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May 2004
Humankind’s True Moral Test
By Rynn Berry

June 1994
June 1994

No longer considered to be cranky or faddish, vegetarianism is quietly entering America’s mainstream. The signs and portents are everywhere. Posh restaurants are purveying all-plant entrées and fast food stores are dispensing ‘tofu pups’ and ‘harvest burgers.’ Physicians such as John McDougall and Dean Ornish have written bestselling books urging the adoption of a vegetarian diet. At schools and colleges across the country, many of Western society’s future leaders are becoming ethical vegetarians. Everywhere, it seems, intellectuals, writers, artists, athletes, social arbiters and cultural trendsetters are ceasing to eat the flesh of animals. Clearly, vegetarianism is an idea whose time has almost come.

However, when I became a vegetarian way back in 1966, ‘grass-eaters’ (as we were called then) were rather sparse. So, for moral solidarity and reassurance, I began to collect famous vegetarian exemplars such as George Bernard Shaw, Gandhi, Tolstoy and Isaac Bashevis Singer. Some years later, in the 1980s, I published a book of interviews with prominent contemporary vegetarians called The New Vegetarians. Foremost among them was Isaac Bashevis Singer. In addition to being a hypnotic storyteller, Singer was the first person to win the Nobel Prize for Literature who wrote in a language for which there was no country (Yiddish). He also had the singular distinction of being the first American male to win the Nobel Prize for Literature who was not an alcoholic (Steinbeck, Hemingway, Sinclair Lewis, Faulkner and Eugene O’Neill were among world literature’s most bibulous scribes). Singer was also the second vegetarian to have been awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature—the first being Shaw.

When Isaac Bashevis Singer died in July 1991 at the ripe age of 87, the obituaries nearly all glossed over the crucial importance of ethical vegetarianism in his life. Having interviewed Singer for my first book, and having profiled him for my latest book, I decided it was my duty to set the record straight. So I wrote a letter to the New York Times in which I pointed out that they had given short shrift to Singer’s vegetarianism. Were they not aware that vegetarianism had been essential to his vision as an artist? I told them that when I asked Mr. Singer how it was that vegetarian themes and leitmotifs had appeared in his novels long before he formally became a vegetarian, he said:

“I will tell you: I did not think much about vegetarianism when I wrote The Family Moskat or Satan in Goray, but these things came out through my pen almost automatically. Yes, I always thought about eating meat. These things bothered me all the time.”

To my surprise, the Times not only published my letter but actually commissioned an in-house artist to illustrate it.

Two weeks later, under the headline, ‘The Vegetarian Road to World Peace,’ the Times published a reply to my letter from the well-known author and New Yorker essayist, Janet Malcolm. It is worth quoting in full:

“Rynn Berry’s fine letter about Isaac Bashevis Singer’s vegetarianism reminded me of the comment Mr. Singer made at a luncheon to a woman who noticed approvingly that he had refused the meat course, and who said that her health had improved when she, too, gave up meat. ‘I do it for the health of the chickens,’ Mr. Singer said.

“Mr. Singer’s belief, quoted by Mr. Berry, ‘that everything connected with vegetarianism is of the highest importance, because there will never be any peace in the world so long as we eat animals,’ may have puzzled readers. What does eating or not eating meat have to do with world peace?


“Milan Kundera gives us the answer on page 289 of The Unbearable Lightness of Being:

“True human goodness, in all its purity and freedom, can come to the fore only when its recipient has no power. Mankind’s true moral test, its fundamental test (which lies deeply buried from view) consists of its attitude toward those who are at its mercy: animals. And in this respect, mankind has suffered a fundamental debacle, a debacle so fundamental that all others stem from it.”


Janet Malcolm’s response to my letter in turn drew a reply from another correspondent that was not so benign. The letter was published by the Times on September 2, under the headline: ‘What about Hitler?’ In it, the writer castigated Ms. Malcolm for implying that the universal acceptance of vegetarianism will bring about world peace because—this was the devastating retort to Singer, Malcolm and Kundera’s worldview— “Adolf Hitler was a vegetarian all his life and wrote extensively on the subject.”

To me this response was all-too-predictable; for I have yet to give a talk on vegetarianism in which the tasteless question of Hitler’s vegetarianism has not been raised. I was pestered with this question on a publicity tour for my book, Famous Vegetarians and Their Favorite Recipes. Invariably, at every bookstore signing, at every lecture, on every phone-in talk show, at least one person had the temerity to ask me half-mockingly: “Is Hitler in your book?” or “Why didn’t you put Hitler in your book?”

On September 21 1991, the New York Times published two very eloquent rejoinders to this question. Under the headline, ‘Don’t Put Hitler Among the Vegetarians,’ the correspondent (Richard Schwartz, author of Judaism and Vegetarianism) pointed out that Hitler would occasionally go on vegetarian binges to cure himself of excessive sweatiness and flatulence, but that his main diet was meat-centered. He also cited Robert Payne, Albert Speer and other well-known Hitler biographers, who mentioned Hitler’s predilection for such non-vegetarian foods as Bavarian sausages, ham, liver, and game. Furthermore, if Hitler had been a vegetarian, he would not have banned vegetarian organizations in Germany and the occupied countries; nor would he have failed to urge a meatless diet on the German people as a way of coping with Germany’s World War II food shortage.

Under the headline, ‘He Loved His Squab,’ the other correspondent cited a passage from a cookbook which had been written by a redoubtable European chef, Dione Lucas; this was even more damning because it was an eyewitness account. On page 89 of The Gourmet Cooking School Cookbook (1964), Dione Lucas, drawing on her pre-World War II stint as a hotel chef in Hamburg, remembered being called upon quite often to prepare for Mr. Hitler his favorite dish, which was not a vegetarian one: “I do not mean to spoil your appetite for stuffed squab, but you might be interested to know that it was a great favorite with Mr. Hitler, who dined at the hotel often. Let us not hold that against a fine recipe though.”

It is ironic that people should be so willing to deny the truth about Isaac Bashevis Singer, yet be so willing to believe a myth about Hitler’s vegetarianism. It is also ironic that my letter to the editor about Isaac Bashevis Singer’s vegetarianism should have touched off a chain of letters that ended by exploding the myth of Hitler’s vegetarianism. Of course, there is no cogent reason why this myth should have embarrassed a movement that contributes so much to “the health of chickens,” as Singer phrased it, the health of humans and the ecological health of the planet. Nonetheless, it doesn’t hurt to have it finally settled on the record that Pythagoras, Leonardo da Vinci, Tolstoy, Shaw, Gandhi, and Singer were vegetarians, but that Mr. Hitler—who liked his pigeons stuffed and roasted—was not.

Rynn Berry is author of the newly released Hitler: Neither Vegetarian Nor Animal Lover, to which this essay was a precursor. [See review.]

 

 

 


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