Thursday, June 14, 2018

Food parcels

[50] ...   Then Army decided to encourage repatriation by giving a fourteen-day food ration to each repatriant, which reduced our painfully acquired hoard of the winter food reserve. We were assured that we would get the food back from Army since the winter reserve was holy and untouchable except in time of disaster. All we had to do was put in a requisition. That was the same as saying, All you have to do is shoot an arrow into the air.

For more than two months with no result we had been requisitioning stoves and stovepiping to complete the winterization of the twenty-eight hundred rooms in our sixty blockhouses. The sole requisition on which we received a reply was one for two thousand rubber glove-fingers needed by our doctors for the VD examination which Army ordered made on all women in the camp. We received exactly six glove-fingers from the Medical Supply dump and against the remainder of our two-thousand request was the familiar red stamp, "Not available". Somehow, with those six glove-fingers, our doctors managed to examine our five thousand women over the age of sixteen.

The night our Venezuelan doctor came to the mess and told Pierre that he could report that the VD examinations were completed in our camp, Londa flew at him like a harpy. He listened to her tirade with a gentle smile as he meticulously cut away the fat from his meat because he was developing ulcers.

"I don't know why you even attempted it," Londa raged. "I'd like to have seen the Army medic handed a job like that. Six glove-fingers for five thousand women. You know what those medics would have told their CO to do with those [51] glove-fingers? Do you know, Pedro?" She thrust her half-finished plate aside. "Really, what we're expected to do with no help from anywhere, from anyone . . ."

"Don't strike him," I said; "he was just doing the impossible. Haven't you heard, Londa? That's what we're famous for."

"Famous!" The New Zealander rose abruptly from the table, her dessert fruit in her hand. She pointed to all the empty places, those of the supply men still out after dark fighting to get tomorrow's milk for our children, of the nurses still up in camp trying to locate and isolate the measles cases the last transport had introduced, and at the vacant chair of our Belgian engineer, who was exploring the freezing warehouses in hopes of uncovering in the masses of German material the hundreds of light sockets and switches he still needed to complete his winterization of the DP [displaced persons] living quarters.

"Do you know what I think?" Londa swung around with her hand on the doorknob, looking as if she were going to tear it off and throw it at us to try to knock some sense into us. "I think we've all gone crazy, the whole Godforsaken pack of us."

She flung open the door and a red-headed sergeant standing in the doorway said "You do, do you?" He swept her with a look of admiration -- she was always beautiful in anger.

"Well, lady, wait till you see what I've brought. Then you'll really know what it is to be nuts."

The sergeant walked over to Pierre at the head of the table. He thumped down in front of him the large box he was carrying.

"You're in command here, I take it." The sergeant clapped a sheaf of directives down top of the box.

"This is a Red Cross POW food parcel. And this here is General Eisenhower's poop on how it's to be broken down."

We slit the gummed tape sealing the carton. We had no idea what the sergeant was talking about until we got the box open. Our eyes popped as we lifted out a pound package [52] of cube sugar, tins of Cheddar cheese, of sardines, Nescafé, corned beef, tuna, Spam, dried milk, Crisco, a half-pound chocolate bar and seven packs of American cigarettes.

"That's to help out the DP food ration," said the sergeant. "Your troubles are over for winter food. There's about fourteen thousand calories in that box. You get one per month per DP. I've got four boxcars of this stuff down on the tracks, fifteen thousand food parcels. Got orders to stick around with my guard until you've unloaded.Then it's your baby."

Londa brought him coffee, her nerves forgotten in the excitement. We all talked at once. We looked again at each item of the Red Cross prisoner-of-war food parcel. The Europeans had not seen such luxury foods since 1939 and some had never seen Nescafé, Spam and vitamin tablets. Since Pearl Harbor, I had not seen all those things we "gave up" for three years or more. I looked at the tuna that had been practically unprocurable for my war-worker lunches. I read the familiar names of Camel, Lucky Strike, Chesterfield, and thought of the war-baby cigarettes for which we had queued up in the shipyards.

"You say one food parcel per month for every DP in Germany?" I asked.

"Yep," said the sergeant blowing on his coffee.

"For how long?" asked Londa.

"Jeez . . . if you could see them Army depots, you'd say for years."

"We must have thought a lot of our boys would be behind barbed wire," I said. It seemed a strange twist of fate that those superb high-calorie foods that had disappeared from our chain-store shelves for all those years should now turn up with such a different destiny.

"Gott sei dank, as we say over here," said the sergeant with a freckled grin. "it ain't us that's gonna eat 'em."

Pierre was scribbling on his paper napkin. He looked a bit wild when he laid down his pencil.

"I make it that with fifteen thousand parcels, seven packs [53] of cigarettes in each, we have a hundred and five thousand packages of cigarettes," he said unbelievingly.

