Letter from a Father
Access to Food During the War
“Well the one thing with this letter here also, the whole page is about food. That’s the only thing you were living for, you know. I remember my father saying, looking at a poster in the bakery, 'that’s what bread used to look like.' That was regular bread, but all we were getting was, you know, a soggy piece of stuff. The letter is all about my father telling how things were going in March 1945. And you really, like I said earlier, the letter, you can really tell, the only thing people were thinking about was food, you know, and some of the destruction that was going on.”
Editor's Note: Hank Van Driel translated this letter as follows:
March 28 , 1945
Dear Lien and Phocas
We received your letter on Monday March 26th, dated March 3rd and on the 24th we received a letter from Antoon, dated February 4th. Both letters I like to answer hereby with this one.
We can fully imagine what it means to miss all your stuff, but to me, what is worse is to have to leave all your belongings behind, with the thoughts, you will never see it again!
One gets attached to your own stuff and worked hard for it, and little by little, earn it all together.
After the war we will have to rebuilt our interiors from scratch again, which will be a big battle.
In reality, I myself had to pay twice for my furniture. Thus I know that this is no fun. *1
I suspect, that maybe later you could get compensation for the damages from a relief commission, but then you may have money but still not any merchandise.
Let's hope for the best for our future. I flatter myself with the hope that we will be liberated when you receive this letter. It now seems to be getting closer. *2
You wrote in your letter that you are lucky to be able to get enough food.
That is indeed a wonderful circumstance, because hunger is horrible.
About this problem I want to tell you some of our experiences.
You may have heard what our current rations are. Each week we get per person, 800 gram bread, 1 kg potatoes and 3 kg sugar beets. In addition we may get once a month 100 gram cheese. We do get a ration for some meat a week, but usually there is no meat and instead we get some blood sausage, or "headcheese" which is some kind of gelatinized product that does not have anything in it.
We use the sugar beets to make a syrup, but there are people that prepare it like stewed pears and use it as a vegetable. We get very little vegetables. Sometimes there are weeks we don't get any vegetables whatsoever. The whole winter, we did not get any carrots, onions, turnips, or cabbage. Further, already for months we have not gotten any butter, no sugar, no milk or any kind of snacks. there is a shortage of salt, matches, cleaning supplies, with other words everything. In short, it comes down to per person, per week, 1 loaf of bread and 1 kg potatoes, or for a day, 3 little slices of bread and 1.5 potato.
The people down here are suffering terrible from starvation. *3
People are longing for the day any of the supplies from the Red Cross will reach us.
But what happens when we get such a box, is that some of the rations are being shortchanged.
For example, vegetable oil. The last time we got some oil was in December or January. We were supposed to get some oil in February, but we got some margarine from the Swedish Red Cross.
Thus there was no ration for oil in February, but luckily we were able to obtain some yesterday.
Apparently we will get some bread (400 gram) again per person this week.
But now we have a stagnation for the regular bread ration again. *4
As a result, people, especially the elderly, are dying by bunches. The doctors are totally incapable to help, because the only remedy is food and that is not available.
People in the street are dressed in rags, with worn out shoes etc.
Even children, from what used to be well to do families, are ringing the doors, begging for a piece of bread, a potato or for a sugar beet. People are looking miserable.
If a cart with groceries is going through the street, a police escort is needed, otherwise it will be looted. Here in Schiedam numerous burglaries are happening, sometimes 50 a night en the police is helpless. It seem as if a large part of the population has abolished civilization.
Nobody cares anymore. A house that is unoccupied for a few days, will be vandalized and demolished to get firewood. All trees in town are basically chopped down. The park down here is cleared out of trees and the beautiful flower garden is now a big wilderness.
All walking pads are dug up to find some coal cinders for heating. *5
In Rotterdam they throw the garbage in the street and it is a big mess everywhere.
Now you know something about the general situation here.
Something now about the costs of everything. In general one cannot buy groceries here anymore. But one can barter one thing for another.
The currency is here the Jenever. One liter kruik jenever was 60 guilder in November, later 90, then 135 and then 150 and now 190 to 200 guilders. For 3 kruiken it is possible to get a bag of potatoes from the German soldiers. One kruik equals one bottle of vegetable oil, or two war style loaves of bread. Wheat is 50 guilders a kilo, rye 40 guilders, legumes 35 guilders a kilo. Imitation coffee 15 guilders a small package. Sugar 100 guilders a kilo.
Meat 40 guilders a pound. Coal 160 guilders a bag. *6
Last week I exchanged 3 packages of imitation coffee for 1 kg of carbide. *7
Milk , butter and cheese is not available. So you will understand that the circumstances are far from rosy now. This situation cannot last much longer or the population will be greatly diminished. I have never known what hunger was like, now I know.
You have to imagine the rations, every day shortages again, never anything fatty
Generally, people are extremely apathetic. Nobody is working anymore.
It is sad to see how all the harbor installations in Rotterdam have been totally destroyed.
The powerful cargo cranes have all been blown up. Parts of big factories have been blown up and expensive machinery taken away. It is all very, very depressing.
Now something more personally. During the whole war we have managed reasonable well.
In November we still had some supply of wheat, split peas and dried beans, etc.
