Glass of Cordial (Ranja) biting after the War
When during the last bitter winter of 1945 food had run out there was an angel in the shape of a helmeted German soldier, still billeted below the footpath in our street, who must have felt remorse or became overwhelmed with the futility of it all, and gave me half a loaf of black bread. I was almost five years old. I walked upstairs to our home at number 18a Roderijsche Straat, Rotterdam which wasn’t far from where the German soldier was dug in and gave my mother this piece of black bread. During that last hopeless winter known as the ‘Hunger Winter of 1945’, many in Holland died of starvation, and, as is so often the case, most were just children and the elderly. In search of food, people would walk tens of kilometers to trade valuables for food at farms. Tulip bulbs and sugar beets would be eaten. It is estimated close to 20.000 people died of starvation. When the war ended many young children were treated at special children colonies to restore them back to good health. I was one of them.
I don’t think anything ever exceeded the euphoria in our family as at that time we had that half loaf of glorious bread. It was a luxury for our hungry family.
The memory is inedible and on par with another one, much more gruesome, of which my grandchildren can never get enough of. They insist on me regaling this dreadful tale over and over again. Children seem to love dreadful macabre tales.
This is the tale: While Rotterdam was bombed at the beginning of the war, the early and still primitive rocket science of the Germans had not yet progressed to anything remotely accurate. The Werner Von Braun V2 rockets meant for England just used to come down willy-nilly anywhere including in our already bombed out city of Rotterdam. They would swoosh over very low with a high pitched manic scream and frighten sleeping children as nothing else ever since. One of them came down somewhere near us and exploded. People were hanging out of windows, shards of glass everywhere and I found myself walking with my mother. She was holding my hand. A man came hobbling down the ruin of a blasted house. There was red colour oozing out of him. He was holding one leg under his arm. He was bleeding from the stump where his leg used to be…………. End of tale! Good night children…go to sleep now. No mucking up! They slept like angels.
Some two years later after life had become more normal but with food and staples still on stamps, my dad decided to take me and two brothers on a day’s outing. We took a train to the south-west somewhere and while my memories are vague being so young, I remember looking out over an endless grey mud flat whereby the colour of wet clay and sky matched at the very end of where I looked. There was no horizon. Dad had promised, after viewing this grey landscape for enough time, a glass of orange drink at a cafe. It was called ‘ranja’ in Dutch.
Of course, no fizzy drinks were available then and all soft drinks were cordial mixtures. The promise of a ranja drink is what I looked forward to so much, the first cordial in my life. The thought of that drink filled my mind as soon as dad’s promise was uttered. I had tasted sugar cubes at the children’s colonies prior to that event, and that was already an enormous experience that I would relish for hours afterwards. Life was so much worth living for now.
After we were all seated at this little café that overlooked this grey flat clay landscape the ‘ranja’ duly arrived in their glasses. This was the moment whereby I would taste a heaven on earth. I put the glass and its edge into my mouth but became so overwhelmed by the occasion, determined never to let this moment of supreme joy ever pass, that my teeth lashed onto the glass with such vehemence that a large piece broke off and remained clamped into my mouth. Oh, the sadness of it. I remember the immediate sense of failure and together with my wrongly assumed payment by my father for the broken glass to the café holder, burst out in inconsolable grief. The day was ruined and I so wished my mother had been there, but she was home in Rotterdam and dad wasn’t as good in the art of consoling little boys.