By Herman Mol--I was 11.5 years young, living in Amsterdam, when the war started. When the Germans moved into this city, in May 1940, their eyes popped open! The invaders saw store windows filled with items they hadn’t seen in years, like coffee, tea, chocolate, all kinds of pastries and cakes displayed in the bakery window, a full display of meats at the butcher, you name it.
Editor’s note: Herman Mol lives in Ottawa, Ont., Canada, where he and his wife raised their family. He has written and given lectures on the occupation years endured in the Netherlands during World War II. Pillar to Post is grateful to Mr. Mol for sharing his memories as the world remembers the 69th anniversary of D-Day.
It was a complete feast for them. And feasting they did!
It didn’t take long before all items that had to be imported, like tea, coffee, chocolate, etc., were completely gone! People were hoarding, and the Germans were taking and transporting the goods to their homeland.
Recent photo of Herman Mol at a war history lecture. He's standing
beneath a British Lancaster bomber.
Toward the end of 1944, the stores were completely empty. No food could be found anywhere. Factories were stripped of their equipment, and even our trains and artworks had been transported to Germany.
Introducing new rules and regulations on a regular basis
First came the order to burn books that were not longer allowed to be in anyone’s possession. This was soon followed by orders to hand in every item made of copper; radios had to be handed in, etc., etc. The threat of heavy penalties, including the death penalty, made sure that most people obeyed these rules.
Here are some dates to remember:
1940: Burning of forbidden books
1941, Jan 14: Compulsory registration for the Jewish population
1942, July 19: Bicycle raids by the Germans
1942, Sept. 4: Silver coins to be handed in
1942, Nov. 24: All church bells to be taken away
1943, May 13: Owning of radios prohibited
1944, Aug. 19: All males ages 17-40 ordered to register
1944, Aug. 23: Rations restricted to 1,000 grams bread, 1 kg potatoes,
100 grams cheese per week
1944, Aug 27: Rations reduced to 500 grams bread and 1 kg potatoes
1944, Sep. 22: Natural gas delivery much reduced
1944, Oct. 9: Electricity delivery cut off
1944, Nov. 3: Trees, wooden bridge railings, wooden fences, etc. are disappearing from the streets in order to supply some heat
1944, Nov. 24: Milk no longer available
1945, April 24: Food kitchens closed
1945, April 29: “Operation Manna” launched
Introduction of ration cards
Ration cards were soon issued. Farmers were issued quotas. A certain percentage of their products had to be shipped to Germany. The remainder was distributed to the Dutch population by means of ration cards and farmers were allowed to keep the remainder for their own use.
That system worked pretty well during the first couple of years of the war. During this time there was still enough food in the stores to be able to get the rations allowed. After 1942 items like eggs, meat, milk, etc. were getting in short supply.
Ways and Means
Food became scarcer. The only way to get a little more than the ration cards allowed was to go around the system. And the only place one was able to get these items was at its source: the farmers! This was only possible by trading.
Milk and eggs
During the early 1940s we would simply save all the green waste (potato and apple peels, etc.) and take it to the farm and trade a quantity for either a liter of milk or some eggs. The farmers used these items to feed their livestock.
Before this time, farmers would come to town and collect the leftover peels, etc. But now they could stay on their farm and watch the people from the cities come to them with these items and beg for a trade. This worked well during this time because potatoes and vegetables were still somewhat available. Twice a week I traded green waste at a farm for a jug of milk.
Digging your own potatoes
During 1943 things were getting a lot worse. Eggs and milk became luxury items, only available for babies and the sick. However potatoes and veggies were still available. The only way to get these items was to travel out of town. This was easier said than done!
We were lucky in a way because we lived close to the outskirts of Amsterdam. I took my mother’s bike to travel to the farmers, because it was the only one that still had tires. I carried three burlap bags with me. The distance to the farm was approximately 5-10 kilometers. A shovel was supplied and you just started digging your own potatoes. After all my three bags were filled, payment was made to the farmer. Farmers were having a good time. All they had to do was to watch those city folks experience something of the hard work they were so used to and then collect the money. But we were more than happy to be able to get these potatoes and stored them like the squirrels do.
Transporting three bags of potatoes on a lady’s bicycle
Trying to transport three burlap bags of potatoes on a bicycle is an art. I managed to put one bag on the handle bar and two on the back carrier. The only problem was: I couldn’t get on the bike! Someone had to steady the bike while I settled down on the saddle. With a push from that person I was on my way, all the way praying and hoping that I didn’t have to stop while biking through the city. I remember very well that as soon as I arrived at our apartment building, I just put the brakes on and let the bike lean over until it hit the sidewalk curbs. The sidewalk curbs were a big help with this trick. In all the runs I made, I never did run into any problems and always arrived safely at home.
When money became worthless, many farmers (not all) accepted only jewelry, linens, etc. for trading. This was a turning point for farmers. Before the war farmers were looked down upon, were poor and situated at the bottom of the ladder. Because of this trading (city folks didn’t have a choice), people lost most (if not all) of their personal belongings and farmers became a lot richer. Quite a number of farmers took advantage of the hungry city population! From that point on farmers never looked back and moved quickly to the top of the ladder.
Newspaper Clipping re: rations
This newspaper clipping gives you an insight about the amount of food (in this case potatoes) that was available per person for a one week period. The last paragraph also tells you that the system had run out of potatoes the week before the 28th of June. That’s why the extension till July 4 was added.
The story behind this clipping is that people had been standing in line (for who knows how long) and by the time it was their turn, they discovered the store had run out of potatoes.
