The hunger winter (Nov. 1944 – April 1945) and the air raid
Back at home in The Hague, I soon felt restless, because there was nothing for me to do. Resuming work at Central Interest was not possible because I had no exemption certificate. Moreover, I still did not dare to show my personal identification paper, although now with my age altered, to the police whenever it was requested. So most of the time I stayed at home doing further studies in bookkeeping and improving my typing abilities on the old typewriter.
In November 1944, the Germans were desperate for labourers to man the ammunition factories. All available German labour force were now serving as soldiers on the East front. From well-informed sources we learned that in Rotterdam the Germans were arresting all men up to age 50 and shipping them like sheep in big canal barges to Germany. The Germans would do likewise in The Hague and Amsterdam.
My girlfriend Lies who had connections in that part of the resistance movement that catered for the onderduikers (people who were in hiding from the Germans), got an address in Pijnacker where I could stay for two weeks. At first, I stayed two weeks at a carpenter. During day time I worked with the other labourers in the workshop.
After two weeks I had to move on for safety reasons and was temporarily lodged with a black marketeer, where I enjoyed very good food, such as white bread with boiled eggs and after dinner even a cigar. But this lasted for three days only. Then I was lodged, again for three days, with the local butcher, also at Pijnacker. I still remember the nutritious and yummy pea soup.
My next hiding place was at a dairy-farm, halfway between Pijnacker and Delft. The farmer and his wife were active members of the Dutch Reformed Church. Food was by now extremely scarce since the Germans had blockaded all transports of food into the western provinces as punishment for the general strike. Every morning, the people from the nearby town of Delft walked to the neighbouring farms in search for food. Many came also along the farm where I was asking the farmer if he had for sale some sugarbeets or potatoes, to which the farmer had to tell them he hadnt any for sale. However, each morning the farmer’s wife had prepared a stack of sandwiches which she dealt out on the basis of first come, first served.
It was the painful beginning of the infamous hunger winter whereby thousands of citizens had perished. Some three months ago, my parents had bought, at the insistence of my girlfriend, sizeable quantities of kidney beans and broad beans (the sort of beans I was not particularly fond of).
After 14 days of good life at the dairy-farm, I had to move again, this time into the little house of a market gardener living near the town of Zoetermeer. The couple had no children and she was almost deaf. I slept in the attic of the little house under the tiled roof where there was a constant draught and thus very cold. Outside and inside temperatures were below zero.
The work I had to do involved hard manual labour I was not used to, such as pushing heavy wheelbarrows through soft earth. Other days I had to work alone chopping firewood in a cold shed with a stinking goat as only company. At last, after two weeks of heavy labour and loneliness, I had had enough! I decided to go back home again. Moreover, the danger of the massive round-ups had passed by now. I heard later that the roundups or raids (we called them razzias) in The Hague and Amsterdam were big failures, because all men had been warned in advance). Anyway, I managed to bike home on my bike without tyres, precariously running on the metal rims..
As I told before, we had a small stock of beans so that we survived the hunger winter. By now all public utilities had ceased, the only exception being the water supply. We had the coldest winter on record and that without fuel to heat the house. There was no electric power either. My father succeeded in getting some residue or waste oil from a service station. We fabricated sort of wick and in this way produced a tiny sooty flame that gave some light but not good enough to enable reading. The only solution was to go to bed at 7 pm and to rise at 9 am. Bed was the only place were you could stay warm and preserve energy. All available food was rationed on coupons. Butter, meat, fat or milk were not available at all, even with coupons. But even the meagre rations of bread and potatoes were after some time no longer available and sugarbeets were substituted instead. We tried to eat the sugarbeets raw, but it almost burned your throat. The only way to process sugarbeets was to cut them into little pieces and boil them in water to extract the sugar. The water had to be evaporated so that in the end sort of molasse was obtained.
Since the supply of electricity and gas had stopped, we used wood as fuel for cooking, wood from trees or from whatever source we could lay hands on. Some people living near tramway tracks pulled out from the streets the wooden, tar-impregnated blocks that lay in between the rails. In the kitchen we had a potbelly stove which, however, consumed too much fuel. Clever people had invented and constructed sort of mini-stove which you could place on top of the potbelly stove. The flames of the fire could in this way reach the cooking pot, and the smoke was expelled via the potbelly stove through the chimney. It was a marvellous invention. With small quantities of wood or even paper or straw, it was possible to extract syrup from the sugarbeets. All the heat generated was utilised to the full. Without these so-called majo stoves, our misery would have been far worse.
During the months of January, February and March, the Germans had deployed their secret weapon, the V2 rocket. I still vividly remember the day when early in the morning, there was a tremendous roaring noise coming from the sky. It was as if thousand warplanes had taken off simultaneously. Looking into the sky I saw two huge orange coloured flames going almost vertically into the air, with a terrific speed, so that within half a minute the rockets were in the stratosphere producing a long white curly ribbon of smoke.
