Last week the daily newspaper carried an account of a morbidly obese woman who fell off her couch. Family members were unable to lift her up so she spent the next days – maybe even weeks – on the floor. No one called EMS for help and instead her family fed her lying on the floor. She was eventually hospitalized and died “due to bed sores and infection,” the police report stated. No arrests were made.
The same morning I continued translating letters received from relatives in the former Soviet Union and later in Germany from 1923 to the 1990s. It’s been a long, difficult yet rewarding task as I learn more about the maternal side of our family.
My parents migrated to Canada in 1923. Ten of my mother’s siblings and her parents stayed behind in the Ukraine to suffer horrendous suffering, including Stalin’s politically-induced famine in the Ukraine in the 1930s, collectivization, and the Great Terror when the Black Raven, a big black secret police vehicle, stopped at a home in the middle of the night, rapped loudly and demanded the father to come with them, usually to be executed or sent into Siberian exile.
Next came World War II, the Great Trek to Poland, and then thousands of German-speaking citizens from the Ukraine in the former Soviet Union were captured and shipped to Siberia in cattle cars, many succumbing on the way. “Forever,” they were told. They were forced to work in the taiga in forced labor camps on below-subsistence rations. Women with young children were especially expendable and not expected to survive long under the harsh conditions. Aunt Maria had three young children. She did not know where her husband was.
My aunt alludes briefly in one letter years later to the time in the Novisibirsk area of Kazakhstan. Now resettled in Germany, she was having difficulty with her feet and legs: They were overworked, over-taxed. I walk quite well, but then all at once I lose all strength, especially in my left leg. I think the problem started n Novisibirsk when I had to walk seven miles to my workplace, work ten hours plastering the inside and outside of the building which we were working on, without machines like it is done now, but with our hands. We also had to make the plaster and carry it in, and then, in the evening, walk back to our barracks – desperately hungry. I was very thin – had no breasts – my ribs stuck out like a washboard. But I had to work to survive. The poor children no longer played, only sat on the beds and waited – Mama might bring some bread – and maybe cook some soup [usually only potatoes and onions—no meat].
Yes, those were some times. I don’t like to speak about them. It is as if I am lying. I can hardly believe it myself that we lived through those times -- it was very, very hard. Yes, our great God helped me and my children through that time. God be praised. And how wonderful it is that neither I nor my children ever went to a hospital, and all stayed alive, including my husband Peter. I never believed that I would live to get this old – 82 years.
The first woman became obese because she had access to too much food, the other emaciated because she was denied access to food. In reading the book Bloodlands by Timothy Snyder, I became aware once again that starvation was used as a weapon of warfare repeatedly in Europe during World War II by both Hitler’s military forces as well as by Stalin’s. But that is a subject for another blog.
Our country is suffering from an epidemic of obesity and no one is forcing them to overeat. It is making fortunes for many fast-food chains. Obesity is linked to cardiac problems, diabetes, and now recently, to autism in babies born to over-weight mothers. What we can control in this country is our intake of food.
I recall my mother, who had lived through the famine of 1920-21 in the Ukraine, each morning as we sat around our oilcloth-covered table, thanking God for food for this day. She had known hunger. Now in the free world she was thankful to be able to put food on the table for her family. I treasure that memory.
Today we seem to have lost a sense of the sacredness of “daily bread,” no longer recognizing that it is a gift, not to be taken lightly. Many people no longer pray for it or thank God for it.
Instead it becomes a gadget to have fun with. I read of watermelon “feeds,” contests to see who can eat the most of one food, like wieners, hamburgers, pie and so forth, only to regurgitate it a few minutes after the contest is over. Such a contest shows a disregard for the sacredness of food. I hesitate going to all-you-can eat restaurants because the massive amounts of food some overweight diners gorge on, often wasting a good portion. It becomes revolting.
I saw a beer ad on television which stated, “Please drink responsibly.” Has the time come when food, especially those loaded with empty calories, should carry the warning, “Eat responsibly. This food may be hazardous to your health”?
And to your soul?