I was able to buy 2 more bags of potatoes at 35 guilders a bag. At work I could order for 27.50 a bag (and I paid for it) 4 more bags of potatoes. But those I did not receive yet. *8
In January we used up the potatoes and as a result by the end of January the rest of our food supply was used up. Since then we had to go to the soup kitchen. There we have to turn in the potato and vegetable rations, which is not that bad because potatoes are usually a month too late and vegetables are usually not available. From the soup kitchen we get half a liter a day per person. In the beginning it was not too bad, but the last couple of weeks it tastes terrible, it is mostly a thick pulp with pieces of sugar beets. The meals from the soup kitchens in Rotterdam is said to be much better. The months of February and March have been very difficult for us, during that time we lacked a lot of necessities.
On April 1 I will have worked for 25 years at the Government Labor Department.
Fortunately we are still healthy, except we don't have much stamina anymore.
Riet was weighted a month ago and was still 136 lbs. but by last week she had lost 15.5 lbs. Henk (10 ) and Bep (my sister 8) are malnourished. Henk weights 48 lbs and Bep
46 lbs. The other children (Ria (9), Frits (4), Hans (3) are still looking OK.
Fortunately the time for fresh vegetables is coming. We can then give the kids some vegetables again. Spinach was last week 1.50 guilders a kilo and yesterday 1.00 guilder a kilo.
Under these conditions we celebrated our 12.5 years anniversary (March 1 ).
We were still able to make it a nice day. With the help of friends and acquaintances we were able to gather some goodies and we spent that day without too much worries. We were lucky to just have received a Red Cross relief packet with some white bread and margarine.
Lately the packets from the Red Cross did not contain white bread anymore, but a kind of war quality bread that was very soggy. The story is that the white flour from the Red Cross was switched to the war type flour by the Germans.
Dear People I am going to finish this. I told you something about how we are doing here.
The descriptions I gave you and the prices I mentioned were not meant to create any pity, but are there for your information. We all have our own worries to deal with. This is a time for reflection. One does not really have any spiritual contact with other people anymore.
People have become fanatic and selfish.
We have not heard from the family in Brabant. In Amsterdam the family seems to be doing OK. Mies came over from Amsterdam on the bicycle for our anniversary. *9
We are praying to remain save and in the meantime indulge in fantasies about food.
Riet blames herself for not taking advantage of some of the better conditions when it was still possible before the war. And I am often thinking of what we shall eat after the war.
In any case if we survive the war, and we are OK, like we are still now, we will be indeed very thankful.
Dear people all the best and hopefully we will all see each other soon again in a happier time.
Greetings from the children but especially from,
Martien and Riet
Footnotes by Hank van Driel, son of Martien
*1 The letter was written by my Father to an aunt and 2 uncles from my mother's Riet side of the family.
In the translation I tried to stay as much as possible within the character of my Father's letter with little spacing and no exclamation points. The original letter is probable the 3rd or 4th carbon copy as written on a Remington typewriter we still have. The original carbon copy we had, is now in the archives of our home town Schiedam.
The aunt and uncles were apparently forced to move, leaving everything behind. That happened sometimes because of dangerous conditions or because the German soldiers confiscated houses for their own use or for military purposes. What my Father meant by " having to pay twice for his interior" we don't know.
My youngest brother Hans still lives with his wife Mieke in the home where all this took place.
*2 It took 7 more weeks for the Germans to capitulate in the Western part of the Netherlands on May 5, 1945. During that last period, we ran out of everything. If the war had lasted any longer we would have succumbed to starvation. When the war ended I became 11 years old that month and I may have been as little as 42 lbs.
We have been forever grateful to the allies for our liberation, which is still celebrated every year on May 5th.
*3 In the translation I left all weights mentioned here, metric. A lb is about 450 grams. A kilo is 2.2 lb.
100gr is 3.5 oz. Later on in the letter, when personal weights will be mentioned, I converted it into lbs.
The bread did not look or tasted like normal, it was a soggy mess. I actually had forgotten what normal bread looked like. I remember my father pointing it out from a poster in the bakers shop window. (the only thing to see there, no real food!) Potatoes likewise were of a very poor quality, not at all what you would accept today.
Sugar beets are used for commercial sugar production but are not suitable for a vegetable dish.
*4 Apparently the bread they were waiting for was from the Red Cross, but they were already shortchanged on the regular war type bread for that month.
*5 Town gas was generated with coal in a local factory. The leftover cinders were used for fill in roads and walking pads. During the war they were dug up again to find any partially burned cinders to use in heating stoves. In Amsterdam they dug up wooden blocks from in between the street car rails for heating.
*6 A kruik Jenever is a one liter stone bottle of Dutch gin (a little more than a quart)
Schiedam is the Gin town of the Netherlands (Ketel One Vodka is produced there) My father was able to get a bottle once in a while from one of the distilleries in town he was inspecting for the labor dept.
It is difficult to compare prices with today's, or to find out the earnings during the war.
I found some mention of salaries at the time of 3000 to 4000 guilders per year.
*7 Carbide was used in carbide lanterns,(a prized possession) similar to the ones used more than a 100 years ago on cars for lightning. Used, because there was little or no electricity. Cooking gas was also very sporadic.
*8 I remember picking up those two bags of potatoes on a kid sled in the snowy streets. My father made me walk at the age of 10, behind the sled to prevent people from taking the potatoes. We did get safely home with them.
*9 The family mentioned in Brabant, a Southern Province of the Netherlands was already liberated by that time. There were 3 brothers of my Father living there, in different towns.
The Amsterdam family, consisted of my father's mother, two aunts and an uncle (all single).
One of the younger aunts, Mies, came over for the 12.5 years anniversary on a bicycle, a 50 mile trip, one way!
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