World War II is often described as a clash of civilizations, and like all international conflicts, it was also a war of resources. Warring nations competed to train troops at home, support soldiers overseas and across borders, and maintain morale. Attitudes toward the enemy differed among the major powers in the war. While the Allies mostly provided prisoners of war with decent food, starvation was used as a military tactic by the Axis Powers. Civilians and prisoners of war suffered the consequences.
As you will see in the recipe books featured in this module, for people suffering under the worst conditions, talking about food and writing recipes from memory often became a substitute for actual meals. These imaginary meals provided spiritual and emotional nourishment.
Image Caption: Do with less so they'll have enough!: rationing gives you your fair share, 1943. Courtesy United States Office of War Information, Division of Public Inquiries.
The demands of World War II changed U.S. food production. Mechanized agricultural production helped make up for shortages in farm labor. Expansion of the rural electrification program allowed for the introduction of electric milk coolers, feed-grinders, and heating systems for chicken coops.
Domestic agricultural production in the United States had increased between 11 and 30 percent by the end of the war. In addition, scientists learned from the Germans how to counter soybean oil's unpleasant smell. Cheap and high in protein, soy caused a revolution. Today, soy provides roughly 250 calories of the average American's daily diet.
Image caption: Daughter of tenant farmer, feeding corn to her three chickens which were her 4-H Club project, Creek County, Oklahoma, February 1940. This scene represents American agriculture right before the start of World War II. Image courtesy Library of Congress
"We'd get powdered eggs for breakfast, for lunch we'd get powdered eggs...with powdered tomatoes, for dinner we'd get the same thing, only they'd put in Vienna sausage. And nobody'd eat it so they'd throw that away. The next morning we'd get powdered eggs. That's why we lost so much weight. We couldn't get all the food we needed."
Marine Harry Kone, MHHE Legacy Series
Americans sent most of the resources they conserved to maintain the U.S. military overseas. Transporting food long distances meant it had to be processed in ways that made it less perishable and often less palatable. Powdered products, particularly eggs, were some of the most popular exports. However, what powdered eggs provided in vital protein, they lacked in taste and balanced nutrition.
By December of 1941, the expansion of the military effort caused the demand for food to explode, but even with an increase in production, soldiers sometimes experienced shortages. In her MHHE Legacy Series oral history interview, Lou Jordan described how her husband, James, survived a kamikaze attack in the Pacific while serving in the U.S. Navy. Cut off from supplies while his ship was being repaired, James had to use his own ingenuity to find the protein he needed apart from dried eggs and milk.
"They had a suicide plane that stripped the carrier that my husband was on. And for a month, all he had to eat was pancakes. And they had bugs in them. he said you could hold them up and look, and there would be the bugs. And they all laughed and said that was meat! For a month! They had to be repaired at sea, so it took about a month to get the work done. They couldn't get supplies, so that's what they ate. And they had homemade syrup made out of vanilla, sugar, and water. poured over them bugs!"
Codebreaker Lou Jordan, MHHE Legacy Series
Ancel Keys: Nutritionist
"Desperation to find some food reached a new high when somehow we got hold of some starch. Aunt Piri had the idea that we should try to mix it with the very fine lubricant oil that the clockmakers used. The fried mixture soon looked like traditional latkes. We all ate it and nobody got sick, but I doubt that this new recipe for latkes will ever get into a Jewish cookbook."
Robert Ratonyi, Hungarian Holocaust Survivor
During World War II, the Nazis used food as a weapon. They implemented blockades against the English, cutting off their supply lines and making American aid necessary. They withheld food from Jews, Russians, and Poles, effectively killing millions in ghettos and concentration camps.
Diets in the ghettos and the camps were often reduced to between 180 to 800 calories a day. In the ghettos, where there was more freedom, Jewish community leaders were forced to decide who received priority in food rationing. Some leaders focused on helping the strong survive while others allotted the children and elderly a larger share of the available food. The constant search for food often meant eating things typically deemed inedible, such as sawdust or shoe leather. In the camps, the inability of the sick and the young to work caused the Germans to see them as a drain on precious resources. However, even adult laborers who were not starved to death were pushed to their physical and mental limits by starvation.
