I was born at the beginning of WWII in Breda, in the south of Holland, about 15 km from the Belgium border and on a direct route to Antwerp. The final winter of WWII was extremely cold, with food, coal, wood, candles and kerosene nearly impossible to obtain. It was so cold that those months went down in history as the ‘Hunger Winter’. With no fuel to operate factories, even basic items like sugar, could not be extracted from beets. Starving civilians, particularly in the West of Holland, ate cooked sugar beets and tulip bulbs as vegetables. They tasted very bitter but stopped stomachs rumbling.
Whatever farmers produced was taken away to feed the German Army. Some farmers created secret hiding places underground where they kept apples, pears, carrots, turnips and potatoes to trade for whatever hungry, cold people offered. Earlier that winter my mother had traded her fur coat for five kilograms of potatoes. Towards the end of the war, however, the farmers would only take gold jewellery which could be melted down and never traced. During bombing raids, when people evacuated their homes to save their lives, they knew everything useable would be plundered. Doors, tables, chairs and wardrobes were stolen to chop up as firewood to keep warm. Everyone stole whatever they could to stay alive.
One day, I sensed something really special was going on. My mother secretly sewed up bags from scraps of material and hid them under our carpet. Two agile young teenage girls snuck into our house after dark. Each put a brick inside a bag, then strapped it to their waists to test how to walk with the bag dangling between their legs where it could not be detected if they were caught and frisked by German soldiers. By candlelight, a floor plan of a warehouse was marked and discussed as to where the girls could climb through an attic window and scoop ‘flour’ from bales into their ‘crutch bags’ and smuggle it out.
After the girls had left, my Aunt Bella lifted me onto the kitchen table and, holding me close, gave me a fond hug and excitedly said, ‘We are going to eat pancakes tomorrow!’ I had no idea what pancakes were but the way all the adults were so excited about it, I figured it to be something really special.
The next day my mother gave Bella her treasured gold chain and a pair of snakeskin high-heeled shoes to trade for a small jug of milk, a lump of butter and two eggs. That evening there was a little tap on the side window. In the dark of night, a bulging crutch bag was silently handed over. Aunt Bella watched my mother whisk the contents of the secret bag with the eggs and milk and then melt a small dollop of butter in the skillet over the kerosene cooker. My nose only came up to the height of the kitchen bench and, in the dim light, I could not see what was happening in the skillet.
I remember the sweet smell of the melting butter and heard a slight sizzle when Mum poured the batter into the warm skillet. She muttered something about the pancake not setting and that it crumbled when she tried to turn it over. Even standing on my toes, I could not see inside the pan. I only heard the scraping of the spatula on the skillet.
Mum lifted a porridge-like mixture from the skillet onto a plate. Bella and Mum both cautiously took a little taste and let out a scream of disgust as they spat the contents into the sink and rinsed out their mouths. ‘Yuck, it tastes of soap!’ Bella exclaimed.
My mother defensively said, ‘But you saw me mix it up! There is no soap anywhere!’
They each dipped a finger into the batter and muttered something about it feeling gritty and cautiously dabbed it on their tongues. They stood in silence for a while. Mum turned the kerosene burner off. What they had all risked their lives for, and asked the girls to steal, was unwanted scouring powder! They had not only wasted the milk, eggs and butter but there was no meal for their families that night.
Before being tucked into bed, I sat around our dining table with a large group of silent relatives each dipping small chunks of dry ‘bread’ into a cup of warm black tea. What was called ‘bread’ looked rather like a house brick. It was coarsely ground grain mixed with water (there was no sugar, salt or yeast), pressed into a tin and slowly ‘cooked’ on a kerosene burner for hours.
A few months later, there was great excitement in our neighbourhood: The Americans are coming to save us! Our town had been ruled by the German Army for five years. Unfortunately, we lived on a main access road, the railway was 200 metres behind us, and there was a German ‘jeep’ parked in our driveway. About 30 German soldiers and officers lived two doors up with three of their tanks parked on our neighbour’s property. To drive the ‘enemy’ out, we became a prime target for the allied air force. Breda citizens always claimed they suffered more at the hands of our ‘liberators’ than from their enemy.
I never understood why, during some bombing raids, we hid in Grandpa’s wine cellar and at other times we evacuated and ran for our lives with Mum pushing a pram with my baby sister, Josie, and whatever belongings she could carry. My legs were not long enough to leap over dead people, so I had to step on the bodies and then down to the ground again. Bomb shelters, running for our lives, hiding, watching people steal and lie to spare their lives, or the lives of others, is all I had known from birth. Each time we returned home, it contained less and less.
