“Granny, why do you stare at this bread on the shelf?” my grandson wanted to know. “What’s wrong, do you want to get a loaf?”
“Oh, I do,” I exclaimed. “Sorry, for a moment I was far away in the distant past. Bread has always been my favorite delicacy. Once I got a bag full of loaves just for myself. I’ll tell you the story of how it happened, if you’re ready to listen.
I learnt a reverence for bread during the war, and especially when I was sent to the concentration camp in Germany. Bread was our greatest delicacy, it was food to sustain our lives, and it was a powerful currency in the camp, more valuable than gold and diamonds.
After two months in the Ravensbrück concentration camp I was already weak and starving. It was November 1944 and winter was on its way. It rained or snowed most of the time and the ground was perpetually soggy and full of pools in which we had to stand, hours on end waiting for the morning roll call (in our thin prisoner dresses and wooden sandals). Later on (after a watery coffee) the guards made a daily selection of women for different tasks and the work forces left for a twelve hours of hard work, mostly out in the forests and dunes surrounding the camp. The dormitories permanently smelled of dampness and we had to sleep in wet clothes while shivering from the cold. We shared three tier bunks, two or even three women in one bed; as the number of new prisoners increased all the time. The evenings were a nightmare, full of cries and moans of exhausted women who were unable to rest in such cramped conditions. There were constant search lights from the watch towers illuminating the dormitory, telling us that even during our rest hours we were under their command.
We lived on soup made from turnips, nettles or cabbage, watery coffee, and a small ration of bread. The bread was often old and moldy, but it was always our greatest delicacy.
Unable to sleep, listening to the wind or petering rain, we talked about bread. One of the women was always willing to share her recipes of making bread with us. We listened
spellbound, as she explained how she sprinkled her kitchen table with flour, and began her preparations. Step by step we followed her actions. I saw the flour, the yeast, the kneading of the dough then the magic how it grew and doubled in size. The smell of baking, was real and finally I visualized the golden loaf, out from the oven, ready to be sliced, still piping hot and soft, tasting divine under the palate. Oh, God! Give Us This Day Our Daily Bread.
I heard via, “camp telephone,” that it was possible to buy a warm jersey from the old prisoners who were in charge of processing clothing. These clothes where taken from women prisoners on the arrival to the camp. But the price was high. Two or three rations of bread were necessary to buy a sweater; the way to do it was to buy, or sew a bag out of pieces of material and carry it on a string round your neck. This seemed quite an impossible task. Who could live on soup and ersatz coffee for two to three days? I discussed it with my friends and they all said that we should try and do it before we became to crazed with hunger, and so weak that we did not have the strength to do it.
Going to bed hungry was torture, and the temptation to give up fast was unbearable. One thing which helped me carry on was the smell of feces and urine which still clung to me after cleaning the lavatories; the task I was assigned to. The day I started my diet I reckoned I might even succeed if I had to keep on working in the latrines. The next morning I woke up to the whine of the sirens and immediately thought of the treasure I was carrying around my neck. I felt for my little bag, and froze in disbelief, it was empty. The bread was gone. I could not believe it. I asked my bed companions, I asked women next to my bunk. I searched the mattress. It was gone, stolen. I cried with anger and frustration, and was determined to catch the thief and save my rations of bread. I went without bread for three consecutive days; guarding it closely during the nights. I kept awake as much as possible, and often I heard the stealthy movements of some shadowy figures trying to rob sleeping women. They shouted and cursed as they defended themselves, but I never caught anyone trying their luck with me again. Finally I saved three rations and bought a sweater, my happiness was abundant. It felt like wearing an expensive fur coat on my body.
But in spite of my warm sweater, I was not well. I was always tired and lethargic and I lost faith that I would survive the camp. I did not try hard enough to, “Organize,” myself as some of the other women did. I admired them greatly. There was for instance, a young girl of fifteen years old called Danka. She was so clever at evading our guards, she was hardly chosen for work outside the camp. She only volunteered for “soft jobs,” such as going to the kitchen to help with cooking, or going to the sewing room where she could pinch some items of clothing. She was always first in the queue for “repeta” – a second helping of food, and she knew how to please the guards who liked her because of her good looks. As for me, I was always selected for the worst assignments, most of which were out in the forest carrying logs of wood, or digging sand in the dunes. I became a scruffy, hungry creature who would even scrape the bottom of the pail for a little extra food. In fact, I did not even manage that very often.
One day there was great commotion at roll call. After the usual count down, we were told to wait. Some dignitaries arrived with a number of SS men; they began picking young girls at random from our rows. We all stood frozen with fear, suspecting that this was a selection for new guinea pigs. Amongst the girls chosen, I knew one of them. Danka, the pretty girl, looked confident enough; she probably thought that she would somehow manage.
We did not seen any of them for a long time, but one day as I was sweeping the dormitory (being fortunate enough to get finally a soft job) I saw Danka walk in. I was very happy to see her and she looked well. She had even put on a little weight. She said she wanted to see me. We sat on one of the beds, and she took a brown packet from under her dress. “This is for you,” she said haltingly. “I want to repay you for the bread I stole from you. Please forgive me. That day I was crazy with hunger and couldn’t help myself. I have enough food now, they feed us well. We are pigs for slaughter. Tomorrow they are going to cut me up for some new experiment, and I may not have a chance to see you again for sometime. But I’ll be alright. I always manage,” she giggled. I wondered whether she really believed it. I heard some steps outside the barrack, and hid the parcel under my dress. Danka got up hurriedly and bent to kiss me. “Pray for me,” she whispered and was gone. Later on I opened the parcel and found a big raw onion and a chunk of bread. I shared it with my friends, and I choked with tears when I ate it.
I never saw Danka again. But I often thought of her and of her bread.
Bread was always in my thoughts and prayers until one day….
I was liberated by American forces on the 3rd of May,1945 near a village called Warshau, fifteen kilometers from Schwerin. My companions and I were exhausted after an eleven day, “Death March,” towards an unknown destination. We were ravenously hungry and dreaming of bread. A few days after our liberation, having regained a little strength and appetite after a bout of dysentery (from eating too much rich food),we were taken by some friendly American soldiers to a field outside the village. Nearby there was a fenced camp for SS men and women who were taken as prisoners by the Allied Forces. In the field there were the SS men and women’s possessions. The field was jammed with cars, trucks and lorries.
I was bewildered, why were they taking us there? We were waved in at the sentry box and the officer in charge said, “Take what you want from these cars. Dress yourselves, you may take anything you fancy, as long as you can carry it with you.” They left us, and we walked amongst the silent vehicles. I remember opening cars and looking inside. I saw suitcases full of garments, coats and expensive lingerie. There were cameras, boxes of jewellery, gold coins and leather goods. Occasionally I saw a loaf of bread; whenever I did I picked it up. It was strange, but the other girls did the same. The soldiers were astonished to see us dragging bags behind us, and even more astonished when they saw that the bags contained only bread.
“We only need bread,” I explained to them in broken English, the rest of the women nodded in agreement.
That was the day when I got a bag of loaves, just for myself. And it was the happiest day of my life.