Spots of Light - Women in the Holocaust



Hunger was one of the grimmest phenomena of the Holocaust for its victims. It was severe, protracted, and relentless, a black hole in the body that offered no respite. It affected people and caused them to act in ways from which they would presumably flinch otherwise. Hunger was the partner of disease; together they claimed more victims’ lives than any cause other than murder. Hunger and disease fed each other in a vicious cycle, of course: had the victims not been so weak, they would not have become so ill, and so forth.

Food had traditionally been one of their responsibilities of women, as those tasked with household care. Women manifested this duty in the Holocaust by trying to obtain food for their families in every possible way. They also found creative ways of stretching the minimal food they could obtain to the maximum in order to feed an entire family. Still, it never sufficed and everyone was hungry. Many mothers denied themselves food so their families should have more. It was as the historian Yisrael Gutman remarked about his mother, Sara Gutman née Oberman:

“When we were in the [Warsaw] ghetto we had to make sure Mother ate something too; otherwise, she wouldn’t eat, so that we would have more.”

When women reached the camps after having lost their entire families, they attempted to maintain vestiges of humanness. One way of doing this was to occupy themselves with food recipes. Recipes are a tradition among women; handed down from mothers to daughters, they capture the women’s family, community, and geographic traditions. It is a tradition that has persisted for millennia, embracing and amassing a corpus of wondrous feminine knowledge: warmth of life, the phenomenon of giving and being concerned for the family, the imperatives of the faith, the directives of love. It is a continuation of a mother’s nursing. For this reason, in the most unexpected place of all, amidst nightmarish physical slavery and the shattering of their world, women engaged in recipes.

They recorded recipes as if to prove and remind themselves whence they had come and to hand them on to posterity, as it were. They recorded recipes for their friends in order to show off their knowledge and brag about who they had been. Since they came from different places, they compared each other’s recipes. Sometimes they prescribed exaggerated proportions of ingredients in order to make the fantasy more enchanting. Occasionally they inserted non-kosher ingredients that they had never used at all. Sometimes they composed detailed menus as if their whole world depended on it. They wrote on any scrap of paper that they could obtain and with every precious pencil butt that they either found or obtained in exchange for bread. They wrote on paper that they obtained from their workplaces, risking their lives in the event that the terrible crime of damaging German property would be discovered. They recorded a recipe in Yiddish on Hitler’s face, on a propaganda sheet of sorts. They wrote in various languages and in various camps. And when they did not have pencil and paper, they shouted the recipes at night from bed to bed in the darkened camp barracks, transforming their quarters, for a moment, into the homes that they had once had.

Prof. Yisrael Gutman, conversation with Yehudit Inbar, June 2006