Tuesday, 5 February 2013

Stealing Coal - The Winter of 46/47





It’s official, it's winter - we have snow - Britain has come to a standstill. For a country obsessed with the weather (after all, there is hardly a casual conversation which does not start with a remark about it), we have still not learned how to cope with it.

However, it's fun for me to wade through deep snow, snug in Aunt Josephine's ancient furs, watching Benno race around and manically bite into it. All his favourite sticks are buried deep and he digs so hard to unearth them, the snow flies up and covers him too.

I remember the winter of 46/47 when even a child found little to enjoy; the whole of Europe suffered from catastrophic conditions, snow, frost and ice were a curse; for Germany, a country on its knees, with millions without shelter, fuel and food, this winter was retribution indeed.  I was six years old and lived with my parents in a village on the left bank of the Lower Rhine; although we had  shelter we had very little food and less fuel. I slept in a tiny glory hole under the roof. The room had a small window with thick panes of glass. Every morning this glass was covered in the most wonderful and intricate patterns of ice ferns and flowers, which I traced with my fingers until they became numb. These patterns were a daily fascination and wonder to me. There was no way of heating the attic, the flowers therefore stayed on the window all winter, the designs changing into ever more spectacular forms, giving me endless delight.

Although a German household was allocated no more than fourteen hundredweight of fuel for the year, there were trains laden with coal from the  mining area of the Ruhr on the other side of the Rhine, which rolled through local woods  on their way out of Germany. It so happened, that these trains always came to a momentary stop in these woods waiting for a signal to change to green, to allow them passage to the nearby border with the Netherlands. It didn't take long for this to become known in the village. The coal was transported in low-sided, open wagons, with steps or iron bars on the outside. A few village men risked the first raids on the train; when it seemed that the raiders were getting away with it, others followed suit.

Little by little, everyone was involved in stealing coal, my parents and me included. It was always after dark when the raids took place. The villagers crept out and gathered on the edge of the woods, close to the tracks, but still hidden from view. As soon as the train started to slow down, the men broke cover, climbed up the bank and clambered onto the trucks, women and children following behind, but staying on the ground. The men began to shovel coal, most with their bare hands, throwing it from the trucks onto the ground where the women and children frantically scooped it up, into small sacks or baskets; the lucky few might have had a handcart although it was quite difficult to get anything but the smallest conveyance over the uneven terrain of the woods. We lifted our sack on to the crossbar of the bicycle my Dad pushed through the snow and the hidden undergrowth.  Father had been seriously wounded in the war and  mother was ill with starvation, neither of them was able to carry much and I was too small, although I remember dragging a sack behind me until we got out of the wood and my father loaded it onto his back.

Because we were such a small group we never managed to take much coal, enough for loading the stove a few evenings to keep the temperature in the kitchen above freezing. Others were better organized, a family of several men and older children could carry two or three sacks away on every raid. I still have a strong feeling that one didn't grab coal from other families; I was all for picking up the spoils thrown from the train by other children's fathers, but I remember being stopped from doing so.

Inevitably, the authorities soon became aware of the raids. The trains never stopped for long, at most five to ten minutes, not enough time to steal large quantities of coal; it was, however, a criminal offence, even people in danger of freezing to death could not be allowed to get away with it. (The British vice governor of the Rhineland, General Brian Robertson, was apoplectic when he heard that Cardinal Frings of Cologne had apparently, during his New Year’s Eve sermon, given his flock dispensation for stealing foodstuffs and fuel to stay alive.)

We never knew how the military police found out but soon, within a week or two, the raids were regularly interrupted by several all terrain army vehicles arriving along the tracks, lights blazing, whistles whistling shrilly. There was much confused shouting, the men jumped from the wagons, women and children dragged away what they could and, abandoning the rest, the thieves fled into the woods. Nevertheless, the raids on the coal trains continued for much of that winter. Not always did the military police get to the signal box in time; sometimes they came when the train was already moving again and the families were just about to vanish into the woods.

I never heard of anybody being caught and punished. Why that is so I don't know; women and children would have been easy prey. It was, of course, bitterly cold - the soldiers may just have resented leaving their vehicles to follow the fugitives into the woods. Did they possibly turn up late occasionally because their barracks were at least warm? It is also possible that the raids were over too quickly for much decisive action. I remember the adults speculating but I cannot remember that anyone came to a conclusion.

During that same winter the villagers were allowed, on several occasions, to help themselves to firewood in these woods, provided they didn't actually fell any trees. Naturally, brush and small trees were taken, but again, it was such back breaking work and so difficult to transport the wood that only the larger and stronger groups profited.

