Into The Wild Essay
The Silent Fire
ODAP and the death of Christpher McCandless continued...
Lathyrism at Vapniarca
Much of what I learned about the internment camp Vapniarca came to me by way of correspondence with the son of a Colonel Savin Motora, who was an administrative official at the camp during World War Two. Motora’s son, (also named Savin) now in his 80’s, is a resident of what is today Romania, and he graciously sent me a great deal of printed information about his father and the Vapniarca story that has been compiled by an agency of the Romanian government. At Vapniarca, the Camp Commander, Ion Mergescu, along with the encouragement of a German officer known only as Haupsturmfuher Kirdoff, recognized the “pea fodder” as lathurus sativus. In what was little more than a crude experiment to study the effects of the toxic legume upon a captive population on a mass scale, they issued the decree that the fodder be turned into flour for the prisoner’s bread. Very quickly, a Jewish doctor and inmate at the camp, Dr. Arthur Kessler, understood what this implied, particularly when within months, hundreds of the young male inmates of the camp began limping, and had begun to use sticks as crutches to propel themselves about. In some cases inmates had been rapidly reduced to crawling on their backsides to make their ways through the compound. Kessler eventually approached Colonel Motora, whom he knew to be sympathetic to the plight of Vapniarca’s prisoners, and confided his fears about what he had deduced was the cynical and deliberate experiment in poisoning and mass extinction. Kessler explained to Motora that once the inmates had ingested enough of the culprit plant, is was as if a silent fire had been lit within their bodies. There was no turning back from this fire – once kindled, it would burn until the person who had eaten the grasspea would ultimately be crippled, and in the most severe cases, die. The more they’d eaten, the worse the consequences – but in any case, once the effects had begun, there was simply no way to reverse them. Motora was genuinely horrified by this news. As it turns out, Motora was one of those rare individuals who was a truly selfless deus ex machina. Sensing the dangers of direct confrontation over the affair with Mergescu, he set off north for a meeting with the overseer and Governor of Transistria, one Gheorghe Alexianu. In his absence, Dr. Kessler organized a strike among Vapniarca’s inmates, and they refused to eat any further consignments of the dangerous “fodder” that was being given to them. For a brief time, the camp entered into a state of virtual hell. Inmates were punished, some by being suspended headfirst into deep holes, other by being simply shot outright for their food strike. Yet they stood steadfast, and continued to refuse to eat the suspect grasspea.
In his audience with Alexianu, Motora pointed out that the inmates at Vapniarca were being cynically and deliberately fed a highly toxic plant in a ghastly experiment. Probably he reminded Alexianu that the tides of war were beginning to change and that it was only a matter of time before the Russians advanced and overran them all. Already Nazi General Friedrich Von Paulus had been surrounded and decimated at Stalingrad. With the Russians now moving forward, the Axis armies in Transistria were beginning to feel like ants on a hot plate. Soon enough, the Germans and their Romanian allies would be pushed back across the Dniester River and down in to Romania proper. And ultimately the war would end with Germany’s defeat. Then there would be occupying forces and tribunals set up to consider wartime criminal acts. Behaviors would be scrutinized, atrocities examined, and the worst offenders shot or hung. Doubtless Motora reminded Alexianu that it would not be kindly looked upon if the opposing Allies were to discover that the Governor of one of the provinces administered under the Germans had deliberately been feeding poison to camp inmates in some sort of hideous and malevolent research. Clearly Alexianu understood the import of Motora’s point. He ordered that the feeding of the “pea fodder” to the inmates at Vapniarca be stopped, and appointed Motora to replace Mergescu as the commander of the camp. (It turned out to be too little, too late. Alexianu was prosecuted at the end of the war for crimes against humanity. He was condemned to death, and executed by firing squad on the first of June in 1946 at the Fort Jilava Prison on the outskirts of Bucharest.)
As for Motora, although his subsequent service
at the camp was relatively short, it was benign and compassionate.
In many camps, as the Russians advanced, the remaining Germans and
Romanians would execute the inmates wholesale before retreating. For
his part, Motora organized those inmates at Vapniarca who could
still walk and led them on a march back toward the Dniester River
and the relative safety of Romania proper. “Your job is not to guard
them,” he told his Romanian escort, “it is to protect them.” Along
the way the column was approached by a group of men on horseback
called “Vlasovs” who were a renegade group of Russians who had
aligned themselves with the Germans. They lowered machineguns on the
column, crying out, “Jid Kaput.” Motora stood his ground.
Brandishing two pistols he declared that as a high ranking member of
the Nazi party, (which he was) he could command the Vlasovs to let
the column pass. The Vlasovs capitulated, and ultimately all of
those marching under Motora’s protection escaped and were spared.
After the war Savin Motora was awarded the highest honor bestowed by
the State of Israel upon non-Jews, called the “Righteous Among the
Nations” award. It is estimated that Motora thus saved at least half
of the surviving ambulatory inmates of Vapniarca, over 500 human
lives. His name is inscribed upon the “Wall of Honor in the Garden
of the Righteous” at Yad Veshem, which is Israel’s national