Faith in Focus

The Hunger-winter of 1944/45


How many of our readers will remember the infamous hunger-winter of 1944/45 in the West[1] of the Netherlands. The Allies were on the march towards Berlin and left part of Holland still occupied by the German Forces. From what I understood, the Allies were in a frantic hurry to reach Berlin before the Russians got there.

No one in the West had any inkling of the coming terrible and disastrous period in the history of The Netherlands. It was the severest, coldest winter we ever had which contributed so much to the suffering of several millions of people. In my hometown more than 250 died of malnutrition and deprivation. Food rations became critical: one loaf and one kilo of potatoes a week; the potatoes were often frozen and turned into a mushy state. During the whole winter there was no coal, no electricity and no gas.

Tulip bulbs and sugar-beet became at times the only item on the menu in many a home. Numbers of townies left for the countryside on tubeless bikes or on foot with a backpack in the hope of swapping their wedding rings and other jewellery for some food. Some paid 40 dollars for a small bag of wheat and six dollars for a kilo of potatoes. Of course there was many a farmer with compassion who remembered what the Lord had said: “For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat; I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink; I was a stranger and you invited me in.”

Many there were who never made the return trip; in their weak condition they died along the roadside.

Churches and other organisations took it on themselves to find a way to transport children out of this enclave to ensure their survival. One evening there was a knock at our door and one of our deacons informed us that his large cattle-truck would be leaving that night for Friesland. He would leave about midnight to run the gauntlet across the demarcation line and he would take with him as many children as could be fitted in his truck and trailer. So we decided that my two younger brothers, aged 14 and 15 would go. Quickly my mother packed a blanket and some clothes and just before midnight my brothers and I sneaked in the pitch-black darkness of the night through the streets, crossed the highway, over the bridge and along the riverbank to where this man lived.

I will never forget that time when parents farewelled their young ones to an unknown destination to escape starvation. The owner-driver had filled the floor of the truck and trailer with a thick covering of hay and the children soon settled in, some tearful and others excited. I managed to say good-bye to both my brothers through the side-gates. Subdued, we sneaked back through the night to our homes, having no idea where they would go or whether we would see them again when the war ended.

A few days after our liberation, my mother urged me to go and find them. Mr Buitelaar, the deacon, who had taken them to Friesland in his cattle truck told me where he had dropped them off. It took me two days to bike, using tubeless strips of rubber from old car tyres to Friesland. It took me another day to find them on a farm, hale and hearty and talking Friesian. I could not understand them. They refused to speak Dutch to me. A few weeks after my search for them, they came home and slowly became Hollanders again!

Many died that winter and were buried in carton boxes as any available timber was used for cooking or warming a room in the house!

One night we heard crashing sounds outside and found that people were cutting down the trees in the streets for firewood. In one night all the trees disappeared in our township. Those who did not have an axe and/or saw, embraced the claimed tree in front of their house, till some one could lend them their tools. Right through the night they cut the trees, branches and all to small pieces and stacked them under the beds. Not one piece of brushwood remained on the footpath. It was quite an eerie sight the next morning when we looked out of the windows.

 Miserable meals of pancakes were cooked on a mini canshaped stove, which sat on top of the normal stove, with the toplid off, in the living room. These pancakes were a mixture of mashed potatoes, tulip bulbs and any other more or less edible scraps of food, flavoured with home made sugar-beet syrup. There was no flour available. Sometime after the war we tried to make a pancake according to the wartime recipe. We almost vomited; it was inedible, though during that terrible winter it was close to a delicacy.

The worst was when the word was spread that the German occupation forces were holding their unexpected raids – we called them “razzias” – as they badly needed man-power to build their fortifications along the demarcation line in the provinces of Gelderland and Drente. Officially they required men between the ages of 17 and 40, but often they ignored this and just grabbed them off the streets and entered the homes to find them in hiding places. Miracles happened, as when a man quickly sat on a chair in the bedroom and his wife threw all the blankets and bed-sheets over him.

Our neighbours had dug out a space under the floor and as soon as we heard they were coming we would go into hiding under the floor. The hole was under the dining table, covered with a carpet. At times we had to stay there for several days, with some candles, a toilet-pot and at mealtimes a bucket with some mashed food lowered down the hole for us. There were ten to twelve of us of all ages. I think I was the youngest of them.

I could go on and on, but there is a limit. This will bring back many memories for my contemporaries, and for the younger generations it may be good to realise how their parents who lived in that part of Holland fared at the time.

In the next issue I will continue and tell how we saved the life of one of those people who almost lost it in his search for food.


Dick G Vanderpyl


[1] The provinces of North and South Holland and Utrecht.

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Faith in Focus /NZ Reformed Church / / revised May 2000 / Copyright 2000