"I had a distant cousin who had a store with notions, and he would give me needles and thread. I took off my arm band, and I would just go among the peasants and sell this stuff because we were starving desperately. The rations that [the Judenrat] allowed were extremely small. I was trying once to describe to my grandchildren what starving means and I tell them sometimes I catch myself talking to a friend and I will say, 'You know what, let's go to lunch. I'm starving.' And I say, what have I said? Starving is something entirely different. Starving is just devastating. You are craving for food, and you get lethargic. I remember sleeping a lot. It was very painful."
Tosia Schneider, Galician Holocaust Survivor, MHHE Legacy Series
"We got a lot of food from America. I remember the boxes of dried egg that came from the United States. We ate a lot of dried egg. My mother cooked in many ways. And also dried milk that came from America. Canada and the United States fed a lot of the working class people of England."
Alan Davies, British Blitz Survivor, MHHE Legacy Series
In addition to providing for the U.S. military, a great deal of domestic goods went to relief aid for the Allied Powers, their civilians, and prisoners of war. To prevent supplies from strengthening the Axis Powers, the U.S. State Department carefully regulated where relief could be sent. While supplies were not sent to civilians in German-occupied lands, much relief was directed toward prisoners captured by Axis Powers.
The military often worked with philanthropic organizations, such as the International Red Cross, to deliver these supplies. Roughly 15 percent of American dairy products and 25 percent of American eggs alone went to feed the U.S. military and as relief to Britain, China, and the Soviet Red Army.
Image caption: A British family receives a CARE package after VE Day. The Cooperative for American Remittances to Europe (CARE) was established in 1945 to send packages of Army surplus food to European civilians. American families could purchase a CARE package for $10. Image courtesy CARE International and the Daily Mail.
Eating on the Home Front
Nutrition became a major national concern after the institution of the draft. The United States government found that over 15 percent of U.S. recruits were unfit for military service because of malnutrition. Rationing was intended to preserve resources for the military, and foreign relief aid, and to ensure a fair distribution of high calorie foods for civilians at home.
In the United States, as in other countries, the government rationed food to support the U.S. military, to send relief supplies overseas, and to provide a fair distribution of goods on the home front. Meat, sugar, butter, fat, and oils were all regulated and rationed to families according to the family's size. To make up for shortages, civilians were encouraged to grow their own "Victory Garden" at home and to can or preserve the resulting fruits and vegetables. Doing this not only helped supplement their diets but also helped those at home feel as though they were aiding in the war effort.
- Both private individuals as well as businesses like Knox Gelatin and the General Foods Corporation produced recipe books that focused on maximizing food resources available under rationing. The cookbooks visible in this case are examples from the collection of the Museum of History and Holocaust Education.
- During World War II, the U.S. government contracted with large food companies to produce army rations. Hershey's formatted the "Tropical" chocolate bars seen in this case to resist melting in warm climates.
- Other American companies committed resources to making their goods available to soldiers all over the world. In 1941, Coca Cola CEO Robert Woodruff famously said that "any person in uniform should get a bottle of Coke for five cents, wherever he is and whatever it costs the Company." This commitment paid dividends in Coke's continued popularity after the war. A vintage Coca Cola bottle from the MHHE collection is visible in this case.
Memories of Food
In the face of unimaginable hunger, sharing recipes and talking about food connected people emotionally and revitalized their humanity. What little food was present was a source not just of physical life but emotional and spiritual life as well.
"We called it cooking with the mouth... Everyone did it."
Susan E. Cernyak-Spatz, Terezin and Auschwitz Survivor
In her introduction to In Memory's Kitchen: A Legacy from the Women of Terezin, Cara Da Silva wrote: "Food is who we are in the deepest sense, and not because it is transformed into blood and bone. Our personal gastronomic traditions-- what we eat, the foods and foodways we associate with the rituals of childhood, marriage, and parenthood, moments around the table, celebrations-- are critical components of our identities. To recall them in desperate circumstances is to reinforce a sense of self and to assist us in our struggle to preserve it." The following quotes from Holocaust survivors featured in the cookbook Recipes Remembered, edited by June Hersh, reflect these ideas.
"After my mother's passing, I found comfort in making the foods my mother used to make. If you make the same things your mother made, you feel a little less alone."
