A frank story, part 1. (Rotterdam on Fire)
The fire-bombing and resulting firestorm of Rotterdam in May 1940 by Germany took more than just the heart out of the city. It was the beginning of a terrible period. Our street was left standing but without running water or electricity.The Germans were in control and our family would be in for some very hard times. as I remember my father continued his job in the Post, Telephone and Telegraph but now for the occupiers and that’s how it was for those five years. I have memories towards the end of the war when I was four, and can still see my mother trying to cook oats and water on a green kerosene cooker. She had to pump this kerosene single pit stove by hand and my dad would provide light by pedalling a push-bike which was on its stand. Bicycles had dynamos fitted on the back wheel that would provide light both at the front and back by a little wheel of the dynamo rotating against the wheel.
Heating was done on a small coal burning heater but there was no fuel except what one could scavenge from the bombed out city buildings. Towards the end, I remember mothers sifting the coke base underneath the ripped up and disused tramlines and sometimes we rescued a bucket of burnable bits of coking coal. Cold and lack of food was the worst of it all. The best thing was the collective help from neighbours who would share food and support one and other as much as possible.
The most terrifying memories for our family were the erratic behaviour of German made rockets. They were destined for England but were still at a primitive stage and likely to come down anywhere. They flew low and made a swishing and high pitched screaming sound that made everyone run for cover underground. They were the V1 and V2 rockets. The noise of the explosions and the resulting windows breaking, with people hanging from windows screaming in terror, glass everywhere and pandemonium was not suitable for children having sound sleep. Frank and I, and later John and Herman would have some very disturbed sleep during those awful years.
Towards the end of the terrible hunger-winter of 1945 food had run out and I have memories of a German soldier taking pity and giving me a loaf of black bread. Thousands of children died of starvation in those last few months before the British Lancaster carpet bombed with food parcels the fields around Rotterdam. Later on I found out those food droppings were called ‘spam raids’ by the British. I can still see the sky with packages being dropped from those large droning aeroplanes and many men running, including my dear dad, towards them. Those English, rock hard but very nutritious biscuits, is what kept our family alive for the last few weeks before the liberation by the English and Canadians during that last terrible ‘hunger winter’. Soup kitchens that were set up ladled out some kind of broth made from potato peelings and cabbage leaves, poured into a bucket which my mother held in one hand and me in the other. I remember the horror of holding what I though was my mother’s hand which turned out to be somebody else’s hand. Fortunately, I was reunited with the right hand but till this day the terror of that moment still disturbs.
Another item of those distant years and still floating about are the efforts to find food. At some stage, perhaps in 1944, my mother took me to some distant relative who was a tailor. I remember him writing lines on cloth with a circular bit of grey chalk. My mother took me there early one morning in the hope of not being stopped by German soldiers. The green kerosine stove was being pumped cooking my watery porridge and ,after, in the dark, we set out with mother pulling a snow-sleigh. It was the middle of winter and as daylight started to break , a couple of German soldiers were spotted in the distance. The road we were on was a dirt road and my mother quickly pulled sleigh and me into a ditch next to the road. Nothing happened and the soldiers walked on. They either did not see us or ignored us. I can’t remember the soldiers ever done any personal harm to us during the five years of occupation. When we arrived at the tailor relative I still faintly remember sleeping in a cot on a stairway with wallpaper that I used to pick at. I must have been bored. Why the cot was on a sloping stairway remains a mystery. Did they not have a room for me, or did I have to be kept hidden? From mother I heard years later that I stayed with him and his wife for many weeks. They had more food!