A retired bookbinder at Indiana University in Pennsylvania has found a case-solving connection between a mortally starved 24-year-old Emory University graduate in the Alaskan wild and Nazi medical experiments on concentration camp inmates in Ukraine.
Since Christopher McCandless’s 1993 controversial death while attempting to live off the grid in Alaska, the ultimate reason for his demise, chronicled in award-winning author Jon Krakauer’s “Into the Wild,” has eluded police investigators and scientists alike.
Krakauer attempted to scientifically prove McCandless’s hypothesis that the massive amounts of wild potato (Hedysarum alpinum) seeds he was ingesting were to blame. As the half-Jewish mountaineer/author writes in a recent The New Yorker, however, scientists, while initially supportive of the theory, eventually concluded that the plant did not contain the toxic alkaloid thought to be the cause of death.
A paper on a McCandless fan site by Ronald Hamilton, a retired bookbinder and writer/scholar, charts a different road to discovering the now-accepted connection: through a horrific Nazi research trial in which thousands of inmates at Vapniarca concentration camp in the Ukraine “were being cynically and deliberately fed a highly toxic plant in a ghastly experiment.”
Some of the inmates who were fed this poisonous substance in the guise of food rations realized too late that their sudden paralysis and feelings of a “silent fire” devouring them were due to their food, Hamilton writes.
Vapniarca, writes Hamilton, “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.'”
Rations fed to the camp inmates were based on what the Nazis called “pea fodder” — ground Lathyrus sativus, which is grown for livestock and some human consumption. However, for thousands of years it has also been well-known for its paralytic capabilities if used as the main staple of a diet, and its consumption was banned, according to Hamilton, in France in 1821 and Algeria in 1881.
Vapniarca was ‘the only camp in which the inmates actually staged a food strike – and beyond this – where such a strike was actually “successful”‘
Though the specific causes of its deadly side effects were unknown to the Nazis, today scientists attribute them to its neurotoxic amino acid ODAP, which is generally accepted as the cause of neurolathyrism, a neurodegenerative disease that leads to lower limb paralysis, especially among young men.
At Vapniarca, inmate Dr. Arthur Kessler, a Jewish physician, perceived what he thought to be the effects of Lathyrus sativus consumption when he saw hundreds of young male inmates limping and using crutches, but with no apparent injuries. Eventually these inmates were reduced to crawling, or became paralyzed.
Kessler, writes Hamilton, confided his findings to an administrative official, “Colonel [Savin] Motora, whom he knew to be sympathetic to the plight of Vapniarca’s prisoners.” Motora, knowing it was useless to ask the twisted camp commander Ion Mergescu to stop the gruesome experiment, traveled north to the governor of Transistria, Gheorghe Alexianu, to protest.
Meanwhile, Kessler succeeded in organizing a hunger strike among the inmates, who refused to eat anything produced with the pea fodder. Some inmates were shot, others severely punished, but the strike held.
Motora was given command of the camp, and was “benign and compassionate,” writes Hamilton, in his treatment of the inmates, telling Romanian guards: “Your job is not to guard them, it is to protect them.”
In the final days of the war, Motora led those inmates who were still mobile on a safe passage route to Romania, fending off Nazi sympathizers and saving some 500 lives. For this, and his humane treatment of the ill inmates, Motora was awarded Israel’s Righteous Among the Nations honor.
Kessler moved to Israel and opened a clinic treating neurolathyrism. He and other researchers found the disease is caused by an amino acid, not a toxin, and that its effects are variable among different sexes and age groups. They also found it hits hardest those who are starving and living off the legume as a main staple for three months or more.
One finding ties directly in to Christopher McCandless. Scientists discovered that young men between the ages of 15 and 25 who are extremely physically active and eating a starvation-level diet are hardest and most quickly struck by the amino acid.
But McCandless didn’t consume peas, but rather wild potato seeds.
Hamilton contacted the Alaskan scientist used by Krakauer and asked if the wild potato may contain the deadly amino acid. After he was told it couldn’t be ruled out, he took the case to his university, Indiana University in Pennsylvania, where a series of tests were performed. The wild potato seeds tested positive for ODAP.
“In fact,” writes Hamilton, “the seeds of both of the Hedysarum plants showed even higher concentrations of the deadly protein toxin ODAP than was contained in the tissues and fibers of the Lathyrus sativus plant itself. Only purified ODAP showed a higher concentration of the toxin.”
Author Krakauer recently had these findings corroborated with a batch of freshly harvested wild potato seeds.
Both Krakauer and Hamilton were haunted by words McCandless wrote in his makeshift journal a few days before his death, “EXTREMELY WEAK. FAULT OF POT[ATO] SEED. MUCH TROUBLE JUST TO STAND UP. STARVING. GREAT JEOPARDY.”
For Hamilton, these words triggered his eureka moment, connecting McCandless to Vapniarca. It is a discovery that he hopes will serve to protect other young adventurers going into the wild.