03 April 2011

What Is It Like to Go Hungry?

The federal government is proposing cuts to programs that provide food to children and pregnant women; many people are fasting in protest.

What is it like to go hungry? My mother wrote this about her experiences in Germany after World War II.

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At the end of WWII, I was almost six years old. We lived in East Prussia, near the Baltic Sea, next to Lithuania. When the Russian Army advanced we had to flee from our home. We were lucky to make it to a small hamlet called Beienrode in what later became West Germany. We, that is my mother, our nanny, my younger sister, brother and I. We arrived there January 31, 1945 and my baby brother was born four days later. My maternal grandmother joined us a little later. We were put up in two rooms in a duplex occupied by two elderly sisters.

What we ate that winter I don’t remember for sure. My mother received food ration cards for each of us, supposedly with enough calories for us to survive. The problem was that the stores were empty. The local farmers gave us some food; I remember soups of potatoes and water, sometimes a few other vegetables if the market had some. Once my mother received a huge bag of grated turnips. The turnips had been dried to the point of being burnt. According to the Geneva Convention they could not be used to feed prisoners of war so there were given to refugees. I remember my mother boiling the turnips, discarding the water to get rid of some of the burnt taste, then cooking them again, adding a few potatoes. We ate them thankfully – we were hungry.

Our village had several stores: a bakery, a butcher, a fish store and two small grocery stores. My mother or grandmother went to the stores every day to try to buy food. Some days word would get around that a store had received food – or flour for the bakery to bake more bread – and the women would rush to the stores, waiting in long lines hoping there would be food left when it was their turn. As the oldest child I would often accompany my grandmother on shopping trips.

Somehow we got through that 1945 winter.

Things were a little better when spring came. There were announcements about which plants that came up were edible such as stinging nettles that tasted like spinach when cooked. We children were told to go into the meadows and eat the blossoms of primrose flowers. We also sucked the lilac blossoms for the bit of sweet nectar that was in them. One of the fields was divided up into small plots and we could grow our own food to eat in season and to be canned for next winter.

In the summer we went into the woods to pick berries. We pulled a wagon with the two little boys in it, plenty of containers and some food for lunch. We were told to eat as much as we could while we were picking. It was fun.

In the fall, after the harvest of the grains we went into the fields, gleaned what was left behind and threshed the grains out. After the sugar beets and the potatoes were harvested we went into those fields and dug up what had been missed. From the sugar beets my mother pressed out the juice and cooked it into molasses. When the beech nuts had fallen from the trees we gathered them and peeled them, Each beechnut had a sweet nutty kernel on the inside. We also gathered acorns and peeled them. They were bitter. We ground them, my mother boiled them and discarded the water. They were still bitter, we couldn’t eat them.

Some nights my mother and the mother next door would go out into the fields of farmers to get food. She told me later that sometimes they were caught by a guard the farmers had stationed by their fields. My mother and our neighbor would plead, saying they had children at home who were hungry and the guard would let them take the food, saying, “but go to another farmer’s field next night”. The guards knew we were hungry. Many had children, too.

Some mornings my mother would get me up before sunrise. We would take our little wagon and go out of the village into fields that were further away to get food. We hoped no other traffic would be out this early. My mother would get as much food out of the field as possible: cabbages, carrots, turnips, potatoes, beans, peas – whatever was available at the time. I had to stand guard to call her if a horse wagon came by. I always was so afraid – I hated it. When we had enough my mother would cover the food with a blanket and we’d head for home.

Once on our way home one of the two local police men came along on his bike. He looked at us and our wagon. My mother said later that she looked into his eyes. He knew what we had and she knew that he knew. He looked away and went on. Most people during that time were very compassionate. We were lucky we lived in the countryside were the food grew. People from the cities came by bike or by foot begging for food.

We kept a few chickens and each Saturday evening we each had an egg with our supper. After rains we were told to gather earthworms to feed them to the chickens which we didn’t like to do. Instead, we tied strings on the chickens’ legs and led them out on the dirt road in front of our house to get the worms by themselves.

I was supposed to start school in the summer of 1945 when I turned six. However, there was no school anywhere all over Germany. There were no teachers, no books, no supplies and the school buildings that had not been bombed were used to house the homeless and for soup kitchens. Eventually there was a soup kitchen in our little village and we children were given delicious soup. We took along milk cans and if any soup was left we were given some to take home.

My mother and grandmother were creative cooks. For breakfast my mother would stir some flour and water together and drip it into boiling milk, a real treat if there was some sweetener to put on top. We would have fake “liverwurst” made with cooked cream of wheat to which had been added salt, pepper and herbs. Our “whipped cream” was milk cooked with flour to the consistency of cream, then cooled and whipped with vanilla and sugar. The first time we had real whipped cream we wouldn’t eat it. We declared that it was face cream.

In spite of all of this I had a wonderful childhood. We didn’t feel deprived because we didn’t know that this was not normal. We had no games, no books, no playgrounds. Every half-way decent day was spent outside roaming the fields and woods and constantly foraging for food.

Things gradually improved year by year after the war. However, to this day I cannot bear to throw away the smallest scrap of food. Every bit of leftover food goes into a container in the freezer to be used for soup. The saying in my family about anything goes, “Mom can make a nice soup out of it”. I have been lucky to have had enough food for my family and myself most of my life. My heart goes out to the people who do not have enough.