by Sheldon P. Hersh (Lawrence, NY)
Crumbs are rarely, if ever, a topic for discussion. And rightly so for these annoying particles serve no obvious purpose and even tend to complicate our lives by finding their way into some of the most obscure and difficult to clean places. Crumbs, by their very nature, deserve to be thrown out with the rest of the trash. My mother, however, had an entirely different outlook when it came to crumbs. A Holocaust survivor, she would never permit food, no matter what the size, to be discarded in so demeaning a fashion. In her kitchen, crumbs were afforded a layer of respectability and were never included with the refuse that was thrown into the trashcan. At our home, crumbs were properly collected and set aside so as to ensure a more fitting and sensible method of disposal.
With her hand properly cupped, my mother would deftly sweep every visible crumb into a waiting bag that had recently been selected as a repository for our collected crumbs. “How can I throw this food away? These crumbs could have been a source of nourishment and hope in the camps and ghettos where there was little or nothing to eat,” she would solemnly recount. When it came to food, nothing would ever go to waste; it was simply out of the question to do so.
During the war, Jews, like my mother, quickly became masters of improvisation, cleverly turning less than desirable edibles and scraps into presentable, life-sustaining meals. Crumbs were part of the process and had taken on a new found importance in the camps and ghettos. Leftover bits of bread were always eagerly sought out and occasionally fought over by those driven by all consuming hunger. Oftentimes hidden on one’s person, crumbs became the currency of survival when food rations were not forthcoming or when a sick loved one was in dire need of nutrition. While growing up, if we children happened to be present during the collection of crumbs, mother’s stories relating to food, or lack thereof, would always accompany the gathering process. “We scavenged for crumbs,” mother related tearfully. “Crumbs meant survival. Crumbs could have given a ghetto resident another day of life.”
Each meal and snack produced a new crop of crumbs and the bag would slowly fill. Once it was decided that the right amount was present, my mother would dutifully make her way to a pre-determined site in the back yard and begin sprinkling crumbs upon the ground. In no time at all, birds, accompanied by an occasional squirrel, would appear and descend upon this feast of tantalizing crumbs. The symphonic rhythm of the birds’ frantic pecking interspersed with the sporadic sounds of flapping wings had become an unforgettable melody that would bring a knowing smile to her beaming face. She was overjoyed knowing that nothing, not even the smallest crumb, had gone to waste and that some hungry creature had been given a proper meal.
Our custom of collecting crumbs quickly ended with my mother’s passing. Crumbs had suddenly become a nuisance of sorts and there were more important things to do with our precious time. Yet every year when the winter months arrive, I find myself hypnotically drawn to the window that overlooks my own backyard. The ground, now bare and frozen, provides very little nourishment to the few winged residents that have elected to remain behind. Every once in a while, a number of birds land unexpectedly beneath the window and begin pecking aimlessly at the lifeless ground below. With nothing to show for their efforts, I can sense their frustration and disappointment as they raise their eyes in my direction and give me a look that nearly always conveys the same simple, yet urgent, request: remember… please remember us.
Sheldon P. Hersh, an Ear, Nose and Throat Physician with a practice in the New York metropolitan area, is the co-author of The Bugs Are Burning, a book on the Holocaust. For more information about his work, visit: http://tinyurl.com/86u3ous