"That's just what I mean, chief," said the sergeant. "Roughly ten thousand cartons -- a thousand reichsmarks the carton in the black market.  You got about ten million reichsmarks right there to take care of, not to mention what Crisco, Nescafé, and chocolate brings. It ain't hay what I've got sittin' down there on the tracks. Crazy, see what I mean?" He turned to Londa. "Lady, you ain't seen nuthin' yet!"

We began to see something even before we got the boxcars unloaded, but not the black market lust the sergeant had warned us about. That would come later, much later. First we were to see the more basic reaction of hungry people who had lived for more than six years on black bread and potato soup and who now had a mountain of delectable foreign foods unloaded in their midst. We were so stunned thinking of the value of the cigarettes which we would have to guard with questionable DP police, it did not occur to us that one taste of a fatty pink slice of Spam, for example, would be enough to throw our camp into a maddened uproar.

We started unloading next morning as soon as the Polish committee had selected a group of "men of confidence" to pass the parcels from boxcar to trucks. Marcel delegated his most trustworthy drivers to the long haul from station to Central Supply, uphill through pinewoods all the way in slow second gear. DP police were stationed at intervals to see that no packages were tossed off en route and team members took up posts where they could watch the DP police.

But it was as if the whole population of Poles had smelled that food, right through the heavy cartons that packaged it, right through the tin that sealed in each wondrous unheard-of item. Before the first trucks had discharged their loads in the warehouse (which our engineer was hastily fitting up with iron window bars) the woods bordering the main road were alive with scurrying forms. Calm streets thronged with [54] ...

[It turned out that the soldiers had incautiously rewarded the "men of confidence with the contents of a broken parcel, so the news was all over the camp...]

.. directive. No name in Germany carried more weight. Our Poles had already made new signs for the camp's main square originally called Adolf-Hitlerplatz, they renamed it Eisenhowerplatz. We typed Eisenhower's name large at the bottom of our translation and surrounded it with bands of typewriter stars.

We called Tak Tak Schön for a conference with the police chief and the scout leader. We knew by then that none of our Spam-maddened adults could be trusted with the opening of the food parcels. I had convinced Pierre that Londa and I could organize the scouts for this work. I asked for fifty to be sent to the warehouse early next morning, boys and girls but none under fourteen.

That night, while our Poles were reading on bulletin boards the death of their pakiety hopes, Londa and I worked in the warehouse setting up a production line. The dimension of the job ahead staggered us. The heavy cardboard flaps of the Red Cross boxes were glued as well as gum-taped, requiring an axe to pry them open. Each box contained twenty-five separate items.

Every time I looked at the stacked boxes looming like ancient step pyramids in the warehouse gloom, I could feel trouble brewing. I tried to calculate how long it would be before we could get that food started on its way to kitchens to assuage the awakened hunger of those who had already tasted it and the fiercely tantalized imaginations of those who had only heard how it tasted.

"It's fantastic," said Londa. "Food like this in the middle of starving Europe." She read a label on a sardine tin. "Packed in pure olive oil."

"Listen. I've been figuring. Do you realize that in those mountains of boxes there are exactly three hundred and seventy-five thousand individual items that will have to be handled one by one?"

"Dear God, no!" Londa dropped the tins she was carrying and stared at the angular stacks.

"It will take for ever, with children," she said.

[57] "Maybe not. Maybe they'll do it like a game. You know," I said, "sort of like playing shop." I was ashamed of the phrase as soon as I said it. Playing shop -- a memory from an unmolested childhood. "We'll use those box stalls for food bins."

We put samples of each food in a separate stall so our scouts would know where things should go. The light bulb swaying in the warehouse draught threw our shadows over the long table we had set up, low enough for a child to work at. When we stooped over it, it looked like furniture for infants.

Next morning Wildflecken was a city in revolt. Our DP workers staged a sit-down strike. Eight hundred woodcutters who went daily to the woods refused to get into the waiting trucks. The garbage disposal squad sent their trucks back empty to the motor pool. The carpenters and bricklayers detailed to blockhouse repair failed to report to the engineering chief.

The Poles intended to have a Red Cross parcel handed out to them whole. No monkey business about distribution through the thieving chefs of their camp kitchens, no tomfoolery about making one box last a whole month when it could be enjoyed in a single night of magnificent celebration.

"Pakiety . . . Pakiety." The whole camp resounded to the one-word chant that picked up volume and insistence each time an UNRRA car threaded the striking crowds. There would have been something comical in the demonstration if you had not thought of the years of privation that lay behind it, the years of longing for a tast of the good things of life. "Pakiety," they called like thwarted children. Oh please just once, their faces said, let us gorge our fill on liver paste, chocolate and juicy pink salmon; let us each know the feel in our pockets of seven whole packs of American cigarettes, just once, for the first time in our lives.

