Friday, December 15, 2017

The Happy Yidisher Curmudgeon: Dreaming of Food

“Gezen di velt vi es zol zeyn”

“Bread, soup—these were my whole life. I was a body. Perhaps less than that even: a starved stomach. The stomach alone was aware of the passage of time.” 
Elie Wiesel [1928–2016], Night* (1960)

When you are severely deprived of something for a prolonged period, you dream about it. That is what starvation does. Prisoners of the Nazi war regime, most of them Jewish, were deprived of everything: their freedom, their families, their clothes, their hair, their personal possessions, their dignity and food for living.

These poor unfortunates were worse off than slaves (which itself is no picnic), since slaves were fed to be useful workers. The Nazi regime on the other hand kept prisoners hungry, put them to work and when they became too weak to work—as was the case for many—they discarded them as non-humans.

In a state of deprivations and human misery, their dreams at night were of food.

Many times the dreams were elaborate and fantastical; many times they shared with each other their dreams before bedding down for the evening in the barracks. The Nazis could take almost everything away, but not their dreams or their thoughts or their fantasies or their hopes. I found an article (“Auschwitz survivor: ‘Every night I dreamed of food’;” January 26, 2015), by Naomi Conrad, in DW Akademie, a German publication, which sufficiently captures this idea:
As he walks past a group of Italian students laughing and jostling at the ticket counter, Natan Grossmann, his shoulders hunched against the icy-cold wind, recalls the endless nights in Birkenau, a satellite camp of Auschwitz. "Every night, I used to dream that my mother was making food for me, huge plates of delicious food." His smile is twisted: His mother, father and brother were all murdered by the Nazis. At 15, Grossmann was all by himself, first in the concentration camp, and then on the long, forced death march as the Red Army advanced and the Nazis forcefully relocated their prisoners to camps inside Germany. He shrugs: Some nights, he would wake up and realize that he hadn't dreamed of food. "That would make me incredibly sad."
As great as the disappointment was, it was the dreams that kept many sane; this is what kept many alive in a situation that was far from sane or normal. It was also in the sharing of dreams that the prisoners developed a community of like-minded individuals, despite coming from different backgrounds. For many the differences melted away.

Such is what I learned in a documentary that I recently watched on the educational channel TV Ontario entitled Imaginary Feasts (2014), directed by Anne Georget. In this documentary, you will discover through the telling of personal stories how the will to resist evil, in the most horrific conditions imaginable, is (and perhaps can only be) drawn from a storehouse of good.

Gut Shabbes
A freilechen khanike
Peretz ben Ephraim,
December 15, 2017
27 Kislev 5778

*Mark Turkov’s Tzentral Varband fun Polishe Yidn in Argentina (Central Union of Polish Jews in Argentina) originally published this work in Buenos Aires, Argentina, in Yiddish, in 1956, as the 245-page Un di velt hot geshvign (“And the World Remained Silent”). A French translation was whittled down to 178 pages and published by Les Éditions de Minuit as La Nuit in 1958. An English edition by  Hill & Wang in New York City was further reduced to 116 pages when it was published as Night in 1960. Wiesel’s original manuscript was 862 pages; Wiesel had a difficult time finding a publisher in French and in English.

This week’s parsha is Mikeitz (מִקֵּץ‎; Hebrew for “at the end”), which can be found in Genesis 41:1–44:17. It tells of Joseph’s interpretation of Pharaoh’s dreams and his quick rise to power in ancient Egypt. He interpreted the dreams correctly as being about seven years of plenty followed by seven years of hunger. Tonight is also the fourth night of Khanike (or Hanukkah).

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