Sunday, 21 February 2010

War (Πόλεμος)

I'm looking forward to visiting London's Imperial War Museum to see the Ministry of Food exhibition about food rationing and 'digging for victory' in Britain during the Second World War; here's a brief account of my mother-in-law's experiences in Crete of food shortages at that time. She turns 86 this year.

"Food coupons? No, we didn't have any of those where we were. I have heard something about them being used in Athens where they had no food, but in the villages where we could grow or raise something of our own, we never had such coupons. When the Germans came, they took all our food away from us. From one day to the next, we were thrown into the depths of poverty. Our food supplies were confiscated for the use of the German army*, we were told, and there was a war on, so we had no say in the business. In those days, you did as you were told, there was no discussion or thought about the matter, you just did as you were told and that was that. They took away all our animals, so we had no milk, no eggs, no meat, for a long time. We could go and pick the fruits off our trees in our orchards, but if the Germans saw us on the road carrying them back to our house, they'd confiscate them. We used to buy our grain, rice, sugar and other staples that we didn't grow ourselves from Hania, by trading our orchard produce, but when the Germans came, if they saw us riding our donkeys loaded with oranges in the koffinia**, they'd stop us on the road and take it. Our food was now the property of the German Army. So we couldn't bake bread; all the grain was confiscated, so we had no flour. We couldn't even make a pita. Every now and then, when my brother received a work order from the Germans, he was given a loaf of bread as payment. He would be asked to help carry something or build something or clear road, anything the soldiers told him to do. That's when we saw any bread in our house...

When she isn't gardening, she does crosswords or rolls her own filo pastry for kalitsounia.

"Hunger was very real in those days. We ate what we could forage, which was mainly snails and horta, whatever was seasonal at the time. The Germans never stopped us from foraging for greens. We'd walk in small groups, all girls, from our village (Fournes) to the neighbouring village of Ayia, where there were many open fields, and fill up the sacks we were carrying with us with snails and horta, nettles, wild artichokes, amaranth, nightshade, sowthistle, dock, dandelion, stuff like that. We picked whatever we could carry, and then walk back to the village carrying a huge sack on our back. Then we'd sit for hours cleaning the horta. If we were allowed to grow our own crops on our land, we wouldn't have had to do this so often.

"We could also pick seasonal fruit when we could get it, like wild pears and koumara. For sweets, we'd munch on carob pods. If my brother could trap a hare or bird, we would have some meat. We had to be creative in our use of food to make it last longer or to stop us from getting bored of eating the same things over and over again. I remember we often ate orange salad - orange segments dressed in olive oil and sprinkled with salt. I think that oranges with olive oil would sound very strange to most people these days.

I spotted this group of five old-age pensioners sitting in a modern takeaway bar in the town centre and surreptitiously took a photograph of them by looking at the mirror. They all look old enough to remember the war years. Each one will have their own story of the hunger they endured in their food-rich homeland.
"On one of those days after we'd been foraging and were walking back to the village, I saw a man's foot on the road, he seemed to have fallen over into the ditch. I was the only one to have noticed, so I went to investigate. I found two brothers, my neighbours, lying dead, killed by gunshots. Then I had to tell everyone else what I saw and it was a very sad time. My father had already been killed by firing squad in front of my mother, and one of my brothers was shot in the back when he was sitting in the kafeneion, in civilian clothing. There was no inquiry into their deaths, they were killed and that was that, because there was a war on, and we couldn't ask for any further clarification. My father had seen death so many times by then anyway. he'd spent 12 years as a soldier in Constantinople, coming back home every two years. I was born after his release in 1922, when the Greeks left the city forever. He'd tell us stories of his time there. During the fighting, when night fell, he and other soldiers would carry the dead and lay them in rows, and lie them on them, to get some rest before the next day's fighting began. And they never had enough water to drink. They'd lay rags in the corners of the shacks where they lived in the city - I have a photograph of him standing outside Ayia Sofia - and gather any moisture that dripped onto them from the rain, and they'd suck on the rags to keep themselves from dehydrating. He came back home after fighting a war, and died again in a war. I hardly had the chance to get to know him...
"I had hurt my leg, I can't remember how it had happened, I must have fallen and the wound never healed. It got bigger and bigger, and my leg began to hurt me. I thought I had gangrene. A German soldier saw my leg, and before I knew it, a whole lot of them were coming towards me. They had to hold me down because I was frightened, I didn't know what they were going to do to me. They cleaned the wound and applied some medication to it, and eventually I got better. They never bothered me again...