It also tells you (since this was printed in June 27, 1944) that food was running out. And indeed this marks the beginning of the soup kitchens, since week after week coupons could not be honored and less and less food was available for the population.
Gathering the ears of wheat on a farmer’s field
One of the last times I was able to collect something to eat for our family was when the farmers where finished with the grain harvest. It was not an easy job! Have you ever seen what a field looks like after the harvest? Nothing left but stubbles and here and there a stalk of grain. Now try to walk over that in sandals made from a piece of a wooden plank. I tell you it hurts! After I had collected a burlap bag full of grain stalks from in between the stubbles in the field, my feet were a mess! The stubbles cut into my feet and they were pretty bloody and sore.
Back home, somehow we had to take the grains out of the ears. The best way of doing this was by using a flat sieve made from metal screening. On our apartment balcony we crunched the ears, put this on the sieve and than threw it upwards, time and time again. The wind did the rest. It blew away the light stuff, while the grains were left behind. These grains were then put in the hand-cranked coffee grinder, and ground into flour, which enabled us to bake a loaf of bread, or use for porridge or mix in with the food from the soup kitchen.
Food in exchange for blood
The hospital asked for volunteers to give blood in exchange for some extra food coupons. Well, blood was one item we still had. My friend and I didn’t waste any time to walk to the hospital and donate our blood. At that time, donating blood was in its infancy. It was stipulated that one was only allowed to give blood once a year. In return you received coupons for eggs and milk and vitamin C tablets — items that we hadn’t seen for a long time. Only babies were getting milk and eggs. To top it off: During the recovering time (one whole hour!) you got something to eat and drink!
Much later we found out that this blood was actually collected for the wounded German soldiers who were fighting on the Russian front. Even if we had been aware of that fact, we wouldn’t have cared.
The murder of a duck
On my lunch break from the printing trade school, my buddies and I never stayed inside the school building. The school was located at the outskirts of Amsterdam. There was a huge area of green space with trees and bushes, etc. That’s where we spent our lunch hour. Not that we had much to crunch on, because (as I have noted before) food was getting scarce.
We must have made some noise, because all of a sudden there was a duck staring at us. A duck in the city? While I was looking at the duck, all I saw was a MEAL!
Well, it didn’t take me long to make up my mind. The next day I brought a jute sack (gunny bag) with me to school. I also brought an axe. At the end of the school day, I went looking for the duck. And the duck was waiting for me — in the same spot!
There was no problem catching the duck, because, as it turned out, she was sitting on her nest. Well, that was double value! A duck and a couple of eggs!
The duck soon ended up in my bag. Now I had to sit down for a moment and think about how to tackle this. The duck obviously had to be killed. Being a city boy, I had never had occasion to kill a duck (or any other animal that could be eaten). But I had read stories and knew that you just had to twist their necks and they would die pretty fast.
My hands went down the bag from the outside and easily located his neck. I began the wringing. When I thought the feat had been accomplished, I loosened my grip. Alas, my bag came to life and an awful noise greeted me.
Next came the axe. Also used on the outside of the bag. As long as the duck was inside, she wouldn’t be able to get away, of course. The axe came down hard! But it bounced back up a whole lot faster.
In short: It turned out to be a slow and gruesome death for this duck.
But I still had to get home. That meant a good half hour by streetcar and a 15-20 minute hike for the last stretch home.
It is no fun traveling by streetcar with a dead duck in a bag. I stayed at the rear of the streetcar and pretended that the awful smell around us had absolutely nothing to do with me! And, boy, did it stink!
When I arrived home and opened the bag, I had to get rid of it in a hurry. Death throes had caused the duck to dirty the bag.
To top it off, the eggs were rotten and had to be thrown out.
And, the cleaning of the duck was yet another problem. But enough about this poor duck.
Tulip bulbs - Mmmm!
Bread made from tulip bulbs actually tastes very good. One of my friend’s mother made this bread and it was like cake to me.
Eating a foamy substance
My friend Henk and I were stamp collectors. Every Saturday we went downtown to the postage stamp market, where there was selling, buying and trading of stamps.
One time, Henk brought his complete collection to the market and sold it for 25 bucks! I was mad at him.
Why did he sell his beautiful stamps?
On the way back home – a one-hour walk - I found out why. He had noticed that street vendors were selling something that looked inviting — whipping cream of some sort!
Of course, that couldn’t be! We hadn’t seen whipping cream since 1939 for Pete’s sake! And we were hungry! This vendor was using the same machine that had been used in better times to top off hot chocolate with whipping cream. This stuff looked the same. We knew it must have been 90% air, but our stomachs were empty and this foam looked appealing. It tasted so good. At $1.50 a pop, Henk kept buying until all his treasured money was gone! All 25 bucks!
Ten minutes later, we felt the same hunger pangs we had before!
But just the idea!!!
NOTHING WENT TO WASTE—Stinging
Nettles, a roadside weed, sold for 15c a half kilogram.
Stinging Nettles For Sale
Because of vegetable shortages, vegetable stores started to sell a variety of strange things you would never dream of eating. “Stinging nettles” (brandnetels in Dutch) was one of these exotic items. These nettles grow in ditches and when you touch them they really sting! Blisters will appear wherever they touch you. This was something new and made the news. I did save the picture that appeared in the newspaper. As you see very clearly the helper in the store is wearing gloves while weighing the nettles!
More Herman Mol reminiscences ahead this fall in Pillar to Post on how he and his family survived the last winter of WWII and how a seldom-remembered Allied airlift called “Operation Manna” helped save starving Europeans.