The Netherlands in WWII : The Hunger Winter


This is the ninth post in a series about American high school students’ impressions on a presentation about the Netherlands in World War Two. Click here for the introduction to said presentation.

On June 6, 1944–D-Day–the allied troops landed in Normandy. The idea was to move across France, Belgium, the Netherlands and into Germany in one fell swoop, ending the war by Christmas.

By September 1944, the forces had moved up enough that the next step was to take the bridges over the various rivers that run more or less from east to west in the north of Belgium and the south of the Netherlands. This operation, which relied on perfect cooperation between the British and the Americans, as well as perfect timing, was dubbed Operation Market Garden.

If ever anything deserves the current teen term “epic fail,” it is Operation Market Garden. Everything that could go wrong went wrong, and as a result most of the southern part of the Netherlands was liberated while the northern part had to wait until May of 1945.

In order to thwart German troop movement during this operation, the Dutch government in exile had ordered a railway strike. It lasted six weeks. In retaliation, the Germans cut off all supplies (food, clothes, medicine) to the west of the Netherlands, including Amsterdam. And they forbade food transports in general.This lasted until the end of the war.

So the people in the cities had no food, the gas had been shut off, and there was no coal, which was used for heating. Coal came from the mines in the south of the Netherlands, and because of the front now running across the Netherlands, the coal supply was cut off.

Photo: sportgeschiedenis.nl

And wouldn’t you know it: that winter was one of the coldest in decades. With no gas for cooking and no coals for heating, people burned any wood they could get their hands on. In Amsterdam, where the entire Jewish population was gone by then, their empty houses were torn apart for the wooden doors, window sills, floor boards, etc. The paving between the tram rails consisted of small wooden blocks, and they were pulled up for fuel.

Photo: nature.nl

People moved their entire households into the living rooms, beds and all, so they would only have to keep one room warm. Which they did with small wood-burning stoves and emergency table-top stoves.

With no food transports, city folk were starving while farmers had mountains of grain, potatoes, sugar beets, etc. that they couldn’t get to market. Pretty much anything on wheels had been confiscated, and so had all the horses and livestock, so even transport by old-fashion horse and wagon was impossible.

People from the cities had to go get food from the farms themselves. Of course, the able-bodied men couldn’t do this, because they had to hide from forced labor roundups. So it was the task of women and girls and old men to find food for their starving families.

Photo: deondernemer.nl

Of course, farms closest in to the big cities ran out of food first, so these women, girls and men had to go farther and farther afield, up to some eighty miles, to get food from farms. Those who still had bikes went by bike. The Germans had long since taken all rubber tires, so they had pieces of garden hose or wood tied to the wheels. Or they just cycled on the rims. Imagine cycling that way for 80 miles! Those who didn’t have bikes anymore used whatever they did have with wheels: children’s carts, strollers, even toy strollers.

Photo: virtueletochten.hollandsarchief.nl

They would have valuables with them on the way to the country, to barter for food. Anything from silverware to Persian rugs. On the way back those with bikes also had to walk, because they would have a sack of potatoes or later sugar beets or tulip bulbs hanging across the frame.

The journey was hard, not only because people were cycling on bumpy bikes or on foot, pulling toy carts, wearing threadbare clothes and shoes in the lowest temperatures in twenty years. Theft was a big problem. On the way over one’s valuables could be stolen, and on the way back one’s food. I read one account of an old man who stopped briefly to pee in the bushes, and when he got back to his bike, his food was gone.

Photo: 20eeuwennederland.nl

The trek took several days, so people slept in haystacks and barns. Any stop was risking theft. And you couldn’t very well return empty-handed when your children or siblings looked like this boy in the photo.

My grandmother made these journeys to her relatives with farms in the north. She used to tell me how hard it was, half starved herself, having to cycle on garden hose tires in freezing headwinds across open country, wearing pretty much everything she had.

Photo: geheugenvannederland.nl

In the period between the failed Operation Market Garden and the liberation on May 5, 1945, some 20,000 people starved to death in the Netherlands.

Following are some comments by a student.

“I also thought it was interesting how they talked about the men hiding and the women going out and getting food. I find this almost stereotypical because the women were always the ones doing the work. I would also think that it would be very challenging because I think Mrs. Gray mentioned something about the bike tires being stolen so they only had metal tires and so they wouldn’t get very far with tires like that. The women were so desperate for food that they would walk miles just for food.”