Reni Hanau, German Holocaust Survivor
"One of the things that kept me going during the war were the memories of my family, and so many of those revolved around family gatherings and food. We would remind ourselves of the simplest things that we ate at home, especially during the holidays. I would think about how I helped my mother prepare the necessary dishes such as gefilte fish, chicken with matzo ball soup, kreplach, stuffed cabbage, and apple cake for Shabbos."
Florence Tabrys, Polish Holocaust Survivor
"I hated Belgian endives! Yet, my mother, like most Belgian housewives, prepared and served them several times a week. I was about to finish my meal when my gentile girlfriend came to my house asking if I wanted to accompany her to voice lessons... I asked my mother if I could go. She responded, 'Not before you finish your endives, or I will save them for dinner.' I decided to leave with my friend, expecting the endives to be waiting for me when I returned home. While I was away the Nazis came to my house and arrested my parents. They were deported to Auschwitz where they perished. That afternoon was the last time I ever saw my mother. My decision to go with my girlfriend separated me from my mother forever but also saved my life. Today I often eat Beligian endives as their subtle flavor gently brings me closer to my mother and reminds me of my lost childhood."
Cecile Jeruchim, Belgian Holocaust Survivor
To cope with starvation, people often shared memories of old family recipes, taking spiritual nourishment from the spoken, and sometimes written, act. Created by inmates of ghettos, concentration camps, and prisoner-of-war camps, the cookbooks displayed in this case are testimony not only to the psychological resistance of prisoners, but also to the power of food to sustain more than just the body.
This community cookbook, representing the community of prisoners of war at the Bilibid POW Camp, administered by the Japanese in the Philippines, was collected by a prisoner at the camp, Colonel H.C. “Chick” Fowler. Many of the recipes are attributed to other prisoners, with additional recipes representing Chinese, Filipino, Mexican, Russian, and other cuisines, provided indirectly through other interactions within the camp. Fowler’s aunt, Dorothy Wagner, brought the work to publication and provided the Foreword.
- Little is known about the provenance of the burlap sack on display in this case. Printed with the symbol of the third Reich, it likely held flour or grain and may have been distributed to an army base or prison camp. The extensive patching on the sack provides evidence of additional use, perhaps as a rucksack for a survivor or refugee.
- During the Holocaust, prisoners with access to camp kitchens and their limited provisions often found themselves in positions of power because they were able to help friends and loved ones obtain extra rations or supplies that might be the difference between life and death
Berenbaum, Michael. In Memory’s Kitchen: A Legacy from the Women of Terezin. Edited by Cara De Silva. Translated by Bianca Steiner Brown. Lanham, Md.: Jason Aronson, Inc., 2006.
Fowler, Halstead Clotworthy, and Dorothy Wagner. Recipes Out of Bilibid. First Edition edition. George W. Stewart, Publisher, Inc., 1946.
Hersh, June Feiss. Recipes Remembered. New York, NY: Museum of Jewish Heritage, 2013.
“Icarus Films: Imaginary Feasts.” Accessed June 18, 2020.
Kalm, Leah M., and Richard D. Semba. “They Starved So That Others Be Better Fed: Remembering Ancel Keys and the Minnesota Experiment.” The Journal of Nutrition 135, no. 6 (June 1, 2005): 1347–52.
Office for Emergency Management Office of War Information. Distributed by the War Activities Committee of the Motion Picture Industry. FOOD FOR FIGHTERS. Film Reel. Propaganda, Information, and Documentary Motion Pictures, ca. 1942-1945. Overseas Operations Branch New York Office: News and Features Bureau. Accessed February 3, 2016.
Salcedo, Anastacia Marx de. Combat-Ready Kitchen: How the U.S. Military Shapes the Way You Eat. New York, New York: Current, 2015.
Skinner, Julia. “Culinary Memory: The History of Food Writing,” 2017.
“Legacy Series Oral History Program.” Accessed January 12, 2018. https://soar.kennesaw.edu/handle/11360/2173.
Image Caption: American soldier feeding hungry children from a ration can during World War II. Life Magazine, 1943
Thank you for exploring our online exhibit and educational module, Nourishing Survival: Food During World War II and the Holocaust. If you would like to learn more about the many resources the Museum of History and Holocaust Education at Kennesaw State University offers, please follow the link below: