Section Three of Six
I remember distinctly toward the end of the war in 1943 or 1944, we
had to surrender all of our articles made of brass or copper to the Germans
and they had to be deposited in certain locations. Barbers even had to
save cut hair because, with its natural lanolin, it could be used for tight-fitting
seals in submarines. Hair shaved from Jewish people at the concentration
camps was also used. Furthermore, our radios were confiscated.
Radios were taken, basically, because our people were listening to English
broadcasts. Three or four times a day, we could receive news for Holland
that gave a true picture of how the war was going. Of course, since the
war was not going too well for the Germans they didn't want us to know.
Also, the English radio was always broadcasting messages for the strategic
defense, the English military, and for the underground. These messages
were coded something like, "The cow has not yet delivered the milk,"
or "The pigeons are not flying south," or "The packages
have been delivered." Of course, the Germans tried to distort radio
transmissions with different kinds of sounds such as gargling noises. Since
they had quite a strong signal, they did indeed make them difficult to
However, the German effort to eliminate radio communication was hardly
effective. Many people did listen to the radio including, of course, my
daring mother. We maintained a little radio in the basement and always
listened to the English news which my mother then broadcast all over the
neighborhood. Had anyone who was pro-German given that message to German
headquarters, she would have been in trouble. But that's a word she chose
not to know (or what it meant) "trouble!"
One day, my mother and I were walking on the Maasbrug, a bridge over
the River Maas which is an extension of the Rhine coming into Holland.
Halfway across the bridge, my mother saw that the Germans were confiscating
everybody's bicycles, perhaps for their own use, or for any available materials
needed for the war effort such as the rubber on the tires. She stood in
the middle of the bridge, stopping the bicycle riders, saying, "Stop,
stop, they're taking your bike there." (There were hardly any cars
since there was just no gasoline as any to be had was used strictly for
military or utility trucks.) Had the Germans seen her, they definitely
would have arrested her with drastic consequences. At any age they would
shoot the tar out of you if you kept doing something like that. I must
have been 13 at the time.
The pro-German movement under the leadership of Adriaan Mussart was
fairly strong. The NSB often dressed in plain clothing and the Germans
used them for military and civilian purposes including spying. We had to
be careful not to encounter them because they would get your hide.
As time went by, we had less and less food and fuel. We looked for every
scrap of wood and boiled water in tin cans. My dad went out searching for
any food he could find at all. We also went to gaarkeukens (soup
kitchens) where I especially remember being served tulip bulb soup. It
was battleship gray in color and tasted ghastly!
About 1943, food coupons were introduced. You'd get a stamp book and
each coupon would say, "Good for two ounces of butter, one loaf of
bread," or whatever. The bread was just like an accordion. You could
pull it way out or squeeze it tightly together. (This is called "balloon
bread" in America.) The coupons were color-coded. For example, milk
was yellow, bread was red, and so on.
We had to get the stamp books on assigned days. Let's say, from February
2 to 4 all of the "B's" could get theirs. On March 12, 1944,
my 13th birthday, my mom and I went to get food stamps. Since there were
a lot of people in this one office, we left at 6:00 in the morning. We
walked about four miles (there was no transportation) and it was fairly
cold. As we were walking, we heard the familiar sound of machine gun fire
about a block from us. It was fairly heavy, and because of the airways,
it echoed throughout the streets as it hit the walls and then bounced back
into the streets.
We were baffled as to what was going on and proceeded very carefully
only to find the SS had cordoned off a block. They shot everybody in sight,
including a little boy with a little coat on, about eight or nine years
old. They dragged him by the legs, and put him down on the street. Now,
everyone, for the next two days had to walk by life and see him. (It was
claimed that the victims had broken into a German supply house and stolen
Had it been 30 seconds or a minute earlier we would have been in that
block. So we escaped by a minute. Now that that was something. And
we couldn't go back because they had shut off the street with half-track
tanks with machine guns mounted on top. We had to go on and go through
And then there was my strong mother who was always so dumb and daring.
Her anger was great, and she spoke German fairly well. So to the SS officer
standing there guarding the bodies, she said in German, "Do you think
that's going to do any good?" He responded, "No, we should do
more of it." (I'm remembering; she translated it.) She was very nervy.
But because of her knowledge of German she was a couple of inches ahead
of everybody else. She just said, "Do you think that does any good?"
and he replied, "No, we should do more of this." She let it go
at that, and we went on by.
By the end of 1944, there was nothing to eat any more. I mean, there
was really nothing. My mother got really ill and lay in bed. Her legs were
swollen about one foot in diameter with edema. You could put your
finger into one of them and it would take an hour or two before the mark
would come back out.
I stole everything. I'd hang on the back of Dutch trucks. I'd hang on
the German trucks. And short of sight, I would knock somebody's skull in
for half a tomato. I ripped off everything I could, stole like a rat the
last years. I had to. My mother couldn't get out of bed so whatever I got
was what we had. It wasn't easy either because the Germans would shoot
you. They didn't care. They would absolutely open fire at you.
I also stole collectively with packs of boys my own age. Cars that went
around with food in them were especially good targets. We attacked with
clubs and whatever. We just pulled everybody down and stole everything.
We did a lot of that. We were pretty wicked. You see, it was survival --
really sort of like a jungle. We just did what we had to do. The worst
scene in the world is when there is no food and you are cold.
People were tearing down their houses to keep themselves warm. There
was no heat. The gas was gone. We had a little can into which we put the
most tiny pieces of wood and a little paper. After lighting that, we put
a container on top and tried to boil water or cook anything.