The next post in this series is about the end of the war.

25 responses to “The Netherlands in WWII : The Hunger Winter

  1. That photo of the child with the spoon in it’s hand has haunted me for years. I’m of the generation after the war, but my parents were father in Germany in forced labor and my mother was in the hunger winter. So after the war, you were not allowed to waste any food, all food that was left over would be kept and eaten the next day. You were not supposed/allowed to complain about it either, I guess younger generations were told about the children in Africa, we just had that quiet ‘thing’ above our heads: “You eat your food, because in the war…”

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    • Hanneke, could you talk more about your father’s experience as a forced laborer in a comment to my post about forced labor? I’d be really interested in his personal stories. Yes, my grandmother also always brought up the hunger winter when I didn’t want to eat everything on my plate.

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  2. Whew, this is so gut-wrenchingly harrowing. I was helping my daughter study history a few months ago and there were many chapters in her textbook dealing with various aspects of WW II……it was educational for me too, and I found myself reading up on some things that weren’t detailed too well. One of the things that interested me was how civilians survived (or didn’t)……..so this post was extremely interesting for me. Thanks for this! Much appreciated.

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    • You’re welcome! I’m glad that it adds some insight. Especially here in America, history education often seems to focus too much on battles when it comes to covering wars. And of course, for Americans, that was what WWII was about. Going over there and fighting battles. So I’m glad I could add some information about the civilian population.

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    • Try reading revisionist literature, give it a try, see which side if the story makes more sense…

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      • To what are you referring here?

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      • Stephen Joseph

        Regarding the HongerWinter of 1944-45, I am just completing a novel that is principally about this atrocity.It concerns two families through three generations (one Dutch/Canadian, one Irish/American), whose lives are linked together through two of the most desperate famines of our times: The Hunger Winter, and the Ethiopian famines.I am seeking a literary agent and/or publisher to bring this into print.I have three previously-published works.Any responses will be greatly appreciated. Stephen C. Joseph, MD sjosephmd@yahoo.com

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      • Sounds interesting! Good luck with it. Definitely let me know when you have it published.

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      • stephen joseph

        Dear Ms Backer-Gray,
        We corresponded in Oct of last year, when I was working on my book, which principally describes the HongerWinter famine in the Netherlands in 1944-5. Several of your readers provided helpful information, for which I am grateful.
        The book, “Famine, War, and Love” by Stephen C. Joseph, has now been published. It is currently available in e-version on Amazon, and the soft-cover will be available there in early March. It will also be available via Barnes and Noble, Apple e-version, etc. and through local bookstores. The book concerns two families, one Dutch/Canadian and one Irish/American, whose fates are interconnected over three generations, though only two of the protagonists ever actually meet.
        The Dutch family, Jacob and Freddi Vermeer and their daughter, Christina, experience the Nazi occupation and the Hunger Winter..
        Christina, 12 years old, keeps her mother and herself alive, after their father ‘dives’ to escape the Nazis, by “Going to the Farms”–bicycling out into the countryside in winter to scavenge, beg, and steal food.
        Later, she and her mother immigrate to Canada, and Christina’s daughter, Elsa, becomes a pediatrician with special interest in children in difficult circumstances. The American family, the Rileys, include a refugee Irish orphan, a WW2 Army Air Corps pilot who participates in the food air relief to the Dutch, and a young long-distance truck driver who signs on to transport food and supplies during the Ethiopian famines of the 1980’s. And thus…..
        I think the book has echoes to today, when so many refugees and immigrants are seeking A NEW LIFE, and A NEW WORLD.
        I hope your correspondents, and yourself, will check out “Famine, War, and Love” on Amazon or elsewhere, perhaps read it, and perhaps perhaps write a review.
        If you will send me a mailing address, I will be happy to send you a signed printed copy of the book, in appreciation of your assistance last autumn.
        Thank you,
        Stephen C. Joseph,MD

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      • That’s wonderful, Stephen! I appreciate the offer of a free signed copy, but I’d much rather support you by buying it, so that’s what I’ll do.

