A cube of sugar and the war.

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Gerard on the right getting a tubbing.

It’s funny how memories go hand in hand with ageing, almost as if begging not to let days go by, and so inexorably lead us to the grand finale, our final hoorah. I just thought I will tell you about a peculiar memory that hasn’t faded with the passing years, even though it is of such little consequence or perhaps it is, precisely because it so persistently lingers. 

This memory goes back to around 1945/46 when Holland was dealing with the results of ‘the hunger winter’, and scores of adults but especially children were suffering from serious nutritional deficiency. Food had run out and during the last few months of the war the importation of all food was stopped. The cities suffered most from this food shortage. I was born in Rotterdam 1940 which had the added disadvantage of having been bombed at the start of the war

The Famine Ended 70 Years Ago, but Dutch Genes Still Bear Scars – The New York Times (nytimes.com)

The Dutch government decided to send the children suffering from severe malnutrition and at risk, to camps to try and fatten them back to normal safe levels. I was one of those children chosen to go to those ‘fattening up’ camps. I can’t describe the anguish I felt leaving my mother and forcefully being torn away. Of course, the pain of separation was soon sweetened by the availability of food. I was five and knew hunger. A main source was bean soup and a cube of sugar before bedtime. The communal bedroom had many beds and the children were told they could only sleep on their right side.  Was it to protect their frail undernourished hearts? I used to be clever then, and slipped under the sheets and turned around to the other side as a ploy to overcome that strict rule. 

During the next year or so I was sent to three of those children colonies and each was of six weeks duration. I remained skinny and still am today. But, now comes the sugar cube memory so get a bit closer to the screen! The first children’s colony I was sent to by the Dutch health authority was at the coast within walking distance of the beach and North Sea. The female staff made up of young girls had the job of feeding us to better health and we were weighed daily to see if this was happening. As I stated before, all I remember was eating soups made of beans and long walks along the beach. It was during one of those beach walks that the nursing girls put up a competition to see who could climb a large sand dune the fastest. The prize would be a sugar cube.

You can imagine how I coveted this prize. I ran and clawed my way up to that dune and came up first. I was so proud. I expected the prize to be given after we got home to this fattening up facility. But, to my bitter disappointment, I did not get it, nor during the next few days. I decided to take it into my own hands and reminded the girl; where is my sugar cube? Even then I did not receive it. I keenly felt this but waited till the girls were all having their teatime that I went to their staff room and asked there and then for my prize. It was then that I triumphed and received my sugar cube.

I have never forgotten.

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35 Responses to “A cube of sugar and the war.”

  1. catterel Says:

    To a child, a promise is holy and sacred – even if it’s “only” a sugar cube! What a betrayal! As a student, I had a room-mate once who grew up in Holland during WWII, and remembered her mother making soup from tulip bulbs. Terrible times.

    Liked by 2 people

    • gerard oosterman Says:

      It was surprising to read those children colonies went on till the late sixties. We migrated to Australia in 1956 which offered lots of sugar and food. The migrant camp near Sydney where we stayed at the beginning, had enormous vats of jam on the communal tables and one could eat as much as one liked.
      Children were also sent to Switzerland to recuperate from the famine in Holland.

      Like

      • catterel Says:

        I had a German friend who was also sent to Switzerland after the war to recuperate for a couple of months – I gather things were pretty bad in Germany in 1945-48, though nothing compared to what they had put the Dutch through..

        Like

  2. Dora Says:

    Oh dear…I will let Rani & Matilda read this Gerard. The young need this story and hopefully pass it ònto their children. Moeder used to buy ‘special’ food only for Gerard, must have been so sad for her to see her boys hungry.

    Liked by 3 people

    • gerard oosterman Says:

      Yes, the young now throw food away after one sip or a single bite. I often feel tempted to pick up an almost untouched pizza piece thrown in the bin and eat it.
      Mum did her best to feed us Dora ,but when there is no food?

      Like

  3. auntyuta Says:

    Gerard, you found a way to get your well deserved prize. It made me cry, that you had to fight so hard for it!

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Julia Lund Says:

    What tenacity you had to pursue what you had not only been promised, but had worked hard to earn. Perhaps, if you had just let the matter drop, you’d have have grown up never quite believing promises were something to be kept. And it also struck me that at such an early age, you were determined that justice should prevail – to a child the black and white fair versus unfair (it would have been unfair not to get that sugar cube) – and in your adult years, your passion for justice for the overlooked, your outrage on behalf of those who are treated as of they have no worth by those with the power to change circumstances. A warrior for what’s right throughout your life.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. Will Hemmen Says:

    Barre tijden.. Je moeder vertelde ons vaak over de oorlog. Over her bombardement en vooral over de hongerwinter. Soms had ze maar 1 boterham voor Frans en jou. En dat voor een hele dag. En dat jullie soep moesten halen in de gaarkeuken. Jij probeerde een tweede pan te bemachtigen maar Frans wilde dat niet te koste van andere hongerigen. Ze vertelde ook dat jullie brandstof moesten zoeken.
    Het was inderdaad een vreselijke tijd.
    Goed dat je naar een kolonie kon om weer op krachten te komen.

