I have written about the last remnants of food from cellars and larders, gathering free food from hedgerows, woods and fields, the organised gleaning of grain and digging for potatoes left behind after the crops had been harvested.
Another means of gathering food was to steal it. In spite of the hardship there was very little of that. Some village children would make their way into the farmers' orchards and pick a few apples or pears; we were all too small to do much damage and we usually only picked what we could eat. Generally speaking, we were only chased away after we had had enough time to fill a pocket or two. The big boys would share their pickings with the children who were too small to reach even the lowest branches of the fruit trees. Plums and cherries were inaccessible to all.
Farms in the low-lying, wind-swept area of the Lower Rhine were built in a rectangular, enclosed pattern, barns, stores and cattle sheds were all part of the enclosure, with the farmhouse itself forming one side of the rectangle, usually in a prominent position facing the massive farm gates. These gates were only opened for vehicles and livestock, at all other times pedestrians used the ordinary, man- sized door cut into one side of the gates.
Outside the main gate on one such farm, in the middle of the green in front of it, stood a magnificent old walnut tree. Generations of children must have eyed up this tree, boys measuring their climbing prowess against it. During these hard times few farmers were generous; the owner of the walnut tree however, was by all accounts, a particularly mean man, only ever willing to exchange any food produced on his farm for goods many times its monetary value. Starving people from the towns came out into the villages to barter precious possessions for a slice of butter or a bag of potatoes.
One autumn afternoon a group of boys decided to raid the walnut tree. Although I was very small I tagged along, to the disgust of all the boys, one of whom had been told to mind me for an hour. In those days we were usually left to roam the countryside, the adults had no idea what games children played. When we got to the farm the pedestrian gate was shut. The boys had come armed with sticks which they threw up into the lower branches of the tree, thereby dislodging the nuts, causing a small shower of the fruits to rain down on us.
It was only a very short time after this that the farm dog, chained to his kennel in the farmyard,
started his furious barking. A moment later, the small door in the big gate flew open, the dog bounding out with the farmer in hot pursuit. The farmer had unchained his vicious guard dog and set it on us. The boys scattered in all directions; I ran too, as fast as I could, which was not very fast at all and very soon the big dog was on me, baring his fangs, slavering and growling.
Terrified, I screamed. The farmer, who had not expected to see so small a child, ordered the dog to stand back. He ran up to us, me and the dog, and reattached the chain. He was badly shaken himself; setting his dog on a group of children, the oldest of whom was no more than ten years old, was a very foolhardy thing to do, which he must have realized as soon as he saw us scatter. He picked me up, set me on my feet. I was crying and trembling in fear but otherwise unhurt.
The boy who was my minder slunk back, the farmer berating both of us soundly, giving his anger free rein. He threatened to beat us and set the dog on us, should he ever catch us trying to steal from him again.
The boys never took me on such expeditions again.