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      • Well, that’s very kind, Barbara (if I may). But you’re going to get a signed copy anyway, if I know where to send it.
        If your readers want to purchase ‘Famine, War, and Love’, easiest way is e-version from Amazon ($8.95). Print copies also available soon from various sources, but Amaz is up now. I would also appreciate comments of whatever kinds from readers, and/or reviews, positive or otherwise, on Amazon. The book is, unfortunately, a lesson for our now once-again dreadful times.
        Steve Joseph sjosephme@yahoo.com

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      • Well, thank you. When I’ve read it I’ll be sure to devote a post to it, including all the purchasing information. Yes, who would’ve thought that we would experience this again.

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      • Stephen Joseph

        Barbara– did you receive the signed copy of “Famine, War, and Love” that I sent to you by snail mail?Have not seen anything on blog or my email (sjosephmd@yahoo.com,  or blackdogassoc@ix.netcom.com)Steve Joseph Stephen C. Joseph, MD sjosephmd@yahoo.com

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      • You beat me to it, sorry. I was just about to message you that I received it a few days ago. I’m almost done reading Orhan Pamuk’s A Strangeness in my Mind, and then I’ll read it.

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  3. MR JAN WESTERHOF

    I LIVED IN AMSTERDAM DURING THE HUNGER WINTER .
    AT 13 YRS OLD I HAD A BIKE WITHOUT TIRES AND WENT INTO THE COUTRY SIDE TO TRY TO GET MY BOTTLES FILLED WITH MILK . IT WAS VERY COLD THAT WINTER AND SUCCEEDED TO FIND A FARMER WHO HELPED ME WITH THE MILK AND TRANSPORTED THEM IN A LARGE STURDY BAG MOUNTED ON THE PART BEHIND ME ON THE BIKE .
    BEFORE I SUCCEEDED GETTING MILK AT THAT FARM , I HAD SLID OF THE ROAD INTO A DITCH FILLED WITH ICE AND WATER AND WAS SOAKING WET AND WITH THIS PROBLEM KNOCKED AT THE DOOR OF THIS FARMER WHO MADE ME COMFORTABLE IN HIS STABLE WHICH WAS WARM AND DRIED MY CLOTHES AND FELLED SORRY FOR ME AND FILLED THE BOTTLES . NEVER HAVE FORGOTTEN THIS INCIDENT BUT ALSO HAD TO PROTECT MY LOAD FROM BEING ROBBED GOING HOME INTO AMSTERDAM .

    MANY MORE STORIES AVAILABLE OF SURVIVING BY OTHER MEMBERS OF OUR FAMILY TRYING TO HELP EACH OTHER TO SURVIVE .

    MEN OVER 17 YRS OF AGE WERE NEVER FOUND ON THE STREET BECAUSE THEY WOULD BE CAUGHT AND SEND TO GERMANY’S FACTORIES FOR SLAVE LABOR .

    WOMEN DEMONSTRATED TO BE STRONG PEOPLE AND HEROES AND MY MOM HAD TO TRY TO KEEP 9 OF US FROM STARVING TO DEATH FOR A LONG TIME AND PERSONALY I DID WHAT YOU SEE ON A PICTURE IN THIS STORY PICKING UP WOODEN BLOCKS FROM THE TRAM TRACKS TO HEAT THE ROOM AND FOR COOKING , EVERYTHING ELSE WAS ALREADY RIPPED OUT INSIDE THE HOME FOR THAT .

    I’LL END THIS BY SAYING THAT I CAN ALWAYS DRAW ON EXPERIENCE TO BE SATISFIED WITH VERY LITTLE BUT HAVE THE USA THE BEST PLACE IN THE WORLD TO OBTAIN FREEDOM AND THERE IS NO REASON WHY ONE CANNOT SUCCEED IN LIFE TO EARN A HONEST LIVING WITH PLENTIFULL SOURCES OF SUPPLY .

    MR JAN WESTERHOF

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    • Thank you so much for your response. It adds a lot to my post. Your mother must have been amazing. Nine children in Amsterdam during the hunger winter–oh boy. How far did you cycle for that milk? Did your mother go out, too, or could she leave it to the eldest children? What did you do for heating when the wood blocks between the tram rails ran out?

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      • Stephen C. Joseph

        Dear Ms Backer-Gray: I am writing a novel about 2 families, three generations each. One family is Dutch-Canadian, one is American-Irish. Fate weaves them together, first in the HongerWinter of ’44-5. One family, who lives near Petton (the site of a terrible Nazi atrocity) is caught in the famine. The other has a B-17 flyer who is part of Operation Manna/Chowhound. As I get further along, would it be possible to e-correspond with you for additional details, etc? I would be very grateful.
        Stephen C. Joseph, MD

        Liked by 1 person

      • Hi Stephen, sure you can mail me. I’m no expert on WWII and I’d probably google most of the questions you have, if that’s alright. And do you mean Petten?