"Eventually we were allowed to go back to tending our fields and could keep a few chickens which gave us a fresh egg here and there and a bit of meat on special days. But it was very very hard work looking after the land, what with our menfolk gone or dead, the physical labour required to carry out the work on the fields made a man out of a woman.

"I suppose a food rationing system would have been useful, to make sure everyone had something to eat, because we really didn't have a lot to eat in those days, apart from horta, but where was the food going to come from if we didn't have any to start with? People were starving, they had little food to feed their children with, and they were starving too. Even if people had money, they couldn't buy anything with it because there was nothing available to buy. Money was worthless paper to all of us at the time, because what we wanted to buy was food, and there simply wasn't any food...

"When the confiscations stopped and we were able to start buying, growing and eating whatever we wanted, there was a shortage of flour since there had been no wheat planted. Some flour was brought into the villages from the food distribution schemes that began to operate after the Germans left. The grain was packed in large sacks with the letters:

(which stands for: Ηνωμένες Πολιτείες Αμερικής - U.S.A)

written on it. We didn't know what the letters stood for, and when we asked some of the village officials to explain it to us, they were dumbfounded too. So we just made up a phrase for it:

'Ηρθε Πάλι Αλεύρι
(literal meaning: came-again-flour: "Flour has returned")

because we had to make sense of it in some way, and this sounded logical to us.

One would think that she was dead tired of eating snails and horta after those hard years when that was all they had to eat. "No," she shakes her head, "we may have eaten a lot of them back then, but we always ate a lot of them anyway. We always liked our horta. The difference was that we had other foods to accompany them whereas during the war, horta was all we had. I don't know if it would have been better if we could just have been confined in our houses and had some bread and oil. That would sustain you for a long time and keep your stomach full, but horta, well, no matter how much you ate, you still felt hungry."

snail feeding maich greens

She still potters around in the garden as often as the weather and her old-age mobility problems let her. "I've always enjoyed gardening, and I've always liked vegetables in my meals, it depends on what you're used to eating, how you've been raised, your financial situation. Salads and greens are always tasty, especially if you know that the place where they were grown is free of pesticides and chemicals, but that's the thing these days: you want to eat something healthy, but you don't know who or what's been at it before you. Nothing grows these days without pesticides..."

*** *** ***

During World War II, the whole world was thrown into a real food crisis - there was a shortage of food everywhere, though at different rates and for different commodities, depending on where a person resided. Many people died during the Second World War as a result of hunger, especially those who lived in urban centres, since they relied mainly on food sources that were transported into their regions. People living in rural regions (like my mother-in-law) fared better because they were able to forage for food. The villages in the mountain areas of Crete (such as my mother's) were less affected, since the Nazis could not penetrate every nook and cranny of the rugged countryside, so that mountain residents would still be able to grow some grain, keep animals and produce cheese.

In Greece, the worst hit famine area was, naturally, Athens, mainly due to the imposition of a blockade of food distribution by Britain (who feared that the Nazis would view such movements as a military advantage), which was eventually lifted after pressure from the United States:

"Shortly after the Nazi invasion, the Greek nation began to live in difficult times due to lack of food. The food was all confiscated by the German occupiers and the entire rail network of Greece was destroyed so that food could not be transported. The people of Athens began to receive food with food coupons, while the black market "flourished". In the autumn of 1941 the first deaths from starvation were recorded in some poor neighborhoods of Athens."

