Processions in the Hunger Winter

This is an episode in “the quest for Jan van Boeckel: From Holland to Bavaria”.DSC_6906

A sense of humour is one of the best survival tools, and the van Boeckels had loads of it. Talking to Jacqueline and Ineke, two of the youngest van Boeckels, they forever tell their painful childhood stories laced with the jokes that were prevalent in the family. It still makes them laugh out loud.

As described in A Child’s Eye, the van Boeckel household was permeated with fear, either due to the bombings, the threat of an intimidating Gestapo thump on the front door, or the uncertainty about the whereabouts of the boys. Things were however about to become miserably worse.

They were seriously suffering by the Autumn of 1944. D-day was on the 6th of June 1944 in Normandy. The German occupier was under heavy pressure. The allies were advancing from the southern part of the Netherlands, beneath the great rivers. Docks and bridges were destroyed by the retreating German army, flooding the country and obstructing the Allied advance. Agricultural lands were destroyed. The Allies had however reached an impasse, amongst others at the famous ‘Bridge too Far’ in Arnhem. And then something happened that would have disastrous effects on the  van Boeckel family and millions of other people remaining in the German occupied territory in Holland.

The food and fuel shortage began early on in 1944, but the real problems started in  September. The Dutch government in exile, in close collaboration with London, requested a strike of the Dutch National Railway on the 17th of September 1944, aimed at sabotaging the German supply route. In retaliation the German occupier placed an embargo on all food transports to the West of Holland. The embargo was partially lifted in November, tolerating transport via the waterways. Then, just as they thought things could not get worse, a severe early winter fell upon them. The canals froze over. With hardly anything to eat, no oil, coal or electricity available the western part of Holland was forced into a period of dangerous deprivation and cold. A famine that would go down in history as the ‘Hunger Winter’. And the city of Haarlem was right in the middle of it. By the beginning of 1945 thousands of people had died from undernourishment. Only when the Germans capitulated in May 1945 did the harsh famine come to an end.

Here I continue to tell the facts as Jacqui, my mother, recollects them. Aunt Ineke has added some details here and there. And once again I allow myself some literary freedom to tell this part of the family chronicles.

wp-1453840422136.jpgDuring that Hunger Winter Jacqui was at home with her parents, five of her sisters and the youngest brother, Jos. The other brothers, including Jan were ‘away’. Soon any food the family could get hold of was limited to what came from the soup-kitchens. And that, as the word says, was usually soup and it meant standing in the endless rows in wind and snow. They sometimes had nothing.

Processions started up from the cities, processions that led eastwards and northwards. Unending processions of mainly young women or children with bicycles, carts, prams, sacks or bags. Anything that could transport goods. Going as far as it took to find anything edible, for hours on end.  Goods were exchanged with farmers for any obtainable food. Exchanged with leftover money or cloth, cutlery or jewellery, if there was any. These processions were later known as  the “Hunger Marches”.

wp-1453840475500.jpgJacqui waved at the door as her older sisters left once again with the old pram and a wooden cart. They would be away for hours, sometimes days. Heading for the North of Holland, to the area known as “The Schermer”.  They hardly had any money or valuables to trade. Jacqui hoped they would return with something, anything to eat. She had even grown to see baked tulip bulbs and sugar beets as a luxury, the staple in Haarlem once the potatoes were gone.

She knew that while the older ones were away in search of food, she, Ineke and Jos would once again go in search of wood. Wood that would burn in their mother’s improvised stove, the only source of heat left. By now they were experts in finding bits of wood. Many of the trees had disappeared, and people had ransacked abandoned houses for anything that could burn.  Although she was hungry, she was glad to be outside. She always had fun with Ineke and Jos who liked monkeying around, making up names for anyone they saw, including the German soldiers and the nuns. It helped them forget that their bellies were empty. Near the Beijnes Factory they were soon hacking at the railway sleepers, gathering the wood and loading it into the cart.

IMG_6917Coming home before the cold, dark night fell, they unloaded the wood and brought it to the ‘wonder’stove. Jacqui’s mother baked some tulip bulbs which was divided amongst the family. Taking turns they cycled on an old static bicycle set on a stand. This produced the light needed in the dark, the beam directed at Mien, her mother at her stove. Another heavy task for underfed bodies.