Could permission to gather wood have had anything to do with the authorities trying to stop coal being stolen? I don't know.

Again, mother, father and I set out to gather as much firewood as we could transport on our bicycle. Dad had brought an axe - to chop up fallen branches, he said. Once in the woods we set to work, mum and I dragging fallen branches to Dad who cut  them into manageable pieces. We picked up as much of the smaller brushwood, twigs, sticks and kindling as we could, but the whole haul amounted to very little. Dad decided to chance his luck; there was a sapling very close by, nobody was watching, the axe swung --- and landed in Dad's foot, cutting through his boot. There was blood on the axe, on the boot, on the trampled snow; there was also no help for it, we had to collect our belongings and get home as soon as we could, Dad still trailing blood. In the confusion and panic we stumbled through the woods careless of where we set our feet. I was following my parents and remember falling into a deep drift over a ditch, the whole of me disappearing momentarily. In spite of the damage to his foot Dad frantically dug me out, having for minutes lost sight of me. At home, Mum bandaged up Dad's foot as well as she could; I was sent to fetch an old nurse; she came, understood what had happened and did what was necessary. Dad kept his foot, but for a week or more afterwards our little family remained housebound curtailing any attempts to provide more than the most basic heating for cooking our meager meals.




A similar article was first written and posted in 2009 when this blog had hardly any readers. It has been much edited and altered. I was going to offer it  as a contribution to the  Overcoming Adversity Blogfest“, hosted by writer Nick Wilford but saw too late that contributions should be no longer than 500 words.  Sadly, it is now too late for me to change the text. 

Nick had asked us to write a piece that revolves around the theme overcoming adversity.  The entries will be compiled into an anthology with all proceeds going to his stepson’s college fund.

Nick’s stepson, Andrew, has cerebral palsy and hopes to attend a specialist college in Scotland, but reaching this dream has been difficult. 

It is through actions like this that Nick and his family hope to generate awareness and get Andrew the education he needs.

In spite of being unable to take part in this noble effort I sincerely hope that they achieve their goal.




47 comments:

  1. Friko, that was such an interesting story. Horrific times, makes you wonder how people survived.

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  2. wow, with our temperature here dipping below zero degrees, i could not imagine how in your childhood you have to deal with it without a heater in the house. i can truly understand why families had to do whatever they can to put fire and heat in their homes. i hope these scenarios are not happening anymore in this modern times.
    you have such a vivid recollection and i feel your pain as i am reading your post.
    xoxoxo

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  3. Such a compelling story, FRIKO. Everyone who is complaining of the weather, as they sit by their warm fires with plenty to eat, should come to this blog and read your story. How quickly people forget, and if we heard today of people being deprived of food and fuel some cold place on this earth, most would move on with hardly a comment.

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  4. my goodness...wow what a tale friko...the stealing of coal and then the firewood...and dang the cut foot...i should hope we dont come back to that but....

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  5. Friko, what a tale! But you found joy and beauty in the frosted windows....
    What tough times those must have been for a child

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  6. I have heard similar stories from survivors of WWII in different European countries. In Appalachia, it once was common practice to glean coal from along railroad tracks where it had fallen from passing trains. Many families depended on it until changes in the size of coal shipped and design of coal cars ended losses in transit.

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  7. Adversity can help construct wonderful souls, as we lucky to know you already well understood. Thank you for always educating, uplifting, and sharing your humanity Friko.




    Sending YOU Aloha
    from Honolulu,
    Comfort Spiral
    ~ > < } } ( ° >


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  8. I am SO glad I swung by today. I'm going to read this to my children tonight. I always enjoy coming here - this is so well written, I didn't even realize how long it was. That is what one calls "spellbound". Thank you.

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  9. I too would have broken any law to stay warm and to get food on the table. I don't think the normal rules counted at a time like that. How could one expect people to live by them. There was so much hardship.

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  10. Sounds very familiar, your story. Our family has a much similar story, Our family had to escape the Russians in east Prussia in mid winter. The first time was a failure, the second time was successful. My mother was the one that kept the family alive, my father was still fighting or in hospital in west Germany at the time.Fortunately I was born after the war in 1948. Both my parents looked like walking skeletons in photos taken after the war. We immigrated to Canada in 1953.

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  11. Everybody has a story, however, the stories of war and how people's lives are impacted by the horrors of it all and it's aftermath, are compelling.

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  12. What dramatic stories, of the lengths people must sometimes go to in order to survive. I imagine you must be grateful now for every bit of warmth that can be obtained in the cold of winter.

