Thursday, February 23, 2017
Hunger Winter The Canadian Army slogged north through the harsh winter of 1944-5. Before them, the Germans had fled, leaving behind a population, reduced to squatting like rats in the rubble. My father Bede was with a field ambulance team in late 1944, when they approached a bombed-out town in northern Belgium. One of his jobs was to inspect the town and establish if any medical or other supplies had been left behind by the enemy. Snow had piled up beside the road leading into the town and two ragged bow-legged children were scrabbling in the rubbish, fighting over an apple core. Bede recoiled at the sight. The army trucks growled to a halt in the centre of town and Bede and a fellow officer jumped off. As they entered a side street, they caught a nasty whiff of stale urine, but the town seemed deserted. Half-way along, they found a boarded-up shop, displaying a sign that read: "niets in Winkel, alles in Kelder". The other officer looked at Bede. 'What does that say?' 'It means something like – "there's nothing in the shop, it's all in the cellar".' Bede pushed open the front door. 'Let's take a look.' Down a wooden ladder, they entered a basement where a frail old woman stood in the gloom. When she recognised them as Canadians, her face brightened. She pointed to a couple of dried-up potatoes on a shelf. Bede shook his head. 'Nee, danke.' The woman gestured, putting two fingers to her lips and blowing out. Bede rifled through his pockets, handed her a cigarette from his packet and bent over to light it for her. Their eyes connected and she gave him a wide grin, showing a row of nicotine-stained teeth. They nodded a farewell and started to back out towards the ladder. Outside, the two hollowed-out children they'd seen earlier were standing in wait. They must have had followed the convoy into town. Until the Army set up camp, they had nothing to give them. In the years to come, that time in Belgium and Holland would be referred to as the "hunger winter". My father never talked much about what he had witnessed there. Instead, he would berate us when we refused to eat our food and remind us of the starving children in war torn Europe.