Saturday 23 November 2013


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.


Kate Lord Brown said...

It's a good point that wartime experiences were not universal. The 'haves' were still relatively much better off than the 'have-nots' - one of the diary entries I read once said stockings were a strong indicator of this. The 'haves' kept going through the war, while ordinary women were forced to go bare legged. Wonderful photos.

Leslie Wilson said...

What I forgot to mention was about the wedding dress! It had been a leaving present to my father's lovely friend Molly MacRory, shortly thereafter Huckerby, who with her equally lovely husband Syd, became my brother's godparent (and functioned as mine, too), and was my mother's bridesmaid. She had been working in a dress factory, and so she got the dress, almost unheard of in those days. It had to be taken in for my mother, and you can see it still hung on her, for Molly was pretty buxom. Incidentally, Molly made my own wedding dress!
My mother is wearing socks on the photo with the dress, Kate, she certainly had no stockings, but she was probably also wearing walking shoes, from the context.

sensibilia said...

Your history sounds so interesting. I think I need a family tree, though, as I got a bit confused in places. History based on family recollections and actual facts passed down always interests me, as being authentic in a different kind of way from archive materials.

Momma Bear said...

My mother lived in Chicago during the war and there was indeed rationing. Mostly of milk, butter and eggs, sugar and beef.
They were just coming out of the Depression, where you were lucky to find, let alone afford, any of these luxuries at your local grocery.
It all went to the "war effort" and it was our "patriotic duty" to forgo these things in order that our boys should have the best when they were fighting for our country.
She remembers everyone who had a backyard had a "victory garden" where people grew their own food to supplement their rations.
If you were in a city like Chicago the rationing was severe, depending on where you lived.
Mom's family were inner city and poor to begin with so rationing, wasn't anything new to them.
Sugar and beef were already something they couldn't afford, grandmother kept chickens and had a garden to feed her family already so what as the fuss all about?

Leslie Wilson said...

Thanks, Momma Bear! I wonder why the rationing was different in different places?

Theresa Breslin said...

Lovely post Leslie and lovely photos. I notice your mum's dress is fairly short and I recall my own mother saying that this rationing of materials was a great excuse for girls to raise hemlines!

Momma Bear said...

if you lived in a more rural area you had access to farmers directly also less mouths to feed in a town than a city.
Chicago was a BIG city, competing with NY and LA even then in population.
and lets not forget Chicago then was known for it's corruption, graft and violence.
The end of prohibition only slowed it down but did not kill it.
Chicago is also a very segregated city. each major nationality having it's own neighborhood(which also attributes to the violence)
The more affluent the neighborhood the more able they were to pay graft and kickbacks for the "good" stuff, leaving scraps for the rest.

Leslie Wilson said...

Momma Bear - I am currently reading a V.I Warshawski novel - I am a great fan of the abrasive detective - and so I can relate to what you are saying.
Sensibilia - Great-Aunt Mia was my grandmother's sister, and Uncle August her husband and the textile factory was in Silesia. We were always told that they 'lost everything' at the end of the war, and I was a teenager before it occurred to me that they were rich again when I knew them. My mother finally revealed that Mia (not August) had decided to stash the loot in Swiss bank acccounts at the end of the war. Grandma in Canada was my father's mother, and that, I think, is the relevant family-tree info for this blog.
Of course there was the big revolt against the 'utility' short skirt in the New Look, with its yards and yards of fabric, but it never really took off, did it? The skirts got narrow again, though in the Fifties I can remember the sticky-out skirts with net petticoats, something I always dreamed of wearing when I was grown-up - only to become a teenager into the era of the mini-skirt. But I vicariously fulfilled my childhood dream when I saw my elder daughter in her wedding-dress, with a full long skirt and a wonderful net petticoat - and this is definitely getting off the topic..

Leslie Wilson said...

About Chicago, I mean, Momma Bear..

Unknown said...

I still have my parents' ration cards -- they also lived in Chicago, coincidetally. I remember that butter was a great luxury and they would hoard little bits for months to save up for a cake for someone's birthday, etc. No comparison at all with bread made out of sawdust, but a definite contrast to conditions before the war. People on farms and in the countryside, like my cousins, were better off.