The Role of Food in Times of War

Food is essential to basic life. It provides people with the energy to think, speak, walk, talk, and breathe. In preparation for the Jews deportation from the ghettos of Transylvania, “the (Jewish) women were busy cooking eggs, roasting meat, and baking cakes”(Wiesel, 13). The Jewish families realized how crucial food was to their lives even before they were faced with the daily condition of famine and death in the concentration camps. The need for food was increased dramatically with the introduction of the famine-like conditions of the camps. Wiesel admitted that, although he was incredibly hungry, he had refused to eat the plate of thick soup they served to the prisoners on the first day of camp because of his nature of being a “spoiled child”. But his attitude changed rapidly as he began to realize that his life span was going to be cut short if he continued to refuse to eat the food they served him. “By the third day, I (Elie Wiesel) was eating any kind of soup hungrily” (Wiesel, 40). His desire to live superseded his social characteristic of being “pampered”. Remarque also uses his characters to show to how a balanced diet promotes a person’s good health. Paul Baumer uses food to encourage Franz Kemmerich, his sick friend, “eat decently and you’ll soon be well again…Eating is the main thing” (Remarque, 30). Paul Baumer feels that good food can heal all afflictions. The bread supply of the soldiers in All Quiet on the Western Front was severely threatened when the rats became more and more numerous. They had begun to hungrily eat the bread that the soldiers had been issued for the field. At the time, bread was not hard to come by, but the men still did everything they could to prevent the rats from chewing on their nutrients. But in the end, they resolved the situation by simply cutting of the pieces of bread that had rat bites in them and disposing of the scraps. Food became sparse soon after, and Tjaden and his fellow soldiers regret that they had “wasted the gnawed pieces of bread on the rats” (Remarque, 89). Times had become so hard that they would have eaten them gladly. Food was so important to the survival of Elie, Paul, Muller and the others that they were, in a sense, “giving power” to the people who controlled the food.

Food was used as symbol of friendship and trust. Due to the fact that it is so essential to life, it puts great power in the hands of people who have any control over it. When a German officer brings Madame Kahn, a Jew, a box of chocolate, “the optimists rejoiced.” (Wiesel, 7). If a German officer can be so kind as to present a Jewish wom

n with a sweet treat, he has to be a good guy, right? The optimists soon learned the error of their thinking. The power of food was found even in the terrible conditions of the concentration camps. It was used as a bribe for friendship and trust. Some of the German officer (people with control of the dispense of food) used soup, bread, and margarine as a bribe for the prisoner children’s affection. The Jewish children grew to trust the officers, giving the (sick-minded!) officers “private access” to the child. Muller also understands the potential influence of food on a relationship. Upon his friend Baumer’s return from visiting Kemmerich at the hospital, Muller presents him with “a fine piece of saveloy” (Remarque, 35) with rum and hot tea. Muller was trying his best to cheer up his bud from a depressing visit with Kemmerich by being friendly, which consisted of the gift of good food and beverage. Katzinsky and Baumer also show their friendship late on when they bring Tjaden and Kropp some of their cooked goose. This action was like cement to their friendship.

Even though food is important in and of itself, consistency in the amount of food and richness of food is also critical. Any significant changes in the quantity or quality can bring about trouble for the incautious consumer. Diarrhea, dysentery and stomach cramps are some of the rather unpleasant results of inconsistent feeding. On the long, cold march in Night, Zalman experiences one of these troubles. The night before the march began, the prisoners were issued double rations of soup and bread, including double rations of extra rich butter, for the long hard march that was ahead. This sudden increase in amount and richness of food did a serious number on his digestive system, leaving him to be trampled to death under the feet of the runners behind him. Another quantity influx occurred when the prisoners were traveling on the cattle wagons. One day, very early in the morning, “a crowd of (German) workmen and curious spectators” (Wiesel, 95) threw bits of bread into the wagons. The concentration camps had caused the prisoners to become like animals, thinking only of personal benefit. They had not been given any food recently, and these factors lead to death struggles breaking out in the wagons as men fought each other for a bit of the life-giving bread. Several prisons died from this exchange. Baumer and his friends also experienced the pains of inconsistency in eating habits. “We had eaten too much fat. Baby pig is very griping to the bowels”(Remarque, 206). They had eaten too much of a good thing, like Zalman had, and their digestive systems paid the consequences of their hasty actions. Dysentery is another serious “side effect” of mal-nourishment. The Russian prisoners that Paul sometimes watched over in All Quiet on the Western Front “only got enough nourishment to keep them from starving” (Remarque, 168). Not only were they dramatically under-nourished, but even the little scraps of food they managed to scrounge or trade with the German peasants for was hardly acceptable by today’s standards. “A few turnip peelings, moldy bread crusts, and all kinds of muck;” this, the dirty garbage of the German camp, is what the prisoners ate. Some people say “that one mans trash is another mans treasure,” and the prisoners treated the dirty garbage like it was a big juicy slab of steak. Scorning the food, even though it was despicable, would have been impractical in such a desperate situation.

Food is crucial to survival, food has incredible powers and a consistent diet brings it all together. These are the principles of food portrayed in All Quiet on the Western Front and Night. Erich Maria Remarque (All Quiet on the Western Front) and Elie Wiesel (Night) used their novels to solidify the nature of food as one of the fundamental needs for human existence. They promoted its basic contribution to life, it’s power in relationships and the

balance which unites it all.

Works Cited

Remarque, Erich Maria. All Quiet on the Western Front. NY: Fawcett Crest, 1929.

Wiesel, Elie. Night. NY: Bantam Books, 1960.

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