Surviving on Raw Bacon in Wartime Poland

Alix Wall // Oakland, CA

The author’s mother with Wiktoria, her Polish nanny and savior.

By the time I learned that we Jews aren’t supposed to eat pork, it was already too late. I was raised on a steady diet of ham and cheese sandwiches. My only relative who kept kosher was my great-aunt in New York, a former Hadassah national president. Her home was strictly kosher, but she would be the first to order Moo Shu Pork when out in a Chinese restaurant. The first time I ever met an Orthodox person was when my religious school took a field trip to Long Beach to stay with a Lubavitcher family. I was in middle school.

Why ham was such a staple in the refrigerator of my childhood is certainly unusual. My mother Sarah, of blessed memory, was a hidden child during the Holocaust. She was rescued by her former nanny, a woman named Wiktoria, who took her to her brother and sister-in-law’s house in the country. At first, she told them that the girl was her illegitimate daughter. That a devoutly Catholic single woman would do this in 1940s Poland is an entire story on its own. During those four years, from ages two until six, my mother not only wore a saint’s medal (which I now have) and attended Mass, but she developed a taste for raw bacon. In fact, it quickly became her favorite food.

I seem to remember my mother being asked once whether these Polish peasants took some kind of perverse delight in giving pork to the Jewish child in their midst. She couldn’t fathom such an idea. These were poor people and it was wartime. She ate what they ate, which happened to be potatoes, bread, and when they were lucky enough to procure meat, it was always pork.

My mother—whose mother survived, and later brought her to America—ended up marrying a nice Jewish boy. And while she became a strongly-identified cultural Jew, and participated in our synagogue, she always felt a bit religiously conflicted.

She had fond memories of church, but more so of Wiktoria, whom she believed was her mother during those formative years. A true foodie, my mom came to serve prosciutto and melon often, not only because she adored it, but because it linked her to this woman she loved who had raised her. Their separation was painful when she went with her mother, a virtual stranger by the war’s end, to start her new life in America.

I stopped eating meat for twenty years, so pork became irrelevant. But a few years ago, I changed my diet. Whether I would or wouldn’t eat pork wasn’t even an issue.

I don’t eat it regularly, and I only do so when I trust its source. But for me, too, I enjoy it to the fullest now and then. I eat it because it honors the memory of a woman who risked everything to save my mother, and the role she played in our family. And, I eat it because it honors the memory of my own mother, too.

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