    Liked by 1 person

    • gerard oosterman Says:

      Ja, dat was ‘n moeilijke tijd en ik herrinner enge dingen. Naar de gaarkeuken voor soep en het zoeken naar kool om de plaats wat warm te krijgen.
      Vader met de kruiwagen naar Drente voor aardappels! enz.
      Hoe is het met jullie? Al verhuisd?

      Like

  6. leggypeggy Says:

    Glad you got the sugar cube in the end.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Robert Parker Says:

    I’ve always been interested in history, and these little slices, or rather cubes, of life are valuable, each telling detail, like the tiny pixels or dots of paint, making a picture and impression in our minds. So thank you, Gerard, for sharing your memory. Two to a tub, to save on washwater I guess?

    Liked by 1 person

    • gerard oosterman Says:

      Glad to help you gather memories, Robert.
      Yes, tubbing together was the norm. At the children colony we had showers and the girls would have rows of children standing on platforms getting a good scrubbing down.
      In the cities water was often cut off and no one washed themselves for weeks on end.
      Oddly enough I must still look a bit undernourished, Two of my lovely neighbors often cook nice sweets and give eggs to try and fatten me a bit…

      Liked by 1 person

  8. Curt Mekemson Says:

    Somewhere, bouncing around in my head, Gerard, is the memory of eating a sugar cube. When and where, I couldn’t tell you. But I remember it dissolving bit by bit. I think my mother used to buy the boxes of sugar cubes, so they would have been easily available.It seems, if my memory serves me correctly, it was also how they gave us polio vaccine, on a sugar cube. It was some kind of medicine anyway. And the delivery system was hard to beat. 🙂
    Good for you on your perseverance in getting your reward.I real thought you were going to say you went and stole one when they wouldn’t give it to you. –Curt

    Liked by 1 person

  9. petspeopleandlife Says:

    I think you learned a most valuable lesson from the sugar cube incident and that is the value of persistence. I am sure that lesson has likely served you well throughout your life. I too, also learned that persistence in most cases pays off.

    Liked by 1 person

    • gerard oosterman Says:

      Thank you Ivonne, It’s no use not going though with whatever one feels like doing. The worst that can happens that it fails but even then, the try makes it always better than not to.
      Tenacity is what my parents persisted in by coming here to Australia.
      Especially by my mother and despite the hardships she lived till 96.

      Liked by 2 people

  10. doesitevenmatter3 Says:

    Yay for your persistence! I’m so glad you spoke up for yourself!
    What do they say…”The squeaky wheel gets the grease.” 😉 😀
    (((HUGS))) 🙂
    PATS and RUBS for Milo! 🙂
    PS…you were tubbing before tubbing was popular! 😉

    Liked by 1 person

    • gerard oosterman Says:

      Thank you, Carolyn.
      Yes, my wheels are now squeaking and the kindness of you and so many people that have crossed my life make the wheels keep on turning.
      Yes the tubbing when there were six of us took all evening but the last one would not have had the benefits of the first one!!! I am sure my mum would have boiled some extra water to keep it warm.
      Hugs to you and Cooper. x

      Liked by 1 person

      • doesitevenmatter3 Says:

        I was one of 8 kids and I rarely remember taking a bath alone before the age of 7 or so. Ha. 😀

        Liked by 1 person

      • gerard oosterman Says:

        We started with the eldest and I was the second in that hierarchy. I think that nowadays it would be fairer to draw sticks or chose at random.
        Depending on our finances we sometimes went to a bathhouse. But, there too they timed you, and depending on how much time one bought and paid for, it was a quick undressing and quick wash if you wanted to avoid the ‘bath master’ to knock on your door to you hurry up.

        Like

  11. freefall852 Says:

    The Migrant’s Dilemma.

    We both are old now,
    And somehow memories fall easier
    From an aged mind, like dappling snow
    That I recalled from long ago.
    “There was a tree like this in the square”
    He said..and he reached to touch a frond of leaves.
    “Not a peppercorn like this, though.”
    He told of the old men in those days,
    Would sit under that tree and play cards,
    Tell stories of their own wild ways.
    “Like old cattle chewing the cud..
    We young would say…”
    And he smiled a baleful smile,
    An ominous portend of a long life’s end.
    He then looked to me with such sad eyes
    In which I could see so clearly defined
    Regret of what chose him to go abroad,
    “I would like to sit under that tree now”.
    He came to stop the gnawing hunger,
    Only to then endure that awful silence
    Of the long years of loneliness.

    Like

  12. shoreacres Says:

    I’m both astonished and ashamed to say I knew nothing of the hunger in Holland. Now that I think of it, of course it makes sense that the country should have suffered in the same ways of others, but it’s easy to think of ice skating on canals and tulips and wooden shoes, and let that be the end of it.

    I mentioned to Curt my first experience with a sugar cube: as a delivery vehicle for polio vaccine. I remember lining up to be given it — I know I was in grade school. People opposed to vaccines today might think differently if they’d grown up, as I did, with crippled classmates and iron lungs. Of course, people today might be more careful with their food — and their wasting of it — if they’d ever known real hunger.

    Liked by 1 person

    • gerard oosterman Says:

      I can’t remember getting sugar cubes laced with medicine, but I must have. I know that the Dutch till this day are keen on sweets. Shop keepers would routinely give kids lollies after mum bought their produce.
      Now big apartment supermarkets seduce kids by plastic little collectables that drive the mums mad.
      No hunger but plenty of malnutrition with people eating sugar meals.

      Like

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