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  13. A child's ability to find wonder in the ice-patterns on a window in such circumstances is remarkable, isn't it? Such terrible times.

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  14. Even in this horrible economy, I have a warm place to live and plenty to eat. Stories like this make me appreciate what I still have. Thanks for posting.

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  15. I cannot imagine how it must have felt to scrabble in the cold for bits of coal to keep warm, or to labour so intensively to collect bits of wood. What a terrible time to live through, yet, you survived and even in the midst of it all, found beauty in the ice on your window. Your generation has so much to teach us. Thank you for this, Friko.

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  16. My uncle, who was seven years old that winter, did some coal-nicking with the older boys from the neighbourhood as well. The system was similar; there was a train line (that line still exists) close by, and whenever the wagons full of coal went past, people living in the area went to grab what they could. My Grandma told me about this and also said how worried she always was when her young son was out with the older boys; she knew they'd get up to all sorts of things that were at best illegal and at worst dangerous, but she couldn't stop him, and secretly was grateful for what he managed to bring home.

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  17. Hello:
    We do recall reading, with great interest, your original post on this subject. What it brings home is a sense of the appalling living conditions suffered by the German people in the aftermath of the war.

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  18. je zou haast zeggen nood breekt wetten.

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  19. I'm just glad you decided to repost and share this part of your childhood, Friko. It may be more than 500 words but they were effortless and drew me in completely.

    Is the snow also making you think of Benno? X

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  20. Very interesting post, Friko. When my father was overseas during the war he struck up a friendship with a young German teenager. It is a very long story, but the outcome was that they maintained a friendship and corresponded with our family after the war. Through her letters we were very aware of the hardship being endured by the German people and even sent care packages to her for her and her family. Because she spoke English so well and needless to say not many Americans spoke German, she was able to get work as a translator at one of the American military bases. I remember reading in one of her letters that one of the perks she was so grateful for was the bag of coal she was allowed to take home each day...

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  21. Hi Friko - so pleased you wrote this .. life was just terrible for everyone I guess - we borrowed from America some enormous sum of money and that drained our resources for the next 60 or 65 years ... it's only just been repaid.

    I am so grateful I never experienced the War - I've never much liked finding out about it ... but this was so interesting to read and heart rending ... exceedingly evocative ...

    So pleased you posted - I'm sorry to read about your father's illness and your mother's desperate state of health ... it's good to know you though ...

    I hope the winter doesn't hit nobble you too much with this blast - the earlier ones in January sounded worse ... enjoy the walks with Millie .. and look after yourselves - Hilary

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  22. I didn't follow you when you originally posted this, so I am very very glad for this. I was fascinated by the depth of your recollections, and how awful it was to try to survive such horrific events. I had no idea that the German people were treated like this after the war. I am glad that I've found you and that you are still here to share your life, now and then, with me. I am grateful, Friko. Thank you.

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  23. This is so vivid and horrifying, as well as deeply moving, Friko. I learned from the parents of my German penfriend something of the privations endured by the German people in the post-war period, but your story is so much more immediate because of being seen through a child's eyes. I'm too young to remember the winter of 1947, but grew up with my parents' and grandparents' clear memories of the prolonged cold and enormous snowdrifts, the shortage of coal and electricity and the continued rationing of food.

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  24. Oh Friko... It sounds like the horrific parts of the old old stories. People starving, being injured and ill, clutching nuggets of stolen coal and small sticks for fuel...
    I'm not surprised at all at the vividness of the memories. We live past these things, we "overcome adversity," but we don't forget.

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  25. I was only 3 during this winter and have no memories at all. I lived with my grandparents in a little town on the countryside which was occupied by the Americans. I remember that my grandpa had a big stock of logs and the kitchen was always warm as far as I can remember. The biggest problem was getting food. Although we lived on the countryside and there were lots of farmers, we just had enough for not to starve. My father told me that he once stole a bread and payed it later when the worst was over :)! My mother and her sister collected potatoes from the empty fields once they were harvested. I only remember the huge American tanks with their heavy chains which made big holes and strange patterns in the street. I was very scared although they were rather friendly they throw sweets for the kids into the watching crowd.

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  26. A wonderful piece Friko. I knew you had these memories and love to read about them. I have read many bios of this period. I would have stolen the coal too. You do what you must. Dianne

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  27. Husband , just eleven at the start of the war , remembers similar "creative" moments in Belgium ; hacking down a tree with his big brother and hauling bits of it home through the woods in the dark or sweeping flour up outside the mill .
    Have you read "The Ark" by Margot Benary-Isbert about Germany just after the war , or its sequel "Rowan Farm" ? I loved them , when I was a child .