Even my grandfather and I went out stealing. I especially remember a
green can of powdered peas that we stole from a German jerk. We put some
water on it and it kept rising and rising and rising and boiling all over
hell. It had been concentrated! We lost almost everything.
Another time we found an oval metal can that had a top on it that you
could shake. The label read, "tooth paste." We didn't know what
that was, but we thought it might be good for something medicinal so we
put it on my grandfather's feet when they were hurting and he was sick.
Later, lots later, when I thought of this story I could see the red can
with tooth paste and said, "My god, we put tooth paste on his feet!"
We probably stole it, or found it, I don't know where. We used to keep
rare things like that until we figured out anything they might be good
Of course, by this time kerosene was no longer available for our gas
lights. However, we could get a little paraffin oil which, to conserve,
we put on top of water in a can. We then inserted a wick and lighted it.
The result was really no light but an object that looked like a glowing
nail! It wasn't very useful. Thus, to get a little illumination, my grandfather
rigged up a bicycle wheel that powered a generator which then powered the
bicycle light itself. I can still visualize him sitting there pedaling
and pedaling, it had to be constant, while my grandmother read and complained
about the terrible noise.
As the war progressed, lack of food and hunger became more critical.
Of course the Germans were well aware of this. And they even went so far
as to make a "humorous" game of it.
They had imposed an evening curfew on us. As I recall, we weren't allowed
to be outside after 8:00. Well, we heard that they had set up soldiers'
quarters in a grade school about six blocks away. At night they ate and
drank, and, at various intervals, threw bread out of a window and watched
the people scramble for it.
So, as hungry as we were, one evening at about 8:30 my mother and I
sneaked out along the row houses to the school. Of course there were always
soldiers on patrol so we had to be very careful. When we arrived there
were many other people waiting. Sure enough, about every 10 minutes or
so a piece of bread would fly out through the half-open window and the
people outside would swarm at it. Of course the German soldiers knew the
people were there and they would just laugh. You could hear them
laugh and laugh. They thought it a wonderful form of entertainment.
We never did get any bread. We were just not aggressive enough and they
didn't throw enough. Finally, my mom said, "You know this is really
too dangerous, because any moment they can just shoot us because we are
outside after curfew. It's best that we don't do this anymore." So
we returned home and never tried again.
I walked by that school the last time I was in Holland and I could still
hear the voices of the Germans laughing out the window. To this day, it
is impossible for me to understand how anyone could learn to find pleasure
from that type of humor.
By the last war-years in Holland, from late 1943 to 1945, there was
virtually no food, especially in the western part of the country and in
big cities like Rotterdam.
It became rather common for the Dutch people to go to the country to
try to obtain potatoes, or anything edible, from farmers. Of course, they
didn't have any means of transportation so they would get carts (hand wagons
with two wheels) that had to be pushed along over the roads for miles and
miles and miles to the country. Sometimes they were able to obtain food
in exchange for anything that was valuable - antiques, watches, any gold
or silver items, or even money. But money was worth little. A small bunch
of potatoes cost as much as $700 (and I translate the currency here - dollars
into gilders). The farmers preferred things of more value.
The great tragedy is that once the wagons were loaded, they had to be
pulled down bizarre little roads to try to evade the Germans who would
confiscate the food.
Tragically, three times in a row my poor old dad had his food confiscated.
But not only that, the man with whom he had set out died on the road on
the way back of pure exhaustion. My dad came back brokenhearted, no food,
and his best buddy dead. One time, however, before he got so sick himself
that he had to surrender to the Germans for work, he did manage to get
through with some potatoes. We barely got them into the house as the neighbors
were about to steal everything on the cart. This type of occurrence, I
think, was very common in Holland in the last war years. Furthermore, this
whole food scenario led to a very active and terribly unfair black market.
Across the street from us, about 70 yards or so, lived the DeWitt family
- an elderly grandmother, a mother and father who operated a potato and
vegetable store, and their son Jan.
Jan and I played together after school. I can still remember the tin
soldiers we commandeered. Once I stole one which, still today, I regret.
But always, when we played, I could smell Jan's family members cooking.
It nearly drove me "up the wall" because my family just didn't
have any food. One day, I guess I simply burst out crying and walked home.
The grandmother, then in her eighties, must have seen me and understood,
for the next day she came and talked to my mother. She said, "I like
your son. I'm not allowed to do this, and if I were to be found out, my
daughter and son and the whole neighborhood would come at us and we would
be arrested or shot, and I can't afford that. But, if your son will
come, after dark, I will put a little pan outside with the water from the
potatoes. And if I can, I will sneak a potato into it once in a while."
Well, that became a nightly routine. I would crawl over the street,
pick up the water, bring it back really fast, then return the empty pan
so the grandmother could pick it up in the morning before the other family
members arose. Occasionally, there was a potato in the pan which was, of
course, our greatest joy. When the mother and father cooked, they measured
all of the potatoes. But when the grandmother cut and cooked, she could
include a potato. The drawback of the grandmother's precious gift was that
the water was always so salty. We were very thirsty after drinking it.
This continued during 1944 and 1945. Then one day "our grandmother"
died. This woman had reached an age in which her own physical deterioration
didn't appear to matter to her. She was more concerned about mankind. Even
in the way she walked, she was almost transparent, ethereal, like a floating
angel who had passed through her needs of the earth.
That was the end of it. It still makes me sad to think about that. That
was the only way she could help. She couldn't give anything else. There
was no way she could do it. But at night she sneaked out late and put that
little pan of water there. To this day, when I boil potatoes, it's very
hard to throw the water out. I usually use it for soup or gravy.