"It seems he could not make bricks without something. I don't know what - straw maybe"
The Egyptians Afflicted the Israelites with Burdens (1860)
Public DomainThe Egyptians Afflicted the Israelites with Burdens (1860) - Credit: Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld

A play on the common adage 'To make bricks without straw', meaning to be made to carry out a task without the necessary materials.

The phrase is an allusion to the punishment ordered by Pharaoh during the Israelites' servitude in Egypt:

Pharaoh commanded the same day the taskmasters of the people ... Ye shall no more give the people straw to make brick, as heretofore: let them go and gather straw for themselves

Exodus 5: 6-7

It is not quite apt: the Israelites were not actually expected to make bricks without straw (an impossible task since straw was essential as a binding element); they were required to collect it, instead of having it brought to them, while at the same time keeping up the same rate of brick-production.