The Resistance Museum’s exhibit “To the Farms! Child Evacuations in the Hunger Winter” shows how 140,000 hungry and malnourished Dutch kids from the northern cities were evacuated to the countryside — under Nazi occupation, after supply lines had been cut so that neither food nor fuel nor electricity were reaching Amsterdam and their neighbors. In those almost impossible conditions, an interdenominational coalition and a pro-Germansocial work group organized a relief effort which involved screening children, rating their level of need, matching them to farm families (usually the same religion), and arranging their transportation along the routes shown here.
They travelled by every possible means, including foot, but barges were the commonest method, going only by night because the Allies bombed anything that moved during the day. Children took only a few precious possessions with them, such as this child’s marbles.
As the Resistance Museum does so well throughout, the story of these hungry Dutch kids is told both through individuals alive today retracing their experiences, and by showing us the larger situation through documents and physical exhibits.
The conditions in Amsterdam, The Hague and other cities which had not yet been liberated (because of the disaster in Arnhem at Market Garden) are almost unimaginable today. During the Hunger Winter of 1944-45, people here were as desperate as anyone in Sub-Saharan Africa in a famine. The only food generally available was from the soup kitchen, one ladle of thin gruel per person per day. People literally dropped in the streets and died from hunger. When a little soup was spilled, they licked it off the street. For the fastidious Dutch to do this is almost inconceivable. The winter was desperately cold, and there was no fuel. This was the time when tram tracks were pulled up and burned, trees were chopped up, and people broke into their deported neighbors’ houses and burned their furniture. You can find photographs here if you can bear to look at them, all taken illegally by photographers who risked their lives to do so. More than 20,000 people died in the western Netherlands, including Amsterdam.
Among many moving stories, here’s one: Tineke Meijer’s account of herself as a 12 year old beside the barge which would take her away. Her mother was with her for a last farewell. In the distance, Tineke saw a girl approaching them with a doll in her arms, but soon realized it was a very small woman, and the doll was not a doll. The woman spoke urgently to Tineke’s mother: “Can your daughter take the baby? We can’t stay in hiding any more because she cries and makes a lot of noise.” Although Tineke said no, she didn’t know how, her mother told her she could. In fact, she successfully hid the baby from the German authorities who were counting children. On the other side, someone came and took the baby out of her arms, to her confusion and somewhat to her sorrow. It’s almost like the Tomb of the Unknown; I wonder how many war children might be that child of unknown parents.
Some of the farm families went to incredible lengths to restore the city children to health. One woman spooned buttermilk into a boy who was dying every half hour until he improved. And many took the trouble to write the parents at home to tell them how the children were faring, to give them hope. The shocking contrasts between their situations come through in the translated correspondence, as when one Amsterdam parent is told by her doctor that she is too weak to walk the few blocks to collect food and must get someone else to do it.
As usual at this outstanding museum, one goes away both inspired by the courage, the willingness, the administrative wherewithal that literally saved the lives and health of thousands of children — and horrified by the suffering that made it necessary. Nothing is spared. We learn of the struggles for city kids on the farm, about the less good matches as well as the felicitous ones. Let me give the last word to one of the farm parents: “As for payment, if we are fortunate enough to return your sons strong and in good health when the time comes, then we would consider that reward enough for us.”