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One Potato

By Hansje de Zwaan Johnson

    From "Vignettes from a teenager during the German occupation of the Netherlands, 1940-45)

2001, 2008 Hansje de Zwaan Johnson

    The Fall of 1944 was a cold and hungry one. German soldiers had occupied the Netherlands since May 1940, and it seemed they would never leave. It was rumored Hitler had given the edict that his army would not leave the Lowlands until its people ate grass together with the Dutch population. His hungry soldiers took all available food wherever they could grab or plunder.

    A fierce rain-laden wind was blowing. The North Sea was boiling. Sprays of ocean foam rose up to the base of dunes, which were imprisoned by barbed wire. Here and there, a threatening gray cement bunker raised its ugly head above the landscape.

    I was riding my bike home from school. The tires were long gone, and it felt like the bumping of the rusty metal wheels against the road were penetrating my bones. I hadn’t had a meal since the night before, when all we’d had were the last of the tulip bulbs we had saved. There had been six; two for each of us, my mother, father and me. My search for food had been in vain that day, except for some rationed beets we would have for dinner that night. My stomach growled with painful contractions. The wind increased, making my wet clothes flap around me, and the rain filled my rubber boots. I stopped to pour the water out of them and was too tired to battle the wind any longer. I pushed my bike ahead of me. Only ten more minutes and I would be home.

    A few German army trucks passed on the way to their launching station from where they shot their V-1 projectiles across the sea to London. The Germans were so short on war materials that they used potatoes to make alcohol for fuel. I was told that only the most criminal soldiers were given the task of firing the missiles, because frequently, on take-off, they failed and exploded.

    From the back of a truck a soldier, sitting on bags of potatoes, beckoned to me, yelling, "Liebchen! Komm mal hier!" ("Sweetheart, come here!") I ignored him, and moved aside onto the curb to sit and rest for a while. I wrapped my coat tighter around me. When I looked down, I saw a potato rolling along the curb. It came to a stop in front of my boots. What a wonderful surprise! I looked around furtively, hoping that no one would see me. Quickly I shoved it into my pocket, trembling with anticipation. A whole potato! What an unexpected gift! Sitting there, it seemed to burn a hole in my pocket. Slowly I dug my hand into my pocket it to feel if the potato was really there. I rolled it around in my cupped hand. Yes, there it was all right My mouth began to water at the thought of eating a potato again. Had it been one or two years ago since I’d last tasted one?

    Suddenly, involuntarily, my hand jerked the potato out and brought it to my mouth. I took a great big bite; the raw juice tasted like honey. Yet, chewing away, my conscience began to nag at me.

    "You’re not going to eat this whole potato yourself, are you? What about Vader and Moeder; wouldn’t they like some of it? Have you forgotten sharing?"

    Nonsense, I thought. They wouldn’t mind; they would understand. They won’t even know I found it. But I knew I couldn’t eat it, or my conscience wouldn’t leave me alone. So I rubbed some dirt over the scar left by my bite, in the hope it wouldn’t be noticed, and headed again for home.

    It was getting dark and my parents had been worried about me. They hugged me and removed my wet clothes. They rubbed me with towels until my skin began to tingle.

    Since there was neither heat nor electricity, they blew on my hands to warm them; slapped the soles of my feet and kneaded my toes so I could feel them again. Next, they wrapped two blankets around me. They seated me closely between them; our bodies warming each other.

    I had put three sugar beets on the table, but it was so dark inside that Moeder hadn’t seen them. During one of the missile mis-firings, all the windows’ glass had shattered and fallen out. Replacements could not be had. In order to keep warm, we had nailed our closet doors over the damaged frames. It was dark inside, but at least the wind was kept at bay.

    "Did you get the rationed beets?" Moeder asked, and Vader added, "Could you trade my leather jacket for beans with farmer Geest, like you did last month?"

    I told them the beets were on the table and that the farmer said he had enough jackets by now; and said to come back later with a bar of soap or some sugar.

    "They’re getting greedy," Moeder said.

    "I was told some farmers now want furniture for food," Vader sighed.

    "Never mind," I said. "I have a surprise for you. It’s inside my left coat pocket. Guess what it is."

    Moeder hopped in her blanket to where my coat hung to dry. She called out, "My goodness, Jan. I think Lettie brought us a potato. It’s almost round. Weighs like a potato. Wherever did you get it?"

    I laughed. "Would you believe, it rolled right up to my boots, like a small miracle?"

    "I’ll be damned," Vader said. "I’ll get the tar bucket so we can cook it."

    He unwrapped his blankets and threw them across our shoulders. He shrugged into his woolen vest and shuffled off to find the small pail with chunks of blacktop I had pried from the road the day before.

    "This calls for a celebration!" he called, as he lit a candle stub, cautiously depositing it on a small table near the stove.

    Meanwhile, Moeder found her way to the kitchen tap to wash the potato. Vader yelled "Don’t peel the blasted thing. There are good foodstuffs and iodine in the skin!"

    I was glad Moeder apparently didn’t see where I had taken my bite. She returned with the potato on a plate. By the light of the candle I could clearly see the damaged part. I wondered: Do Vader and Moeder see it as well? If they did; they didn’t mention it.

    We pulled our chairs up to sit closer to the stove. Now the tricky art of cooking started. The stove in the living room had been without coals for several years, but the opened lid on top served instead as a draft for a makeshift stove. A coffee can was placed on the opening. Inside the can was a smaller one, soldered to the outer one with three hollow metal pipes. We tore two pages from the telephone book into snippets – the phone lines were dead anyway – and layered them inside the small can. When it was lit, we threw a tiny bit of asphalt on top until the concoction began to smolder. We then softly blew into the pipes until we saw a flicker of a flame. We added another piece of make-believe coal, and so on. In order to get this so-called fire to render appreciable flaming, we blew for at least half an hour, while stinky brown fumes curled slowly up to the ceiling, making our eyes water.

    My find was now immersed in water in a small pan on top of the slightly burning tar-fire. Occasionally we took a long-handled fork and pricked the potato, but it never seemed to be done.

    Impatiently Vader jumped up. "No wonder it takes so long," he exclaimed. "We should’ve cut the darn thing into small pieces first!"

    "Live and learn," Moeder said, coming from the kitchen with a sharp knife. After she cut up the potato she said, "Here, we’ll put these back on. They should be cooked soon enough."

    Soon enough was about an hour later. Moeder moved the small table in front of me with a napkin and a fork. She also brought a plate and slid the potato slices onto it. She and Vader looked at each other and ceremoniously crossed their arms.

    "Go ahead. Eat!" they said in unison.

    "But … but … I brought it home for us to share," I stammered.

    "We know. That was very kind of you," Vader said, "but you are young and still growing. We don’t need food as much. We must think of the survival of the fittest."

    They sat close to me. I saw the love in their eyes reflected by the candle light. Slowly I began to eat as they smiled with every bite I took.

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