Upon return, we were in Grandpa’s cellar for several days with six or eight people to a mattress on the ceramic tiles. One day the walls and ground shook all around us and we knew a bomb had exploded very close by. When all went quiet, Dad cautiously climbed up the stairs to inspect the damage. He left the cellar door ajar. My brother, Willy, was a curious seven year old and crept up behind Dad. Just as he reached the top of the stairs, a bomb exploded opposite our house. Willy lost his balance and grabbed hold of a shelf which happened to be Grandpa’s ‘Bank’. He stored jars of Apricots, Cherries and Plums in Brandy there which he intended to trade after the war to rebuild his hotel business. The whole shelf collapsed and the jars crashed to the ground. It was devastating. Grandpa saw his whole future collapse. There was a deadly silence in the cellar.
Mum and Bella silently removed the broken glass and sticky fruit from our blankets and mattresses. Nobody complained about the loss or scolded Willy. Losing possessions had become ‘normal’. We were still alive and that was all that mattered. A lot of shouting and shooting went on above us. It was not safe to come above ground. Some towels were put over the glass splinters and we all slept on top of the sticky mess. More than a week went by before we could come up to wash the sticky syrup out of our hair with cold water and sleep in our beds again.
From the Heavens above
When the first rays of Spring sunshine appeared, Mum drew back the blackout cloth and opened our bedroom window to air our bedding. Standing on our toes, we could barely see the farmyards at the back. I climbed onto a chair to see out. In a worried, quiet voice, Mum said rather solemnly, ‘You know the plane we heard coming over? It must’ve dropped those parachutists’ as she pointed to the blue sky filled with white umbrellas drifting down to earth.
‘Do you see anybody moving?’ she asked in a whisper. We strained our eyes and little necks but could only see some dark shapes hitting the earth and the white parachutes ballooning out over them. We could not see anybody crouching and scurrying away, as they usually did. ‘They must have all been dead before they hit the ground,’ Mum said mournfully, as we kept scanning the paddock for movement. Mum put her arms around us and led us away from the open window. In front of the cross over the hearth, we all knelt down in prayer. She then poured herself some cold black tea and sank into a chair staring silently in front of her. My brother Willy and I did not understand and started playing a marble game.
There was a little tap on the side window which overlooked the street. ‘Did you see those parachutes come down in the back paddock?’ our neighbour asked excitedly, as if she had won the lottery.
‘Yes,’ Mum replied glumly, ‘They were all dead before they hit the ground. All those young lives...’
She tried to continue but Mrs Goderie remained excited. ‘They weren’t soldiers! They were food cylinders! The Americans have dropped us food!’ she exclaimed. ‘It is all being gathered at the school and each family can collect a parcel from there.’
It took a while for it to sink in. Mum figured that if it was being shared amongst hundreds, it probably was not much. She gave Willy and myself a shopping bag to carry between us and sent us on our way.
Excited children came tumbling out of homes everywhere and joined our procession towards the partly bombed-out school. I remember feeling so small when I entered the enormous hall where cardboard boxes were being unloaded from the cylinders and neatly stacked in piles. A team of nuns duly identified us children and placed a cardboard box in our bag. It was heavy. We stopped several times to put it down and change sides. Mum watched us approaching with our bounty.
We all gathered around our dining table on which Mum had spread a beautiful embroidered table cloth in readiness for whatever came out of the magic box. My parents shouted with joy as they recognised each food item. ‘Look at that, real white milk bread!’ Dad exclaimed. We had never seen white bread and did not know what it would taste like. ‘And do you know what this is?’ Dad asked, as he held a mysterious looking tin from which he removed a little key to open it. We were all spellbound. ‘It is called Corned Beef!’ My parents were exuberant at the thought of being able to treat us to these delicacies and looked for responses as they spread a little cube on a slice of bread each. It had come from heaven and it tasted like something only the angels could possibly prepare.
As we gleefully munched our way through this heavenly food, Dad started to spread another slice each with a red mixture from another tin whilst Mum helped our baby sister, Josie, eat her first slice. Dad called it Strawberry Jam as he sparingly spread a transparent film on our slice of fluffy white bread. The red mixture, never mind what it was called, tasted delicious. I had rarely tasted sugar and had never imagined something so scrumptious existed in the
world. Our greedy eyes wanted more of the goodies but Mum said we had to save some for the rest of the week. We knew there was no point in begging for more.