Jacqui’s sister Willy worked as a nurse at the Mariastichting in Haarlem. A hospital run by German Franciscan nuns who had left Germany at the end of the 19th century, 55 years before the second world war. In those days the order was seen as being too loyal to Rome in the eyes of the Prussian Government and had to find a new home. That became Haarlem. In 1944 the hospital itself started having problems with the food supply, and patients and nuns were soon living on sugar beets and tulip bulbs and joining the Hunger Marches in search of supplies. Despite this they did their best to feed some of the hungry children of Haarlem with anything they could miss.

Jacqui was also one of the lucky one who got an extra meal. In December it was Advent time, the dark weeks before Christmas. Jacqui’s older sister Willy organised that the three youngest sisters, could gather moss for the nuns. This moss was used to decorate the wards with nativity scenes and Advent decoration. In return they got a much needed plate of sour, yellow porridge. That felt like heaven.

And then their last brother had to leave. At the beginning of 1945 he turned sixteen and it became dangerous for him to remain at home. Just as the others he had to become an ‘onderduiker’, he had to go into hiding to escape the Nazi search for forced labourers. Jos was sent northwards near the sea, where he worked on the farm of Family Groot.

Kopie van p061The famine then really started to take its toll. Jacqui’s father suffered from severe malnourishment, which led to hunger oedema and he could not get up from his bed. Jacqui herself started complaining about  extreme stomach pains. “It feels so tight around my middle” she repeatedly told her sister Ineke. The doctor came by, and then a second and a third time. She could not cycle on the light-bike anymore, and she could not eat.

At a certain point she became so acutely ill that she was brought to the Mariastichting Hospital where Willy worked. They diagnosed her with Peritonitis. She saw the doctor shake his head and look apprehensively at  her mother. “Her chances are slim’, he said to Mien who, like always, outwardly stayed the rock she was.  Jacqui was sent back home and lay in bed with bags of ice on her stomach. After a long while she went back to the hospital so that her appendix could be removed. She made it through, or as she herself states “of course I survived”.  The Mariastichting was an absolute luxury in comparison to what she was used to at home. She saw her sister Willy daily while she was there and the others came to visit her.

And then another family member had to leave the fold. Hunger had affected Ineke too and the doctor warned that she would also end up in a hospital or worse if they did not take measures. And so the older sisters, Joke and Mia were given the task of bringing Ineke forty kilometers northwards. There she could work on a farm and have enough to eat, and she would be near to where her brother Jos was in hiding. Walking while hunger raged in their bodies and with a sick child in tow was not really feasible. Mia, the oldest, was able to hail a truck, and requested the driver to transport Ineke part of the way, which he did. Her sisters were later reunited with her and saw to it that she was delivered at the farm and made their way back to Haarlem with food for the Family.


The famine, the razzias, the bombings and the executions continued in Haarlem. At the end of February 1945 Swedish flour was shipped to the Netherlands in an effort to alleviate the famine. This flour was baked into loaves and distributed to the hungry.

Jacqui saw the Franciscan monk coming down the street in his brown habit. She knew what that meant. She called her sisters and went downstairs. Father Kwaaitaal came in and smiled broadly and then searched under his clothing and brought out a loaf of bread! What ecstasy, bread! Laughing and joking about where exactly he hid the loaf under the habit, their hunger was temporarily lifted.

At the end of April and at the beginning of May the R.A.F. and the US Air Force dropped large amounts of groceries from planes, which gave some relief.

Then came liberation and the scattered family came together again, Ineke and Jos blushing with health in comparison to those who had stayed in Haarlem.

All came home, but for Gérard and Jan.

This is an episode in “the quest for Jan van Boeckel: From Holland to Bavaria”.




Boeckel, I. van (2015). Interview

Boeckel, J. van (2016). Interview

Boeckel, J. van (2009). Herinneringen van Jacqueline uit de oorlogsjaren 1940 -1945

Jong, L. de (1982). The Kingdom of the Netherlands During World War II

Krol, H. (2012). (Voor)geschiedenis van R.K. Ziekenhuis de Mariastichting. 1940-1945. De moeilijke oorlogsjaren.

Papenhuyzen, J. (2010). 2000 loaves of Bread – Manna from Heaven






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