A few days later, another V2 missile burst into the air, this time only one at a time. Often the rockets failed after launching. The noise then suddenly stopped, and a few seconds later there was a deafening explosion. Especially during the night, it was very scary to hear the launching noise of these devilish rockets, and particularly when the roaring sound suddenly stopped. We knew by then it would fall back somewhere with devastating results.
The British RAF became very active in trying to destroy the launching sites of these missiles. One day, I heard three fighter planes screaming overhead in a diving attack, each plane dropping a bomb at some obscure targets, followed by big explosions. However, it seemed the targets were not hit, only one house was destroyed and the other bombs fell in the streets, causing only minor damage.
Almost daily these attacks took place on that part of town named the Bezuidenhout, where we lived. The people in our neighbourhood thought the British were trying to hit the launch pads of the movable V2 rockets, but we knew the V2’s were launched from the park to the north of our neighbourhood. To us it seemed as if the British were trying to destroy secret targets in our town quarter. Once I said to my father, they will one day destroy the hole neighbourhood. And this actually happened a few weeks later, on the third of March, 1945.
It was Saturday 3rd March, the day my grandma Vanderwerf at Rijswijk would be buried. She had died at a high age some days before. My parents would both attend the funeral and I would stay at home. They had to walk all the way to Rijswijk, a distance of 10 km because as I told before all public transport and fac
ilities had ceased. While my father was busy removing a tiny nail from the inner part of his left shoe, I heard a swelling sound of many bomber planes flying very low and coming into our direction. I looked out the kitchen window and saw to my horror a stream of bombs tumbling down from the first plane, followed by a series of thunderous explosions. Then the next plane dropped bombs and a new wave of explosions was heard, becoming louder and louder as they were coming nearer.
The neighbours living upstairs hurried down in panic and sought refuge in our house below the staircase. I fled into the toilet and thought, this will be the end of my life. Any moment I expected the house to collapse and bury us in rubble. But nothing happened. The terrible explosions suddenly stopped and the noise of the aircraft engines faded away. When I went to the little garden I saw pieces of shrapnel on the roof of the shed. When I tried to pick one up I almost burned my fingers on the shrapnel from the high explosive bombs.
Our instinctive urge was getting out of this place. We were all convinced the bombers would return to finish their job. My parents and all the occupants of the remaining houses fled in panic, hauling their few possessions in prams or other makeshift vehicles, to their families and friends, away from the disaster area.
That night, my father and I returned to our house to collect some clothes we had forgotten to take with us in our hurried flight. From afar we saw the hole neighbourhood was burning like a furnace. Only our street and some adjoining streets were spared. The area where all houses were on fire was about 300 metres away from our house. My father and I walked in the middle of the streets, on both sides all houses were burning like torches. The big tower of the Roman Catholic church was also hit and from the tower belfry, huge tongues of flames leapt out into the air. We crossed a square and saw completely carbonised human corpses lying in the street.
In this connection, I would like to relate the effects of a bomb attack that took place just a week before the big bombardment. It was the time the fighter bombers were constantly searching for the launch pads of the V2’s. This time a bomb fell right in the middle of a busy main street, on the reinforced concrete of the tram line. The effect of the explosion was amazing, almost ludicrous. Although the bomb had caused a little hole in the concrete, the side effects, on the other hand, were devastating. The forefronts of three multiple story houses had completely disappeared. It looked like a dolls house. My neighbour and I stumbled up the stairs to the first floor and saw a potbelly stove still burning. The occupants of the house had just missed out. One of them came back some minutes later and seeing what had happened, started crying and lamenting: ‘Oh my house, my house!’.
The rooms at the first floor facing the street had turned into a big mess. The chaos was indescribable. The cupboard’s contents were flung all over the place. Bottles with jam were crushed and the jam hung on the ceiling. Pots of pork and beef and all sorts of tinned food were lying everywhere. Food in abundance, in the hunger winter, unbelievable.
First thing we did was extinguishing the stove with water, then we salvaged the remaining foodstuff and carried it downstairs into a tricycle van. The occupant of the room stocked with food appeared to be the lady, who had been asked some months before to give a donation of food for the poor and elderly enabling them to celebrate Christmas. However, the lady had refused to contribute any food. The day after the bomb fell, the lady moved into the house of a friend in a nearby street. When the big bombardment came on the third of March, the street and house where she moved to was completely destroyed by fire. About 300 people had died in the attack.
