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.