Monday, March 12, 2018
Hunger in the Slave Labor Camps
My father spent more than 4 years in Buchenwald Concentration Camp as a Polish slave laborer. He was captured in a round up when he went to his village north of Poznan to buy some rope. When he was taken by the Nazis, he was a kid, just 19 years old.
A lot of times when he talked about his experiences, he couldn't help telling me about how hungry he was for those four years. He said that most days he got about 600 calories of food. Once when he complained about the food, the Nazi guard hit him across the head with a club. From that day on, my dad was blind in one eye.
When the Americans liberated the camp, he weighed 75 pounds. He was one of the lucky ones. A lot of the guys in the camp didn't make it.
I've written a lot of poems about how hungry he was during those four year. The following is one of them. It's called "What He Ate." It appears in my book Echoes of Tattered Tongues. Here's a youtube of me reading the poem. I'm posting a copy of the poem itself after the video.
What My Father Ate
He ate what he couldn’t eat,
what his mother taught him not to:
brown grass, small chips of wood, the dirt
beneath his gray dark fingernails.
He ate the leaves off trees. He ate bark.
He ate the flies that tormented
the mules working in the fields.
He ate what would kill a man
in the normal course of his life:
leather buttons, cloth caps, anything
small enough to get into his mouth.
He ate roots. He ate newspaper.
In his slow clumsy hunger
he did what the birds did, picked
for oats or corn or any kind of seed
in the dry dung left by the cows.
And when there was nothing to eat
he’d search the ground for pebbles
and they would loosen his saliva
and he would swallow that.
And the other men did the same.
The photograph at the start is by Margaret Bourke-White, an American woman reporter and photographer, one of the first people in Buchenwald after the liberation. Her story and some of her photos appear in her memoir of being with the advancing Allied army, Dear Fatherland, Rest Quietly (1946). The book is out of print but some libraries may still have a copy. You won't regret tracking it down.