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      • Hallo Barbara! I want reply to mr. Stephen Joseph. Because his interest in Dutch history concerning WWII and (I make a big assumption now) the MD behind his name he might, you also ofcourse, be interested in the following.

        Academic Medical Centre in Amsterdam did a study:
        The Dutch famine birth cohort study
        The Dutch famine birth cohort study consists of 2414 term singletons born alive between November 1943 and February 1947 in the Wilhelmina Gasthuis in Amsterdam for whom we had detailed birth records.
        Since 1996, the cohort has been investigated to study the effects of prenatal exposure to famine on later health.

        Reading it it really makes you think about the longtime effects to the unborn baby.
        http://www.hongerwinter.nl/index.php?id=31&language=EN

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      • Thanks Marie-Jacqueline.

        Liked by 1 person

  4. JAN WESTERHOF

    THANK YOU FOR ANSWERING .
    MY FATHER WENT INTO THE COUNTRYSIDE WHEN HE WAS ABLE TO DO THAT WITH MY OLDER BROTHER 15YRS AND WITH A PUSH CART TRYING TO OBTAIN POTATOES , THEY SUCCEEDED WITH THAT BUT AT THE ENTRANCE OF THE CITY THEY WOULD TAKE IT AWAY ,LUCKILY MY UNCLE WAS AT THE ENTRY AS HE WAS A POLICE MAN AND HAD TO DO THAT , TOLD MY BROTHER WHO HAD GONE AHEAD OF MY DAD TO SHOW ANY PIECE OF PAPER AND HE WOULD LET THEM GO ON .

    IN A PARK NEARBY WHERE WE LIVED WE WOULD SNEAK INTO THAT AREA AND CUT DOWN SMALL TREES AND DRAG THEM HOME WHEN IT WAS POSSIBLE .
    MOSTLY WE WENT TO BED VERY EARLY TO STAY WARM AND AS THE WINTER WENT ON WE JUST HAD NOTHING OR SOMETIMES SOMETHING MY DAD WOULD BRING HOME FROM THE HOSPITAL WHERE HE WORKED AND SMUGGLED IT OUT .
    MY FOLKS WOULD REMOVE DOORS AND PARTS OF BASEMENT CEILINGS TO GET SOME MATERIAL TO BURN .

    CURFEW I REMEMBER BECAME A PROBLEM TO BE OUTSIDE THE HOUSE AND PATROLS WERE FREQUENTLY AND ROUGH .

    FINALLY THE ALLIES GOT THE GERMANS TO AGREE ON DROPPING FOOD FROM B17’S AND OTHER PLANES JUST OUTSIDE THE CITY BUT IT TOOK A LONG TIME BEFORE WE SOME OF THAT .

    I AM GLAD YOU ARE IN CHARGE OF THIS POST Qand love to stay in touch .
    I live now in the town of Lincoln Ca

    JAN WESTERHOF

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  5. JAN WESTERHOF

    I FORGOT TO ANSWER ONE OF YOUR QUESTIONS ABOUT ” HOW FAR DID I GO ” TO GET MILK .

    I DO REMEMBER VERY WELL THAT I HAD TO GO ON A FERRY TO CROSS A RIVER JUST OUTSIDE AMSTERDAM CALLED ” HET IJ ”

    FROM THERE THE COUNTRYSIDE LOOKED VERY OPEN AND COLD AND RODE THE BIKE FOR SEVERAL HOURS BEFORE I SUCCEEDED TO SLIP INTO THAT COLD ICY WATER .
    IT TOOK ME ALL DAY TO BRING HOME THE RESULTS OF GETTING MILK .

    THANKS FOR YOUR INTEREST . JAN WESTERHOF

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  6. Are there any verifiable sources which attest to the nazi blockade which worsened the famine? I have seen it claimed with precise dates but without sources.

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    • Hi Rudi, yes, if you look for Dutch Famine 1944-1945 on Wikipedia, and then under References, there’s lots. I’m not sure which of the whole list mention dates specifically and which don’t, but I bet Loe de Jong does.

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