Ethiopian Jews, WWII Romanian brethren may have suffered from eating same desert legume

The Negev desert (photo credit: Mark Neiman/GPO)
The Negev desert
(photo credit: Mark Neiman/GPO)
The health of immigrants from Ethiopia may have suffered from eating grass pea (Lathyrus sativus) over a long period before they came here, like Romanian Jews who were jailed during World War II and given only the plant to eat.
So suggest researchers at the University of New England in Maine and the University of New South Wales, in the latest issue of the Israel Medical Association Journal.
George Weisz and colleagues wrote that the plant grew freely in the Ukrainian desert at the time. Romanian Jews were incarcerated in Transnistria and starving. Their captors gave them only grass pea, which is harmless to humans in small quantities but can cause devastating motor neuron disease, paralysis due to spinal cord damage, gangrene, osteoporosis and various deformities. Nearly 1,500 prisoners suffered from these disorders, and in the 1950s, Tel Aviv Sourasky Medical Center examined some 200 survivors in whom the syndrome was found.
This high-calorie legume is also grown in Ethiopia, wrote Weisz, and is often eaten by starving populations. As many Ethiopian Jews suffered from starvation before they managed to reach Israel, the author suggests that doctors here consider investigating health problems in the immigrants that may have been caused by eating grass pea. Children could have been affected as fetuses.