I Believe : In Bread
In 1944, a young Jewish girl, fresh to Auschwitz, was told to dance for the notorious “Angel of Death” Dr. Josef Mengele. She closed her eyes, pretended she was dancing on stage at the Russian opera house, and danced. Dr. Mengele rewarded her with a loaf of bread.
A common thread in nearly every Holocaust survivor’s account is the all encompassing hunger that created desperate acts (reaching into a dirty latrine to retrieve a piece of bread) and, over time, ate away one’s will to survive. Bread was not merely sustenance. Bread was a tool by which you could bribe your way into a better job. Bread could buy almost anything on the black market of Auschwitz. When someone dropped dead, the living would check the dead’s body for bread because while stealing from the living was strictly off- limits amongst the prisoners’ code of ethics, stealing from the dead meant a chance to live.
So when this 16 year old girl, whose name was Edie, chose to share the prized loaf of bread with the women in her barrack, she shared more than food: she offered hope.
Months later, when they were on the infamous death march, Edie found herself on the brink of death. Her back was broken, her body ravaged with typhoid and pneumonia and her parents, gone in smoke. If she collapsed while walking, she would be shot, but walking with a broken back was nearly impossible. From beside her came the voice of one of the women to whom she had offered bread months earlier: “Because you gave me bread, I will help you.” The women formed a human chair around Edie and carried her, effectively saving her life.
Edie, by and by, married, immigrated to the United States, pursued her education and became an internationally recognized force in the field of psychology. Last year at age 90 she wrote an amazing book called The Choice, in which she writes that the hardest parts of our lives are opportunities and we can find the good in any situation, even within Auschwitz. She says, “People ask me where was God and I say ‘He was with me.'”
I spent a lifetime walking a tightrope, trying to please those I loved, trying to be flawless, because I was convinced that the natural consequence of a mistake would be abandonment. I did not believe people when they said they cared because I thought you don’t know the real me. I felt like I put on the face everyone wanted, played a part. I did this not only because I was afraid of being abandoned but also because I didn’t think the real me really had much to offer.
Then I had two little girls. And as they grew, all I cared about was creating a fairytale for them, one that was real. I didn’t know how to verbalize the lessons I wanted to teach them, but I knew I wanted them to be freer than I. And that meant teaching them that mistakes were ok.
So, I refused to give them coloring books for a long time because I didn’t want them to think that coloring outside the lines made their pictures any less beautiful. We used paint to paint bodies and fence posts and, generally, make a mess.
And we started baking homemade bread.
It was messy and, inevitably, flour got everywhere. It took forever and sometimes it didn’t turn out quite as delicious as I wanted. But we had fun. Kneading the bread, throwing bits of flour at each other, watching it magically rise and then watching them devour it was as much a healing thing for me as it was teaching them not to be afraid of living, of making a mess.
When I tell people we bake homemade bread and mozzarella cheese, all from scratch, on a semi regular basis, a typical response is wow, that’s a lot of work. I don’t see it as work. In fact, baking bread is one of the only times I can think of that nearly always makes me feel truly relaxed. Even if it doesn’t turn out well….The process of stepping outside Tiffini’s comfort level of being predictable and safe and cautious helps me in ways I can’t really explain.
Dr. Egar (Edie)’s bread acted as a literal bridge that helped her survive until the Americans liberated them. She has literally witnessed the most inhumane, awful pieces of people, seen them do nightmarish things with the sole intent of demoralizing their spirits and yet her take away from that experience is that cooperation, empathy and kindness shone in the darkness. She chooses to see the good.
She says, “women come to me and say, ‘I was abused, but I don’t feel I can say that to you because you’ve seen Auschwitz’ and my answer to them is that, in a way, you know more of Auschwitz than me because at least I knew the enemy. There are too many enemies in one act of abuse for you to have known them all.”
I listened to her say that and started crying. Bread. The hope she offered me, the hope I bake with and for my daughters, may not be the same that anyone else needs, but it is rich and flavorful and, most of all, filling.