Saturday, 18 July 2009

Summer 1945 - Food and the Lack of it

It is over a month ago since I last posted on Reminiscences. Those days have been history now for so long, and lack of food, for me, today, is an unimaginable concept. Summoning up that world requires a deliberate effort of will; how much of it is memory and how much family lore, I couldn't say.

The situation in '45 was still bearable. In the lower Rhine area the war ended in March and in spite of huge obstacles farmers were able to till the land, to sow and plant, to tend the remaining cattle. By late summer the hedgerows were full of free food, there were berries and tree fruit to pick and the harvest in the fields was looking good.

Shortages were not as acute then as they were to become later, in the winter of 1946/1947. Refugees from the East were still just trickling in, the exodus was only just beginning. The villagers stormed the Wehrmacht food depots and helped themselves until the Americans impounded the stores, declaring them "war booty". They had, however, already begun to secure the supply of flour to bakers and bread was available. The supply of grain from the East, Germany's "Granary" had dried up completely, the East was now in Russian hands.

By August, the harvest was in full swing, turnips, potatoes, cereals and cabbage being the main crops of the area. Every able-bodied male was commandeered to help; there were hardly any tractors or other field machinery, the lack of fuel saw to that. Old men who knew how to handle tools like sickles were standing in the fields, mowing the corn.

Those who had no direct access to crops other than through the meagre supplies available on ration cards were dependent on the fields being freed for gleaning after the harvest proper.

The villagers knew which field would be harvested on a particular day. Adults and children turned up long before the last horse-drawn cart had left, lined up along the field edge, awaiting the signal to start, which was usually just a wave of the arm as the farmer and his helpers followed the carts off the field at the other end.

My parents lined up with the rest of the villagers, with me beside them. In retrospect, I feel that I enjoyed these "outings", particularly in the potato fields. The days were hot, the atmosphere was not exactly jolly but calm and friendly; everyone was in the same boat, intent on gathering as many stray potatoes as they could find. You stayed in your row, hoed and grubbed in the freshly turned soil and dragged a basket or potato sack behind you. As with stealing coal later on in the winter, the rule was that you did not help yourself to another person's loot.

On rare occasions only half the potato field had been harvested before the farmer gave the signal freeing the cleared half for gleaning. I was very small, to keep me safe and keep an eye on me while slowly traversing the field on their knees, my parents had me crawling between them and the edge of the field which was to be harvested the next day, a field still full of large, healthy potato plants, some of them taller than me. In my eagerness to help, my little hands strayed more than once into the lush growth next to me, coming up with clumps of potatoes.

"Look", I shouted, "I have found plenty here". "Come away from there"; my father was angry with me and I didn't understand why, after all, we were there to gather potatoes and I had just found a large supply of them.

It had happened before, somebody getting too close to a row of plants had been barred from gleaning. Father did not want this to happen to us. Farmers were very suspicious, they gave nothing away unless you had goods in exchange for food.

It was much harder to collect grain. The stubble was sharp and painful and you could easily tear and scratch your knees until they bled. Being very small, I managed to stay in the gap between two rows, but even then I often cried out when a vicious stalk dug into my leg. I can see puddles of grain lying between the rows of stubble even now, neat little heaps, or sometimes little streams of grain, ready to be scooped up with bare hands.

Gleaning was backbreaking work for the adults, for whom it would have been a matter of survival. The gravity of the situation went straight over the head of a child; for me it would have been a game, a game of hunting for food, being in a competition to see who could gather the most.


  1. Hi Friko,
    This is just so interesting. I've often wondered what life was like in the period you describe. I guess at the level of the village - unaffected perhaps by bombing or infantry battles - life just continued though with the horrendous supply problems you mention. But then here rationing (of sugar) did not end until 1952 (and maybe it might have been better for our health if it hadn't ended then!) My father flew on the Berlin airlift and used to describe the terrible plight of the Berliners in those times.

  2. Good morning Friko.
    I've heard such stories from my friends in Germany - of eating nettle soup and living for months of great cans of peanut butter, given by the Americans. We lived near a small town called Linnich in North Rhineland-Westphalia, and your story could have been set there.