Another remarkable story happened a couple of weeks after the big bombardment. All inhabitants of our neighbourhood had been evacuated. Our family was temporarily billeted in the house of a green grocer in the Thomsonlaan, in the Western part of The Hague. In the consternation of the bombardment, our pet dog, a 14-year old fox terrier had disappeared, much to the chagrin of my mother. I believe the dog had been captured and slaughtered by hungry citizens. Anyway, under these circumstances it was a useful end of a dog’s life. Then, on a Saturday afternoon around 3 pm, we heard again the terrible noise of a V2 missile. While watching the rocket climbing vertically into the air, I saw the thing began suddenly to waggle. While a huge flame engulfed the missile, the explosive warhead came falling down. Some people ran away to escape disaster only to find death at the site of impact.
In spite of the fact that I did not have a valid exemption certificate from forced labour in Germany, I still ventured out in search of food, because hunger makes audacious. I always carried a 3-litre food container which we had bought to collect our daily rations of watery soup from the central kitchens. The idea was to find out if other food kitchens in other parts of town might possibly have some leftovers. Leftovers? Forget about it! Leftovers in a hunger winter? So many more were doing the same thing.
One day I walked back all the way from Rijswijk on my way home. By this time we were back in our own house in the Bezuidenhout. While walking in the Binckhorstlaan, I heard a cart and horse galloping behind me.
Instinctively, I put my thumbs up and got a free ride. On the box of the cart sat two little boys aged about 10 years. The cart belonged to a potato wholesaler in The Hague West, whereas I lived in the eastern part of the Hague. The cart had no cargo and the boys were in a hurry to get home. My soup container was still empty and remained empty, unless a miracle would happen. And it sure did! Instead of going home, I unintentionally stayed on the cart that went straight through the centre of town. Left of the gate giving entrance to the square with the medieval castle and parliament buildings, was an edifice that had housed the Government Department of Overseas Territories. It was now occupied by German S.S. troops.
The cart was on the verge of entering the gate to the medieval square, when it was stopped by two S.S soldiers. They needed the cart and horse to transport some large wooden cases to the nearby railway station. The boys first protested but the soldiers promised food as a reward. Still the boys protested but they had no choice. One of the soldiers climbed on the cart and directed us to the court of the building, where three wooden cases were loaded on to the cart and then it went to the railway station. While I was watching the Germans unloading the heavy cases, one of them shouted at me: Hey there, tall chap, give a helping hand!
Coming back to the S.S. headquarters, I followed the soldier to collect my reward: food! The boys were not interested in food and hurried home. In the guard room I saw in a corner an electric heater (The Germans did have electricity!) on which a big pot, filled to the brim with a stew made from meat, cabbage and potatoes. First I ate my empty stomach full, while the soldier watched, amused about my greediness. Moments later, he left me alone in the guard room. I filled my 3-litre soup container to the brim, the big pot now being almost empty. I noticed the window was open, and in order to avoid having to give back the food, I fled through the window, sprinting home with my prey.
Coming back home I shouted triumphantly: Look here what I ‘ve got! My mother asked from where I had got that food, to which I replied: From the S.S.! That was the way the Lord had provided.
Another illustration of the hunger episode. Even in spite of the fact that we at home had at least some-thing substantial to eat (beans), the lack of variety and the combination of cooked sugar beet chips and beans made me sick, and I longed for real bread or a real potato. So, o
nce again on my daily search for food, I found myself near the port, where large canal barges were loading and unloading cargo. Although food was very scarce, there still were some shipments of small cargoes of wheat from Friesland, mostly from private sources, to family members in the hungry provinces of the Western Netherlands. I saw that sacks of wheat were being loaded onto a cart and carried away. In one of the sacks was a tiny hole through which a small flow of wheat grains trickled to the ground. Soon I was busy eagerly picking up the grains of wheat, one by one, until I had collected a handful. On coming home, I went to the kitchen and ground the wheat grains in the old hand coffee grinder. The flour, added with some water, formed a dough that I baked, without any oil or fat, in a frying pan on top of the majo stove. The cake thus baked tasted to me like the finest pastry in the world! The precarious food situation in Holland became known to our allies and, quite miraculously, the German High Army command allowed British and American bomber planes to drop food parcels for the hungry population on specified areas.
It was one week before the actual German capitulation, that a large fleet of allied bombers appeared on the horizon, flying very low and unchallenged by German anti aircraft artillery. It is very difficult for me to go into details of this extraordinary happening, but there is an excellent BBC television documentary on this subject of which I have a video recording.
In this connection, I would also like to mention the fact that our family had survived the last three gruelling months of the hunger winter, in the first place because of the modest stock of beans, but also because of the availability of great quantities of firewood. Since the bombardment a lot of firewood was for the taking from destroyed houses just a street away from our house. My father and I had torn out whole pieces of staircase, two by fours and planks from the floors. In the little garden at the back of our house was now a substantial pile of firewood that lasted far into the post capitulation time.
Author: Dirk O.J. Diederix