In the winter of 1944, there was a shortage of food in the German occupied part of the Netherlands. The Germans had blockaded much of the food supplies from the surrounding farm areas, and the people there were under such severe rationing that the daily calorie intake is what we today consider to be a ‘fasting’ day. 580 calories is one third of a recommended daily amount for a woman, and nearly a quarter of what an adult male should consume. As many as 22,000 people are said to have died from starvation during this famine. Desperate efforts were made to liberate the area, but the situation was strategic and complex, and the tragedy made far greater by the fact that the war was coming to a close. These victims were not military ones, they were children and the elderly. The failed Operation Market Garden was one attempt to liberate the Rhine which would have helped to alleviate the foot shortages which affected at least 4.5 million people.
At the dinner table, my friend’s mother used to tell her that some people had nothing but tulip bulbs to eat. As a child, this seemed to have meant very little to her but as an adult, it informed her about not only her mother’s memories of being a teenager living a mere 250 miles away from other children who never made that winter, but it also tells of a legacy that is passed through the ages. A cultural memory. Tulip bulbs; a cultural memory. This mother’s dinner table recitation shows the experience was felt cross culturally, and cross generationally, and not just in the Netherlands and not just by those that survived that terrible winter. Whilst such anecdotal stories demonstrate an international psychological impact, scientific research suggests the hardship of that time has fundamentally altered the genetic make-up of families affected. The consequences of war reach far further than we ever considered.
This paltry memorial to those that died stands in sharp contrast to the children of today. We should not judge them because they have been fortunate enough to be born in a time of relative peace. We should not judge them for their increasing preference for fake foods, nor should we criticise them in their refusal to eat their vegetables. But it is hard when faced with children who won’t eat ‘unclean’ carrots, or those who demand their food is kept under a pile of tomato ketchup, or those others who make themselves physically sick at the dinner table because the peas are mixed with the sweetcorn. We should provide them with an education about food, and an education about history. Have we forgotten about the tulip bulbs? Have we forgotten about the war that meant even the potential of flowers was consumed in its devastating path? What cultural memory do the children of today have? What seeds are we sowing for them? What bulbs have we planted?
The Hunger Winter
I wish I were a bird
and flew with them above the fields
where no farmers sowed
and no horses ploughed
and the people sighed in the camps
while the birds flew free
I wish I were a bird
and not the rabbit I waylaid
to ease my hunger
when the people put on their uniforms
they were no longer people
they no longer had faces
but the birds flew free
the crow and the blackbird (but not the rabbit)
I wish I were a bird.
by Karel Appel.