(Photo included in: Hionidou, Violeta (2006) Famine and Death in Occupied Greece, 1941-1944 Cambridge University Press)
Initially, food coupons (δελτία τροφίμων - this is the only Greek phrase for the concept of 'food rationing') were issued to family groups in order for food to be distributed as fairly as possible. In 1941, they were changed to individual food coupons for each citizen, while only children and the invalid were entitled to milk rations; but when there was no food available, coupons were useless and so was money. At one point, people were not just hungry; they were starving, a situation which forces the victim to turn his back on civilised behaviour and resort to any means just to stay alive:
"Neither national nor local statistics on mortality are very reliable. The numbers reported by the neighborhood councils were more dutifully collected than that those for the whole country, but all statistics tend to understate - it is unknown to what extent - the actual mortality rate, since many deaths were not announced to the authorities. The relatives of the dead hid their bodies in public cemeteries at night, in order to maintain their food rations. Sometimes they buried them in hastily dug unmarked graves. Eventually the municipal services collected hundreds of anonymous corpses, so that these do not appear in official data."
People dropped dead in the street. Their corpses were shovelled onto trucks and buried in unmarked graves. Families did not report their dead, not even of their children, who were dying at the rate of up to 500 a day - if they did so, they would have had to hand in their ration books. If they died at the hospital, they did not go to pick up their bodies for the same reason - they needed to hang on to their ration books in order that they themselves may have a better chance to survive:
"The Hospital has a problem with the burial of the dead children. Initially, the dead children are transported from the Penteli Hospital in Athens. The parents, although informed by the Police Department, find a variety of ways to avoid their release, apparently because the ration books of the deceased child are vital for other family members. Thus, the dead children remain for some time unburied. Later in the summer of 1941, when there was no petrol for the hearse, the problem worsened. It was decided, therefore, to bury them in Penteli, after advising the father of the day and time of burial, unless the father wanted to receive and bury his deceased offspring himself. The risk, however, of the fallen angels being dug out by the hungry stray dogs was very real. To the staff of the hospital is added a new job, that of the cemetery shift, for those deceased young patients."
Greece suffered hunger and starvation during WWII because her food supplies were cut off. Hionidou (2006) argues that the lifting of the blockade was the most decisive step away from the famine. To die of starvation in Greece is almost impossible in a food-rich society, unless someone is taking your food away from you deliberately. Before World War II, Greece was producing two thirds of the food supply needed to support the population, which is quite a feat (while Britain was only producing a third of its food supply at the same period), considering that the population had doubled in less than two decades before the Greek famine struck, due to the arrival of the Asia minor refugees after their forced expulsion from Turkey.

Famine caused by deliberate withholding of food resources did not occur only in Greece during WWII. Northern continental Europe was also severely affected in a similar way, especially during the cold heavy winters when the land was covered with snow and no foraging was possible. The Dutch Famine resulted in long-term health problems of not just those affected by hunger, but even of their descendants, proving that hunger can have permanent effects that may be evidenced in future generations who did not suffer hunger.

1. It would be a lie to tell you that I asked my mother-in-law to tell me about her life during the second world war; this is not the kind of conversation that she enjoys having. The above account is what I have gleaned from the few times that the topic of war arises in our house; there are some things that cannot be talked about easily. The story about the flour was told to me by my late father, who was five years old when his father (my grandfather) was killed on the second day of the Battle of Crete in 1941.
2. The word 'Germans' has been used to denote the Nazi soldiers, not the German people. This is the word that is used by the older population of Crete in reference to the period of time in question.
3. Because of Greece's (former??) peculiar state handout system, civil servants were (but I don't know if they still are) entitled to food coupons in modern times, because their permanent, you-can-never-fire-me, stable-hours, high-pension, full-health-care monthly-salary, five-days-a-week, holiday-and sick-leave-taken-care-of and overtime-well-paid jobs are (or should that be 'were'??) regarded by the government as lowly paid...

*The Germans confiscated everything, even the supply of the food necessary for survival such as bread, oil, flour, etc. The situation became desperate. Inflation annihilated everything, hunger plagued and decimated the skeletal people of all ages who died from starvation and malnutrition. The distribution of food was handled through coupons, and the shortages resulted in the black market, ie the prices of all food were so high, to the point that the people were forced to to exist by selling all their belongings, even items of large value, for just a few grams of bread or flour. Most of the starved dead lay on the roads and were transferred to cemeteries in carriages, but their relatives did not declare their death to the registrar so as not to have their rations cut. To survive, many people stole food from the Germans at the risk of arrest and execution.
** koffinia κοφίνια (plural of koffini κοφίνι): traditional large baskets that were loaded onto donkeys, one on each side, used to transport food products from the village to sell in the town.

Useful references:
Grace, Patricia (2009) Ned & Katina Penguin Publishers, Auckland (thanks to John Petris for this gift)
Hionidou, Violeta (2006) Famine and Death in Occupied Greece, 1941-1944 Cambridge University Press
League of Nations (1946) Food, Famine and Relief, 1940-1946 Series of League Of Nations Publications, Geneva
Mazower, Mark (2001) Inside Hitler's Greece: The Experience of Occupation, 1941-1944 Yale University Press
Norman, Jill (2007) Eating for Victory Michael O'Mara Books Ltd, London
The Imperial War Museum, London (for answering all my queries and providing me with extra information)

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