October 19, 2008
By Charlene Schiff
There are experiences in my life that are difficult to describe, experiences that were painful and repulsive, and this is one of them. I remember exactly when and how it happened. It was late autumn 1942 and my most recent search for food had ended badly. Nearing a village, I had managed to wake up seemingly every dog. A barrage of rifle shots accompanied the dogs for good measure. There was nowhere to hide. I escaped detection by running as if I had wings. Near the road, I spotted a well and jumped in. It took a full day for me to claw my way out. Having no choice, I returned to the forest where I had started.
It was a large dense forest. It stretched a long way and it would have taken at least a week to go back east. The west had shown me great hostility. I could go south or north. From my vantage point after climbing a tall tree, it looked as if it would take days to reach a village. I could just barely see some outlines of buildings if I looked north. Looking to the south, I couldn’t see any buildings at all. This made my decision easy: I had to go north.
I tried to think logically, but overwhelming hunger clouded my mind and weakened my body. There are no words in any language I know to accurately describe real hunger. Today I hear people say they are starved because it is time for lunch or dinner. What do they know about real hunger, I wonder.
I was hungry, I was thirsty, I was cold, and I became very angry. I wanted to lie down and die, but anger and rage would not allow me to give up. I didn’t have enough energy to dig the usual little pit for hiding, so I spent the night in the dense underbrush.
When dawn arrived, I started to lick leaves moist from the morning dew. Suddenly I felt a tickling sensation on my tongue. It was a worm. Without thinking, I swallowed it and started looking for more.All sorts of small creatures found their way into my mouth. My stomach accepted this new food and the pain and cramps became less severe.
In a couple of days I gained enough energy to dig a little hole and camouflage it well. There I rested for a few days, filling my stomach with assorted little creatures and getting ready for the journey north.
It took a long time before I reached the edge of the forest. By that time my new diet didn’t seem so strange to me. Anger toward everyone and everything had disappeared. A strong resolve to survive took its place.
For many years after I started speaking about the Holocaust, I was reluctant to share this experience with my audiences. In 2003, my firstborn grandson, Perry Tyler Schiff, invited me to speak at his school in Rhode Island. I decided to mention my “special diet” in a one-sentence statement.
The group reaction to my presentation was fantastic. Perry’s peers thought that his grandmother was “awesome” and “cool.” A remark my grandson made casually after he asked me for details about my life during the Holocaust gave me a different perspective on this painful memory. In a matter-of-fact manner, Perry said, “You know, Nana, worms are very nutritious, they are all protein.” He’ll never know how comforting his words were for me.
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