When the remaining food was carefully packed away, Dad opened a shiny little silver packet. A small brown block appeared. We watched Dad break off tiny squares and place a little square in the middle of each plate. He told us not to touch it until he told us to. We sniffed at it. ‘This is milk chocolate. You put it in on your tongue and slowly let it melt in your mouth,’ he instructed. Because it came out of a silver wrapping, like cigarettes, we expected it to be something only adults liked, but did as we were told and looked at each other for signs of repulse. Our eyes widened with pleasure as we started to experience the soft, creamy sweet taste. We kept our mouths carefully closed so as not to let the flavour escape but let out little inner ‘hmmm’ noises.
That evening, as we knelt for our evening prayers, I did not bother to pray to Our Holy Father in Heaven to ‘give us this day our daily bread’. He had never brought us any bread. From that day onwards I silently prayed for the Americans, (whoever they were, they seemed to have an important position in Heaven) to bring more fluffy White Milk Bread, more Strawberry Jam and more Corned Beef. But if the Angels and the Americans thought that was being too greedy, I’d be grateful for just the fluffy white milk bread. Amen.
After Holland was liberated, people started sorting through the rubble of bombed out buildings, cleaning bricks, recutting broken glass and timber to salvage whatever they could to rebuild their homes. At the same time, the years of malnutrition had taken their toll. Nearly all the children had runny noses and respiratory infections as well as bone and teeth deformities and skin disorders. In addition, carpets, bedding and clothing were infested with fleas and head lice. Hungry rats and mice invaded every home, which also spread infections, and there was little available to eradicate any of these problems.
Willy was covered in boils and I had no skin on my legs from my knees down. We were put in the same ward in hospital. Willy was in a full size bed opposite me and could play with toys. I was in a white metal cot with high, cage-like rails and, to prevent me scratching my oozing, itchy eczema, the nurses tied linen straps to my wrists and tied my hands over the top of the rails. My hands went blue with cold during the night and my arms ached. Nobody cared. The nurses were exhausted from long shifts in operating rooms trying to save the lives of the seriously wounded. Our condition was not life-threatening and we were regarded as a nuisance and a needless burden. When the nurses discovered the next morning that my legs were bleeding because I had been scratching them with my toe nails, they tied me by the ankles to the bottom rails and scolded me for causing them more work and soiling their bandages. ‘You should be ashamed of yourself for causing so much trouble when we have seriously wounded soldiers! Some have no legs at all. You only have itches and if you stop scratching, your legs will get better,’ one stern nurse told me. I was scolded for bleeding into their bandages and soiling them with puss oozing from the infected open skin.
A 14 year old girl was brought in later that morning. She told us a bomb, which had been in their back yard for weeks, exploded when a truck rumbled by, the explosion causing a piece of shrapnel to lodge in her spine. It was very scary to hear her whining with pain all day and night and see her with so many drains and tubes coming from all parts of her. I saw her body being removed from our ward in silence in the dark of night. Nothing was said.
The next evening, a nurse untied my straps from the rails and plonked a plate of warm food in my lap. It looked dark, grey and slimy. I later on learned it was stewed endive. I took one
little taste and nearly threw up. The nurse gave me a vile look and, waving her finger at me threateningly, scolded, ‘Just you dare! If you throw up, you’ll be sorry!’
When she came to collect our plates, and I still had not eaten, she ranted, ‘I’ll teach you! You are not getting any food until you’ve eaten what is on your plate!’ She tied my hands around the rails again and roughly plonked the plate on my skinny little chest. I was too frightened to cry. I was also too frightened to ask for the potty and eventually peed in my bed.
My wet bed got colder and colder during the night and the plate on my little chest felt heaver with each breath. It was removed in the morning but I was not given any breakfast. I was left tied up in my smelly wet bed all day as punishment. I was four years old.
When Mum visited us, she saw my bandages stiff with dried up blood and pus. She did not complain but quietly removed my straps, rubbed life back into my wrists and ankles, lifted me down to the ground and told me to hold tightly onto the rails. She lifted Willy from his bed and told him to hold my hand as I took my first wobbly steps between them with scabs painfully tearing open with each move. Mum asked for clean bandages which were reluctantly given and we stumbled out of hospital. The walk home took over an hour.
We were the lucky ones. We were still alive. Our house was still standing. We went home.