Vapniarka: Slow or Spectacle?

As I have discussed elsewhere, the Romanian Holocaust, in its horrific totality, was an example of slow violence. But were the events in Vapniarka? I’m not sure. While Vapniarka clearly had elements of spectacle disaster, I believe there are also underlying conditions of slow violence, like the rapid yet long-term progression of the collective symptoms of neurolathyrism, and the dismissal of Jewish physicians’ knowledge of the dangers of Lathyrus Sativus by non-Jewish officials.

My vehicle for this analysis is a series of translated excerpts from Dr. Arthur Kessler’s unpublished memoir Ein Artz im Lager, which translates to A Camp Doctor.

Dr. Arthur Kessler in 1939. From (Shapiro 2013, 122).

A quick recollection: Dr. Kessler was the Vapniarka physician who made the connection between the consumption of Lathyrus Sativus to the prisoners’ symptoms (Garfinkle, Andermann, and Shevell 2011, 842). Unfortunately, I was unable to access the original version of Kessler’s memoir, instead relying on a translation by Dirk Enneking of the University of Adelaide in Australia. I used this translation with hesitation, as Mr. Enneking often added his own historical context to Kessler’s story, making it hard to discern Kessler’s words from Enneking’s. To account for this, whenever I use this source, in passages where the words are clearly a direct translation of Kessler, my in-text citations will include Kessler’s name (for example: Kessler in Enneking 2015). Otherwise, my citations will simply cite Enneking as follows (Enneking 2015). In totality, Kessler’s account was quite compelling, which is why I decided to use it, albeit with caution.

In Kessler’s memoir, the first key aspect of slow violence present in Vapniarka was the the blatant disinterest of the Romanian officials in mitigating the prisoners’ neurolathyrism. He recalled how, in realizing the impending danger of mass death amongst the prisoners, “A delegation [went] to the commanding officer on duty, Captain Buradescu…I [described] the desperate situation…There [were] already 120 completely lame and another 1000 on their way” (Kessler in Enneking 2015, 6). Kessler and the delegation could not have been more explicit with Cpt. Buradescu: If he did not remove the cattle fodder (L. Sativus) from the prisoners’ diets, they would become disabled, or die. And yet, Buradescu was not particularly interested in the prisoners’ plight, responding “How do you know that we are interested in keeping you alive?” (Kessler in Enneking 2015, 6). Eventually, a formal investigation team was sent to Vapniarka in February 1943, yet they were as helpful as Buradescu. Kessler recalls “The conversation with the interned physicians was one-sided. We were the expelled, in the best case inferior humans….The immediate response is dismissive. It was better to remain silent than to debate.…A report about the results was never received by us” (Kessler in Enneking 2015, 7-8). Even though Kessler and the camp physicians were on the frontlines of treating Vapniarka’s prisoners, the investigative team was uninterested in working with them. The outside inspectors saw themselves as superior to the camp’s physicians, which I suspect was the result of them being non-Jewish. But most crucially, they neglected to inform the Jewish physicians about the results of their report.

This most drastically reminded me of the slow violence inflicted upon the Zanskarpas in rural India in the weeks before a devastating flood: “Above all, the [Zanskarpas] monks’ offer of help may be read as an attempt by the local population to exert greater agency on the impending disaster; its rejection further contributed to a prevailing sense of a lack of control over the situation” (Gagné 2019, 856). Like the monks from Zanskar, Kessler and the camp’s physicians needed the investigative team to address the prisoners’ situation with urgency. The monks, Kessler, and the peoples of Zanskar and prisoners of Vapniarka were mostly powerless to stop the impending catastrophes; the catastrophe that hadalready begun in Vapniarka. This is why I began to associate Vapniarka with slow violence: the camp commanders had the ability to quickly stop the impending (and occurring) disaster. Yet, as the flood didn’t wait for the Indian government to act, neurolathyrism in Vapniarka didn’t wait either. However, while the Zanskarpas were unable to circumvent the Indian government’s lack of urgency, the prisoners of Vapniarka were able to organize against the camp leaders and bring a halt to the forced consumption of L. Sativus.

Along these lines, Kessler also recalled horrific the progression of neurolathyrism, which I realized might also be interpreted as a metaphor for the Holocaust, overall. Kessler recalled that as his team of doctors began to study the prisoners’ symptoms, they realized that “more than 70% of all inmates [showed] signs or prognostic symptoms of the disease” (Kessler in Enneking 2015, 6). He goes into more detail describing the totality of the prisoners’ symptoms: “It was hellish, not a picture to be shown, hundreds of sick, lame…bent postures due to muscle cramps…in addition, the sad, natural phenomenon of the passing of the old, tuberculosis affected and diabetics who weren’t strong enough to cope” (Kessler in Enneking 2015, 7). Kessler’s graphic description of the prisoners’ suffering struck me. I could picture the prisoners’ fear, their screams, their pain, as their symptoms spread like wildfire throughout the camp.

At first, I didn’t associate this horrific passage with slow violence—I thought it spectacle. But as I thought about the implication of this passage, I recalled Rob Nixon’s portrayal of Animal, Indra Sinha’s fictionalized personification of the victims of the 1984 Bhopal disaster: “When four-footed Animal (now nineteen) transports an ailing child on his back, his posture is precisely that of a beast of burden…an implicit yet unforgettable image of a body politic literally bend double beneath the weight of the poisoned city’s foreign load” (Nixon 2011, 52). Akin to the metaphor of Animal, I envision Vapniarka as a metaphor for the Romanian Jewish people: subjugated not only by a poisonous diet, but by the “poisonous” slow violence of ethnic nationalism and antisemitism.

Exploring Vapniarka (and the Romanian Holocaust elsewhere) through the lens of slow violence explains not just how aspects of the neurolathyrism epidemic occurred, but why they occurred. It isn’t enough to know simply that the medical investigation team dismissed Kessler’s knowledge, or that Vapniarka’s prisoners suffered immensely from their bouts with neurolathyrism (Kessler in Enneking 2015, 6-8). To fully understand these aspects of the Vapniarka story, I needed to understand them in the context of Antonescu’s desire to ethnically cleanse Judaism from Romania (Solonari 2017). It wasn’t enough to know that many of the prisoners of Vapniarka were communist, or were suspected of having communist beliefs, nor was it enough to know that the Romanian commanders of Vapniarka were antisemitic (Benditer 1995; Solonari 2017). Understanding Vapniarka required my awareness that many Romanians blamed the Jewish population for the loss of territory to the Soviet Union, and may have been more inclined to target communist (or suspected communist) Jews as a result (Braham 1998, 12-13; Degeratu 2015, 38). Slow violence was the key to this analysis, as it was a framework for synthesizing the conditions that amplified the horrors of Vapniarka.