the “appel” (counting of the detainees), towards the end of the day, they were offered dinner. It consisted of ‘a cup of diluted coffee, a thin slice of bread and a tiny cube of margarine’. In these conditions, smuggling was often met, about which Max Eisen has a dedicated chapter: ‘A piece of ham’, an experience lived in the Auschwitz II-Birkenau camp. The existence of a special building for sorting the bags of newcomers is mentioned, a building named Kanada. This is where the goods from the search on the train platform ended up. At the same time, there was a lot of food, especially meat. The young man’s luck was that one of the detainees working in Kanada recognized his father, who happened to be working near the building that day. Despite the great risk, they managed to get a piece of ham. Importance goes to the piece of ham, which was pork, a food forbidden in the Jewish religion, so his father and uncle refused the snack, but urged the child to eat it for his own survival. As a hiding place, he used the wooden boards above his bed, which he managed to move and to consume a piece of ham in the following nights.

Therefore, the actions against the Jewish population of Europe brought to the surface the power of man to adapt to inhuman conditions, in which survival dominates the whole being and makes him to riposte to that certain situation. Thus, the ways in which the Jews tried to find a way out and resist with the hope that everything will have an end are are incredible.