The war was over.
The guns ceased firing and the bombs ceased dropping at midnight on May 8th-9th. Germany, and Europe, fell silent for the first time since September 1939.
Millions and millions had died, on battlefields all over Europe, in concentration camps and in a thousand bombed out towns and cities. Men, women and children, the innocent and guilty alike.
The slaughter had ended. The Third Reich was defeated. It was time to turn away from the ruins and look to survival and re-birth.
May 1945 was Germany's darkest hour, "Zero Hour".
The people were there, and the land - the first dazed, bleeding and hungry, and, when winter came, shivering in their rags in makeshift shelters and cellars, often open to the elements. Much of the land was a vast wasteland of rubble, the infrastructure destroyed, factories and workshops demolished, neither transport nor food supply intact.
As I have said before, most houses in our little village were undamaged or only slightly damaged. My paternal grandfather's house in the same village had taken a hit, but was left comparatively intact, having lost no more than half a wall. We did not experience the desperate shortage of housing; although the influx of millions of refugees and expellees from the eastern parts of the former Reich, which soon began, certainly affected the villages in the Lower Rhine area.
I was too small to know any of this; life is as life is. There were already two families living in our small house, the landlady and her son returned some time in May; there was no room for refugees. These were housed in hastily erected wooden sheds, in community halls and other public buildings, even churches and church halls.
Food was a different matter. You ate what rations you were allocated, what your garden could produce, what you could beg or steal. It was possible to move about freely again; except, there was no transport. If you had a bicycle, you were lucky. The retreating Wehrmacht had left behind sacks of flour in a hotel; these were soon plundered by the villagers. Even in the countryside meat and fat were rare, towns and cities were worse off.
Official records show that the military government deemed a diet of 792 calories per day sufficient for each person; however, the acute shortages meant that often rations amounting to no more than 400-500 calories per day could be distributed. If available, the fat or meat ration per month would amount to 400 grams of each.
No wonder, therefore, that people foraged for food wherever they could. In fields and hedges and woods, people found free food, nettles, fungi, wild leaves and roots became part of the daily diet. Berries were gathered in gardens, hedgerows and woods. Women and children roamed the countryside, carrying baskets and bags, during that summer. The hope was, that soon it would be harvest time; farmers were once again tending their fields with the help of everyone who was not needed elsewhere, old men and young boys providing unpaid labour, or labour in return for food.
Father had a very great, personal problem. He had been a smoker and the lack of tobacco hit him hard. I remember him trying to turn strawberry and rhubarb leaves into tobacco.He dried these leaves on top of the large family wardrobe; the smell was not unpleasant. Each time he discovered a new type of leaf, he was full of hope, only for the hope to be dashed as soon as he tried to stuff the dried leaves into his pipe and smoke it. Although Mother was sympathetic to his needs, his ever more desperate attempts soon began to annoy her; she saw our many other problems as far more deserving of ingenuity and effort. Poor Dad.
Eventually, he tried growing tobacco. By August, he was ready to start harvesting. Again, the top of the wardrobe became his drying shed. Sadly, this attempt too failed. He persevered and smoked the "tobacco" in his pipe, even tried to roll the leaves into a cigar-shaped wedge. Sadly, the climate just wasn't suitable for growing the stuff; besides, who knows what kind of seeds he had been given.
It was to be a long time before Father enjoyed his pipe again. In the meantime, lack of food, and ways and means of procuring it became the family's main preoccupation.