  3. Just watched a movie "Downfall," it was the account of the final days of Hitlar and Eva written by Hitlar's secretary. Alot of it took place in the bunker where they died. I love dramas from that time because that time in my life is very vivid in my memory. I so appreciate the story from the other side of the happenings. The same thing could happen in my country any day. I pray God gives us the strength to carry on. Blessings

  4. I've heard stories of that kind of scrambling for food in the U.S. during the Great Depression (1929+). My parents were both lucky to have grown up on ranches and were fairly self-sufficient. To this day, my mother still treasures the fruit from her little orchard. She has a garden going in every season to ensure a food supply. The memoirs here, Friko, make that kind of suffering so real, and it's true we forget. A wonderful writer. Best, Margaret

  5. In this modern age of relative plenty, we have little idea of how awful it must have been in those dreadful years. My family in Shropshire, were lucky, they had a small holding, so there was milk, eggs and fresh veg etc. Your description really brings the misery of war to life. We need to pass this message to the next generation. Thanks Friko.

  6. A friend of mine told me I simply had to come and read this post - and I'm so glad she did. There are so many lessons to be learned here.

  7. Wonderful writing of times gone but hopefully never forgotten. So much to be learned from the hardship of others. Thank you.

  8. Fennie - there are other stories of village life at the very end of the war on my blog. Thank you for commenting.

    Pondside - was it you who lived in Juelich too?

    Queenmothermamaw - I hope and pray that dreadful times like the ones I'm describing never happen anywhere again, to anybody.

    Margaret - Now these stories are autobiographical. Thanks for the compliment.

    David Macmahon - thanks for the visit, I'm glad you found the post interesting.

    Wipso - Amen to that.

  9. Twiglet - Does mankind ever learn? War and the aftermath of war are so much part of the human condition, I don't believe there will ever be a wholly peaceful generation.

  10. I remember all this so well too – the lack of food that is. My mother gave me a fried egg once a week (as my protein) Later she told me that she had made a deal with a farmer’s wife – she would make dresses, repair trousers or anything else that needed mending if they would give her one egg each week for me. I was pretty skinny.

  11. And still it goes on-Thought-provoking post and one that stirs my memories.

    Reading your book list it would seem we have the same tastes, most of them are on my shelves too...The Life of Pi and The Curious Incident are all time favourites.

    Congratulations for your mention on David's Post of the Day.

  12. I remember those times well, I guess I am a few years older than you. 46/47 was really bad, my mother was skin and bone feeding the children as best she could.

  13. a remind of times that help us appreciate the times we are in. congrats on the POTD mention. well deserved.

  14. Hello Friko, this is a very moving story and one that I will remember.

  15. Hi, I came over from David's authorblog. Congrats on the Post of the Day Award!

  16. Vagabonde - me too, I was always tall and very thin. I wish I were still!
    So French farmers were no more generous than German farmers. There will be a story some time about a farmer setting dogs on us children because we tried to take a few of his chestnuts.

    I am so glad that De Gaulle and Adenauer made an end to the bitter fighting between our countries.

    Moannie - lovely to see a new face here, I will be visiting you soon. thank you for your comments and telling me about DPTD; I had no idea such things exist.

    Arija - Ditto, I'll be over soon. Do you have memories of that time too?

    Brian Miller - yes indeed, and thanks for visiting. thanks also for your generous comment.

    Denise - yet another new face - again, many thanks for visiting and many thanks for your comment.

  17. Cheffie-Mom - great to have you visiting, like the name, thanks for
    your comment.

  18. Yay! I tipped David McMahon the wink about this post - I knew he'd appreciate it as much as I did! Congrats! xxx

  19. Jinksy - So it was you, was it? I didn't even know you'd read it. I've done a whole series of them, starting long before I had even a fingertip- on - keyboard - reply to any posts, oh, several months ago now. Thank you so very much, these stories mean such a lot to me, they really are not easy to drag up; I might even repeat them by and by.

  20. Why not email me (See my blog profile page for the little button) and then I can answer your comments with my quick quips! :) Here's to more tales from you...

  21. I too came via David's POTD. I remember my mother's stories of scarity of food during the American Great Depression.

  22. This is the best kind of history. Thanks for sharing it.


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