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  28. Dear Friko, your story today was all new to me. All I know of the aftermath of World War II is that President Truman came up with the Marshall Plan and that there was airlifting into and out of Berlin during the blockade. So I am grateful to you for sharing this story and expanding my understanding not only of that period of history but of your own background that must have helped form the fortitude I so often see in your postings.

    I don't remember that winter here in the United States, but it sounds horrific for you and your family and the villagers. And of course the bureaucrats had to get involved with their fondness for the letter of the law. The story reminds me of "A Tale of Two Cities" as well as "Les Miserable." Such hard times to live through and yet today you touch so many of our lives with your words and your resilience and mettle. Thank you. Peace.

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  29. Compelling story. My mother heard war stories from her parents, and would not go back to her homeland (Poland) from which she emigrated when she was only five years old. The old stories of her mother's experiences in a concentration camp left an indelible mark on her that lasted a lifetime.

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  30. Thank you for sharing this moving post. I would be honoured to have it as part of the anthology. I regret the 500 word limit - many people needed more than this to tell their stories.

    Your story shows the endurance of the human spirit and that these days we too often take for granted things like food and warmth. I knew the German people suffered after the war but now I have a better idea of what this meant. And even though you must have been freezing in your attic you found delight in the ice patterns - incredibly inspiring.

    Thank you for taking part!

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  31. Facinating story. My parents told stories of England during the war. Even though England was the victor, they also experienced hardships. I immigrated to the US with my parents in 1955. One old document I have from my life in England is my ration book. When we left England, years after the war had ended, there was still food rationing. One thing my parents always enjoyed was the fruit that was available in our adopted homeland...we settled in Southern California and for most of my childhood lived in an area surrounded by lemon and orange groves.

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  32. Loved the story Friko. I could feel the cold. Actually, I have no idea about that kind of cold. We Americans are always pounding our chests about the sacrifices made during the war but, in fact, we have no idea what real sacrifice is. The vast prosperity the U.S. enjoys today comes from being the victors of a war in which we suffered virtually no damage. Pure, blind luck of time, place and circumstance.
    I would like to think the reason no one was arrested was because the military police allowed the pilfering. They had to respond, it was their duty. But they didn't have to catch anyone.

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  33. Tough times back then. My in-laws were in a displaced persons camp in Germany after the war. They told some hair-raising tales! I'm delighted that you're going to do the "Where I'm From" challenge. Looking forward to reading it!

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  34. I thought I had already read this Friko then thought I must have been dreaming. But then you said it was a post written in 2009, so that is when I read it. It still made a big impression on me this time, as it did at first reading.

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  35. What an incredible story. Your childhood memories brought back so vividly for us to share. I was spellbound. I do hope that Nick's son is helped by his endeavour.

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  36. Frico, this theme is important and I used 'Google translate' you downloaded.
    I think the civilian people finding themselves in the flames of a war are suffering the most.
    Petersburg was 400 days in the blockade in World War II. My whole family died, young children, women, all who stayed blockaded. Only my mother survived. I was born in the last days of the war, but for a long time we recovered and lived against cards as all who suffered from hunger and malnutrition.
    These memories are painful for you, thank you for sharing.

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  37. This is incredible - we really are very spoilt in the West these days.

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  38. A profound story, Friko, I had no idea of your suffering in the aftermath of WW2. For everyone on that side of the pond as I remember the ration books in Ireland and the 3rd grade coal in the fireplaces that created a yellow miasma in the streets. We breathed that toxic sludge. And 1 egg a week.

    Thanks for this.

    XO
    WWW

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  39. My mother and my father left Europe after the war to seek a better life. I know these stories of hardship were shared by millions of people. Yet we still keep on warring as if the all the death and suffering were justified.

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  40. Impressive posting, Friko.

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  41. Wow. What an amazing story. And you tell it so well. Thank you for sharing it with us.

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  42. So glad you shared this story. An eye-witness account of a hard, hard time.

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  43. Wow, it is really something to hear of these things from a person who was actually there. Great story, thanks for sharing.

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  44. A great story, and well written at that. Thank you for sharing, it puts things in perspective.

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  45. I'm so glad you revisited your earlier work because I hadn't discovered you then, either. This is just fascinating and the kind of thing that we don't hear so much from those who were on the scene. I can imagine there was a good deal of fear, especially after they started sending military police. Then the wood cutting -- you must have been just terrified to see your father's foot in such dire straits.

    Thanks so much for sharing this with us.

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  46. Do you think these days will return?

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