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The Silent Fire: ODAP and the death of Christopher McCandless
 By Ronald Hamilton http://www.christophermccandless.info/Ronald-Hamilton/ronald-hamilton-intothewild1.html I first became aware of the Chris McCandless story in 2002, when Jon Krakauer’s book Into the Wild was being offered as an example of contemporary narrative nonfiction in a literature course at the university where I worked at that time. The book had been placed on Reserve in the Library, and I can remember happening upon it and leafing through its  pages idly for a moment, before suddenly thinking to myself, with strange certainty, “I know why this guy died.” At the time, I literally knew nothing more than that about the Chris McCandless story. A more comprehensive reading of the book and further investigation into my initial sense of certainty about the cause of McCandless’ death seemed to demonstrate that neither my initial response, nor my certainty as to the cause of his death were unfounded. I respectfully submit the results of that investigation to this forum.
Vapniarca
 The reason I felt that I knew what had killed McCandless with such certainty had to do with the fact that I was familiar with an otherwise obscure story of a concentration camp that had been located in the then German-Romanian occupied region of Transnistria, in the Ukraine, during the Second World War. The camp, known otherwise as “Vapniarca” (a place name) was notable because it was the only camp during the entire wartime  period in which the inmates actually staged a food strike – and beyond this – where such a strike was actually “successful.” The reasons underlying the strike had to do with what was called “horse fodder,” or “pea fodder,” a kind of plant that had been stored to feed to the horses belonging to the Soviet Army’s animals. After the advancing Germans and their Romanian allies had occupied the Ukraine, and when other food sources began to grow scarce, these stores of the abandoned “pea fodder” were in turn given to the Jewish inmates at the concentration camp at Vapniarca by the region’s conquerors. Ostensibly, this fodder then became a food source for the prisoners to grind into flour and bake into  bread. Essentially, this was both a cruel experiment and a death sentence, and the Jewish victims in time began to realize this.
 
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Lathyrus Sativus
 The Indian physician Charaka of Triputa was the first to recognize it about 400 B.C., a  plant that he called “Kalayakhanj.” At about the same time the Greek physician Hippocrates mirrored Charaka’s discovery when he observed, “all men and women of Aions who ate peas continuously became impotent in the legs and that state persisted.” Centuries later, the Bhave Pahesh, written in India in 1550, noted that, “Triputa pulse caused men to become lame and crippled, and irritated the nerves.” By 1671 the Duke of the German State of Wurtemberg had issued an edict that use of the flour of the plant Lathyrus sativus was prohibited from use in making bread “because of its paralyzing effect on the legs.” By the early 1800’s, the Spanish painter Franciso de Goya had  produced an aquatint entitled “Thanks to the grasspea” which depicts starving poor  people eating a porridge made of grasspea fodder, one of whom is lying on the floor  before the group and who has been crippled by the plant. In France, the consumption of Lathyrus sativus was banned by 1829, and in Algeria in 1881. The precise mechanism involved in the crippling (especially among young males) by the legume was (and is)  poorly understood, and yet it had become recognized, as the years passed, as an insidious and dangerous botanical killer. In fact, it was Lathyrus sativus that comprised the “horse fodder” which had been given to the inmates at Vapniarca to bake into their bread allotments. What, exactly, is Lathyrus sativus? Essentially, it is a member of an ancient food source family known as “pulse” crops, which have been consumed as food by human beings for thousands of years. (“Pulse” is a derivative of a Latin word meaning “thick soup.” It is thought that the cultivation of pulse crops dates back for over 10,000 years). Grasspea, or Lathyrus sativus, is a high yielding, drought resistant legume that occupies the same general family as soybeans, peas, and similar kinds of plants that  produce seeds that are rich in proteins and oils and which have been an important source of food for both humans and animals for many centuries. What is unusual about the grasspea, however, is that, under certain conditions, it can not only be nourishing, but also dangerously toxic.
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
 
 3 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
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