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A Child, A War, And A Bad Penny

Carol Kosowan LL.B., B.A. (Law), B.A. (Policy) on November 10, 2009
from the blog Sound Off With Chris Schnurr

When Remembrance Day comes around each year, I feel either blessed or cursed – I can never decide which one. As a child, there was no question in my mind that I was cursed.

I was born on November 11th, into an extended family of Dutch grandparents, a parent and assorted uncles and aunts, most of whom grew up in Holland during the Second World War.

My earliest memory of Remembrance Day was coming home to a mother, a grandmother and two aunts huddled around the family television, sobbing and in tears as they watched the Remembrance Day ceremony broadcast from Parliament Hill. As a child, I could never understand the profound sadness that gripped our family on this day. Instead, I was exasperated and upset that on this day, my birthday, my own family couldn’t bring themselves to pass the day with something other than a river of tears.

When I reached an age where I could understand the meaning and memories behind Remembrance Day, I became a curious collector of what my siblings and I would call “Mom’s wartime stories”. The stories, from a family of young girls who knew the deprivation that accompanies living in an occupied country in wartime, both chilled and fascinated us. It was not until I reached adulthood and had acquired an historical knowledge of the global import of war that I could appreciate the horror of Mom’s wartime stories.

Food was an overriding concern in many of these stories – how to get it, how to divide it and how to cook it without fuel. As my mother bluntly put it, “Everyone was always hungry”. In some ways my mother’s family was luckier than many others. They owned a bicycle shop and therefore could bicycle into the countryside to get food from one of their uncles who owned a farm.

These excursions were risky enough for children, but often deadly for adults, who might be shot on sight while trying to evade the Nazi patrols. Thinking that the soldiers were unlikely to stop a couple of little girls on broken-down bicycles without tires, my mother and her sisters would sometimes make the long and hazardous ride out to uncle’s farm to collect potatoes, beets, tulip bulbs and the occasional rabbit.

The search for food became particularly desperate during the “hongerwinter” or famine of 1944-45. People would walk for many kilometers to find food and would trade family heirlooms for food at outlying farms. Tulip bulbs were pureed and made into cakes and biscuits. Those memories of deprivation remain as vivid for my mother today as if they happened yesterday.

Since there was no fuel to cook with, both cooking and heating had to be done with a wood stove. But wood was in short supply once the Wehrmacht arrived in 1940, so Dutch families were left to scrounge wood from wherever they could find it. Buildings and apartments that had been abandoned were fair game for scavengers. Children would find their way into these buildings and would strip off every bit of wood they could find – stair railings, floor boards, shelves, books – anything that would burn. When army patrols came by, the children would run, with as much purloined wood as they could carry.

If they were caught, they would be beaten and their hard-won gains would be taken away. If ice had formed on the canal, the children would slide their wood and other findings onto the ice. The soldiers, in their heavy boots and greatcoats, wouldn’t venture onto the thin ice for fear of falling through. The children would scatter and return later to collect their prizes.

In the dying days of the war, as thousands of grey, emaciated children perished from starvation, the Allied forces began a series of missions that saved the lives of countless others. Known by the name “Operation Manna”, hundreds of Lancaster bombers flew over Holland to drop food to the starving Dutch people. The need was so pressing that the first of the Lancasters set out on its mission even before a truce had been reached with the German high command.

April 29, 1945 the first Lancaster was sent as a test flight that would pave the way for the hundreds that would follow and was piloted by Bob Upcott of Windsor, Ontario. That bomber was called “The Bad Penny” and it later became the subject of a children’s book by Windsor author, Glen Mitchell.

When Amsterdam was liberated on May 7, 1945 by Canada’s Seaforth Highlanders, my mother’s family was barely hanging on. They were slowly starving and had been ill for some months. As Canadian troops entered Amsterdam, they dispensed food rations, raisins and chocolate to the throngs of children who followed them. My mother was one of those children.

As the years wore on, my mother first became indignant, and then saddened by the fact that Canadians were forgetting the sacrifice made by their soldiers and others…because she always knew, and her children were never permitted to forget, that but for the Canadians, she would not have survived the war.