Queuing for nice Spoonful of Cod-liver Oil.

After the war many children In Holland went through children colonies (Kinder Kolonies). The aim was for children to be given their good health back again. The Dutch Government’s aim to give good health and hygiene to children dates back to the 1890’s when many children were put into State run homes and given better care than within their own poverty stricken families.

This scheme really took off after the war when thousands of undernourished children were put into those homes. I was one of them after a doctor thought I was too skinny. My grandkids still get a good laugh when I tell them how people used to bump into me and say, “Oops, I didn’t see you”. “Your arms were like sticks, Gerard, like this, and my mother would hold up her finger, together with the encouraging, and you used to cough so much.” I had bronchitis almost permanently. I was send three times to different children colonies for six weeks each time.

The general aim for those post-war children colonies was to make them gain weight. Not an unreasonable aim in my case. Weekly weigh-ins was one routine strictly adhered to. A letter would be send to the parents with the good news of weight gain or perhaps not, when no weight was gained. My memories don’t include the finer details of any arrangement of those that failed to get heavier. Anyway, the idea was sound. Another routine was the weekly change of underwear together with a hot shower; again a pretty reasonable affair considering whenever the need for a ‘number two’ arose, a request included having to ask for toilet paper from the leader. It must have been in short supply.  There was very little generosity in giving the required number of sheets. One had to ‘row with the given oars,’ was a popular saying of the times.

While the aim was for children to gain weight, it was also necessary for them to be given rest. Rest to recover from years of famine and hunger. This rest was generally in the afternoon between 2 and 3 pm and on stretchers. For a reason that was never explained, rest and sleep was only allowed by laying on your right side. We had one group leader whose job it was to look out for any recalcitrant trying to sleep on back or wrong side. She also happened to have a loose arm and would give you a good smack around the ears followed with the word, “please”, if you had disobeyed this one sided rule. Of course, I was never smacked at home but smacking was far more common in those days and I suppose those young women only gave back what was given to them. Even so, it was particularly painful and not just because of the pain. Children would often be wracked by homesickness, yearn for their mums. A smack with ‘please’ afterwards wasn’t exactly pedagogically a child friendly or wise thing to do at those times but what can I do now? Another form of therapy was for bed-wetters to give them an extra our between the wet sheets. Teach them a lesson.

However, the best of the lot was that after the afternoon rest you were made to queue for the daily spoonful of cod-liver oil. (levertraan)This ritual involved opening your mouth wide and a large spoonful would be shoved in there. Many children would develop an aversion to anything fishy for the rest of their life. I was most fortunate that I had developed a taste for anything that ended up in my mouth. Even a wooden stick would be welcome. My hunger and lack of food a few years earlier made me an addict for anything oral for the rest of my life. Show me food and I’ll show you determination.

After the ladle of cod-liver treat, a new queue would have to formed, and again with mouths wide open we would be given two pills of vitamin C. You were given time to swallow and had again to open your mouth wide in case you were cheating and spewing them out when away from scrutiny. Day in, day out, for six long weeks!

No matter with all those efforts, my weight-gain was measured in ounces rather than pounds or kilos. Before the ‘weigh-in’ we were told to drink copious amounts of milk or even water. Of course those grams added up and the rapport to the doctor was nicely blown up.

In many cases, the efforts in weight gains were mainly in vain. The heartbreak of being without mothers was so overwhelmingly felt, especially in those afternoon rests. I can still hear not just my own sobbing but also of so many other five and six year olds. All the spoonfuls of Cod liver oil and all the vitamins could not make up for the lack of mothers. When I was visited by my mother I ran after her when the visit came to its inevitable end, I promptly lost a kilo in my hand-knitted underpants and without those sheets of toilet paper as well. I could not care anymore.

Readers will be pleased to know I am still on the slim side. I am as fond of food now as then and apart from brown underpants-like vegemite can eat anything. Even now I keep a bottle of cod liver oil in the fridge, just in case.

Old habits die hard.

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3 Responses to “Queuing for nice Spoonful of Cod-liver Oil.”

  1. Elisabeth Says:

    This is such a sad story, Gerard. Perhaps I identify more because of the Dutch connection but I don’t think it matters where it happens. The idea of separating children from their parents ‘for their own good’ is like anathema to me now except in extreme cases – and I mean extreme – cases of abuse.


  2. Lottie Nevin Says:

    Gerard, what an extraordinary account of your childhood. I felt very sad reading this post but thank goodness for your humour – without which it would not have been so palatable. I’ve heard similiar stories of this period and each time I count my blessings that I was born in the 60’s – what you guys went through is a sobering reminder to us baby boomers of just how fortunate we are.

    Weirdly I quite like cod liver oil, but then it was never forced down my throat miles from home in a strange and alien environment.

    You are a remarkable man Gerard, and I love reading about your life, thank you.


  3. gerard oosterman Says:

    Hello Elisabeth and Lottie,
    Thank you both for those lovely words. The aim for malnourished children to fatten up was good but a bit rough in its execution. Mind you, so soon after the war it would have been difficult to cope for a nation totally traumatised by war.


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