Liberated Holocaust survivors dying when given food

Was just skimming Anna Reid’s new book, Leningrad: The Epic Siege of World War II, 1941-1944 (Walker & Co. 2011), and on pp. 274-275 found this passage re: the partial evacuation of the city in early 1942:

“…Diarists describe queuing for hours for soup, being unable to find anywhere to sleep, and fighting for places on the trains onwards through unoccupied Russia. Nor, when food was available, were measures initially taken to prevent the starving from killing themselves by overeating. A doctor ordered to set up a medical station at Zhikharevo discovered that evacuees were immediately eating all the dry rations - smoked sausage and bread - given them for the three-day journey onward to Tikhvin, and bursting their stomachs… Having described the results of his autopsies he persuaded [Soviet officials] that evacuees should instead be fed in small quantities en route, with millet and semolina cooked in the train boilers.”

The story comes originally from Ales Adamovich and Daniil Granin, A Book of the Blockade (Hilda Perham, Moscow 1983), pp. 435-438.

This is pertinentto the discussion.

How disturbing. But, to clarify, this isn’t the same thing as the “refeeding syndrome” mentioned above, right? It’s just straightforward gorging until the stomach bursts, which could kill anybody, right? Although … would someone suffering from chronic malnourishment be more prone to this kind of thing because their stomach would be smaller than usual?

This is the sort of story that one suspects could have significantly grown with the telling. Consider the sequence fo events:

A - Allied soldiers liberate a concentration camp
B - They find hideously emaciated, starving prisoners in horrifying conditions
C - They give the prisoners food
D - Some of the prisoners die

The fact that D followed C does not necessarily mean C caused D. One would assume a mistreated, starved person could die from any number of things, and might have died no matter what. But the memory of the people present will naturally tend towards assuming a cause and effect relationship, and the flashbulb-memory nature of such a shocking experience would really sear it into your brain. And of course, over time, the number of prisoners who died immediately after being fed would probably grow the more the story was told.


I recently finished Scott Turow’s very good WWII novel Ordinary Heroes (Warner Books 2005). On p. 430, the U.S. Army has liberated a German concentration camp, and two Americans walk among the emaciated prisoners:

“Some of those we passed, with their scraps of clothing and impossibly vacant looks, begged for crumbs. [Lt.] Grove [who had been there since the day before] warned me not to oblige them. The troops who arrived yesterday had given candy and tinned rations to the first inmates they saw. Rioting had broken out and then several of the prisoners who’d won the grim struggle that ensued had died when their intestinal systems revolted as a result of their gorging.”

Turow acknowledges in an afterword that this is a fictionalized version of the Balingen concentration camp; he also drew on accounts of the liberation of Bergen-Belsen (p. 491). He does not provide a citation for this particular incident.

I am going to add to this bump.
I have never been aware of this syndrome, but from my quick search, it is quite real.

I know of someone in real life and modern times that due to a stroke(unknown at the time) couldn’t swallow so wasted away for months and months with little nutrition or water.

When hospitalized finally they were put on a feeding tube and IV saline drips, they experienced problems with this including massive edema. The explanation offered was that their body and in particular kidneys were not only in bad shape from the wasting but had adapted to the minimal input. Then when they were flooded by normal intake it took a while to adapt back and recover.

There was a BBc documentary about this, about the camp at bergen Belsen where they found tens of thousands of inmates - living (just) and dead.


New Beginnings: Holocaust Survivors in Bergen-Belsen and the British Zone in Germany, 1945-1950 by Hagit Lavsky (Wayne State University Press, 2002)

The Liberation of a Concentration Camp by Joanne Reilly (Routledge, 1998)

The Relief of Belsen, April 1945: Eye-Witness Accounts compiled by Paul Kemp (Imperial War Museum, London, 1991)

Witness to Evil: Bergen-Belsen by Isaac Levy (Peter Hablan, 1995)

The concentration camp prisoners were dying from malnutrition, overwork, and diseases at the rate of 6-8 people per hour in spring of 1945.

Those bodily physical conditions had developed over months. Having the camp suddenly liberated isn’t going to change that death rate immediately. The overwork will stop, and better feeding will commence, but the body can’t recover immediately.

And I can easily see a sudden change to a good diet after months of starvation bringing on serious situations. I’ve often given myself a bout of diarrhea at the start of sweet corn or bing cherry season. I’m in good physical health, so it doesn’t hurt me much. But given the weakened condition of many of those prisoners, that would have easily caused their death.

I think many of the stories about people dying after eating are due to coincidence. Given the death rate of one death every 8-10 minutes, plus the fact that soldiers are likely to have picked out one of the most stricken people to give 3 packets of sugar to, her death after eating it was likely unrelated to the sugar. She was probably at the point of death already. At least the soldier with his sugar managed to give her a bit of kindness before she went.

Cite? Need to know more, otherwise that number is kind of meaningless in the universe of concentration camps, extermination camps, and methods.

For example, people whipped from train car to gas chamber I presume are not “prisoners,”–or are they when this number was devised? Auschwitz-Birkenau was doing 12,000 people a day by that time.

And when I fly international, “refuge diet” (low fat, restricted calories) is one of the menu options.

I think this is very likely.

This is a video with actual interviews from the chief medical officer and some junior doctors at the liberation of Belsen. They talk about how “feeding the starving could do more harm than good” and the “Bengal Famine mixture” which was a pretty disgusting mixture of glucose and other substances that even the starving refused to eat at first. They do not say that anyone actually died from being fed, but since they were surrounded by the dead and dying, that is hardly surprising.


I just got a long fundraising letter from the National Museum of the Surface Navy in L.A., which includes a description of the sinking of the USS Indianapolis during WWII (as mentioned in Jaws). One survivor of the sinking, pulled from the Pacific after four and a half days afloat, is described as being “given a long, painful shower, fed fresh water from a teaspoon so his stomach would not burst, and then [he] slept for 24 hours straight.”

My goodness, it was fifteen years ago I asked here about Treatment for Starvation.