I have been reading Elizabeth Jane Howard's memoir 'Slipstream' and read about an American who told her, in 1946, that 'we had our small privations, too, you know. It was often quite difficult to get cream.'
|Britain queues for food: photo, Imperial War Museum
I can imagine her returning to Britain and telling her friends about this, and their slightly indignant laughter, as they contemplated what they saw as their miserly rations.
Meanwhile my mother was living on the outskirts of Cologne on boiled turnips, bread bulked out with sawdust, and any nettles she could scavenge; once, on a railway journey to try and find out what had become of my grandfather, who had been arrested by the Allies and had disappeared without trace, she saw a really fat man and wondered how he could be so fat on the rations. She fantasized about cutting slices off him and frying them. When my father's mother, who was living in Canada, sent her and my grandmother a gift parcel, they were thrilled to have the egg-powder the British hated so much, dried milk, and flour, to make into pancakes and fry, using cod-liver-oil from the capsules Grandma-in-Canada had sent.
When I was a child, and English people complained about the privations of the war, she snorted to herself. When she came to England to marry my father, the rations that the British found so penitential were so much too rich for her that she kept being sick in shop doorways. In spite of having a naturally round face, one can see from this photograph that she was in very poor physical shape on her wedding day.
Some people have said in my hearing that the Germans deserved to starve, given what they had inflicted on so many other people. However, for one thing, those who committed the crimes were not always those who suffered for them (like the children who died like flies) and for another, this was the state of not just Germans, but people all over Europe in the aftermath of the war. To be fair, many people in Britain were well aware of their state of relative privilege.
I cannot help echoing my mother's snort when I read of British people 'suffering' from lack of sugar and sweets in and after wartime (for I really think it is obscene to call that suffering when people in concentration camps were being killed by starvation). However,I am not writing this in order to lambast British complaints of hardship - though reading yesterday's post on this blog, they seem to have become so inventive and resourceful, they should have been grateful, maybe? What I'm interested in here is the uneven texture of hardship during the war, even within nations.
For example, I have written, in my novels for teenagers, about the meagre rations of the German population at the end of the war, basing it on historical evidence and first-person accounts. However, it was well known that if you were a 'hohes Tier' (high-up, literally, 'higher animal', you could get anything you wanted, right up to the end, and these things were available on the black market. The train stuffed full of goodies in Last Train from Kummersdorf is similarly based on actual historical fact, and anyone who reads an account of the last days of the shower of criminals in the Berlin bunker can see that they were fed fat.
My mother told me that right up to the end of the war, they didn't go short in Austria, and even afterwards they still had enough to eat, though my father helped, by not only sharing his Army rations with them, but also by deploying his country skills, snaring rabbits and hares and fishing the streams around Graz.
It wasn't until she and my grandmother were deported back to Germany that they really began to starve. I haven't done any research into Austria during and immediately after the war, so was it that my grandmother was quite good at the black market, or that Austria managed to get a better food supply than other nations, or just that the starvation of the time in Germany was so dreadful that relative scarcity, looking back, came to look like a good supply of food? I don't think so, because this photograph, taken by my father in Graz in 1945, shows my mother looking very well fed - I think, however, the double chin is only due to her leaning her head back when the photo was taken, because she was always slim.
Farmers, of course, did OK, and another story my mother told me was about the farmers boasting that they would soon be able to lay down Persian carpets in the cowsheds, as starving town-dwellers bartered their valuables for milk, and so on.
But farmers generally do OK. My father-in-law, apparently, who was an agricultural engineer, used to be part-paid by the farmers for his work with butter, eggs, and so on, and thus never had much difficulty with rations. It helped that he married a farmer's daughter in 1945.
My great-aunt Mia and her husband August, had a textile factory (she ran it and he did as she told him, though it was technically his) and so my mother never went short of nice clothes, at a time when a German creative writing student of mine had to wear dresses made from flour sacks and tie her hair up with string. When my father, by contrast, made a blunder the first time he asked my mother out, by inviting her to the opera, and it turned out to be the ballet, she was shamed by being drastically over-dressed, in a silk dress with her hair tied up with a broad velvet ribbon. Anyone who's read Saving Rafael will recognise the source of Uncle Hartmut's textile factory, and his wife's supply of luxury fabrics. Connections were what mattered - it is always a mistake to assume that what one set of people experienced was typical of the entire population in wartime.
(Aspiring historical novelists, please take note! And do re-read Eleanor Updale's excellent post on this blog about the hazards of assuming that any given period would only have the clothes and furniture produced in that period!)
Unfortunately, I haven't got a photo of my mother's opera-going costume, but it's a pretty nice dress my mother is wearing in these pictures, again taken when my parents were courting in Austria. (The first one is my favourite photograph of them together, by the way) The quality of the print speaks for itself, and it looks like silk. I'm sure it came from Aunt Mia, who once gave my mother a finely-pleated silk skirt that you could crumple up as much as you liked, but it would still come out nice. And see the lovely muff and the velvet-collared coat in the previous photograph.
I did read a novel for teenagers recently that suggested that there was quite severe rationing in the States during the war, something similar to what Britain had, and I found it very hard to believe. I had read so many accounts, in fact and fiction written at the time, of American food parcels, or people travelling to the States during the war, and being staggered at the food.
But since we do have followers for this blog in the States, I wonder if any of them can shed some light on this? Or has the author of the teen novel (maybe it's as well that I can't remember the title) just got it wrong about the rationing? I would love to know.