Londa and I waited for the scouts at the barred gate to Central Supply. We heard them coming before we saw them. Their scout songs rang through the woods as if they were off on some wondrous jamboree. Then we saw them marching up the hill towards us, fifty little boys and girls two abreast and in close formation, swinging their arms and singing lustily. A crowd of strikers, congregated outside the gate to prevent any workers from opening the Red Cross parcels, stepped back and made a clear path for the singing scouts. It had not yet occurred to the strikers that we were going to start the job with the only group we dared to trust.

Once inside the cavernous warehouse, we lined up the scouts beside the long table that held twenty-five food items spaced at intervals on both sides. The Countess talked in a story-telling voice as she went from tin, to carton, to envelope, briefly lifting each and telling what it was and how there were fourteen thousand, nine hundred and ninety-nine others exactly like it which had to be sorted out and put in those separate stalls at the rear where horses used to be.

When the chewing gum, the chocolate and the tins of jam were held up before those fifty pairs of child eyes, I thought for one wild moment that I was going to sob. The wide blue eyes regarded unwaveringly, as in a trance, a raspberry jam label depicting a solid mass of red berries dripping with sugary highlights, a packaged bar wrapped in  chocolate-coloured paper scored off in squares like the chocolate inside, three sticks of gum which until then had been thought of as something that only came from the person of the American soldier. You knew that these things must have torn at the vitals of those children though not one of them gave any outward sign. They stood stiffly with arms at their sides looking up at the Countess with faces of wonder.

It was better when the children began handling the foods. The unbearable wonderstruck expressions left their faces as their fingers got used to the feel of the tins. Each child accustomed himself to the appearance and shape of the one item for which he was responsible. Ignatz tore open the tough box flaps and shoved the full boxes down the production-line table while the little hands reached in from both sides. The scouts worked with furious concentration, not at all like shopkeepers. At first they did not talk, as if in school, but after the first hour they were calling back and forth to each other in muffled voices, saying things that made the whole table titter.

"They've named each other after the product they sort," said the Countess. "Mr. Tuna has just remarked to Mr. Salmon that his face was pink. Mr. Sugar says to Miss Tea Bags that they ought to get along together despite the difference in their ages." She wiped her eyes and pointed to the pigtailed girl at the end of the table who collected the small envelopes of vitamins from each parcel. "They call her Miss Pill; they think those vitamins are medicine. "

Mr. Milk Powder, handling the largest tins, was the first to fill a carton with his product. He called for a grown-up to lift it away to the stalls, where other scouts crouched at the task of stacking the separated items. Within the first hour the children had swung into their jobs like some piece of intricately co-ordinated machinery and the pile of emptied cartons grew high enough to start the burning.

I walked back and forth, bending, shoving, lifting, lending a hand wherever needed and watching the children all the time. I found myself studying their quick precise gestures as if I had been drawn into some child world of strange intensity whose meaning eluded me. Through the high cobwebbed windows the morning sun penetrated as a diffused moonlight which fell on the absorbed children and made them seem more like memories of children recalled across grey spaces of time.

When I carried filled boxes over to the storage stalls, I stared at the children crouching there, stacking their individual products in automatic patterns of neatness and efficiency. A small girl in charge of the tapered tins of corned beef deftly alternated them to make a solid stack that would not spill sideways. The sardine boy stacked his oval tins one corner of his stall and his square tins in another corner. Even the littlest ones knew what to do without asking questions.

[60] I stood beside the lad in charge of cigarettes at the end of the unpacking table, watching how he patted the packs in edgewise until he came to the top of the box. I waited for the next cigarettes to come down the table to see what he would do. He took the next seven packages and lad them in flat for the final layer, bringing it exactly flush with the top of the box.

"Schön!" I said, admiring his ingenuity.

He looked up and grinned with professional pride. The one tooth missing in front gave his face the classical look of the rugged small boy the world over.

"Wie in der Fabrik", he said, patting his perfect packing with one stubby hand.

As in the factory! For an instant I did not take it in. It was as if Huckleberry Finn had spoken out of character. He brushed back a shock of sunbleached hair and held up his fingers fanned out to five.

" Fünf Jarhe ," he said, nodding like an old man.

That was the answer that had eluded me. That was the explanation for the children's dexterity and knowingness with small objects. The Germans had used their fast fingers in factories and war plants, had trained them to handle small parts with speed and precision. The Countess confirmed my sickening guess.

"Probably most of these over fifteen," she said, "had five years of slave labour in the factories before liberation. They took them as early as ten years, especially when they were bright and clever.

"I'm going to take them off this job," I said in fury.

"Oh, but you cannot," said the Countess. "You must believe me, they are happy here. If you could only understand what  they are saying to each other. This is something new and exciting to do. Their pride of the scout . . . if you dismissed them now, they would feel they had failed you.""

"Dismiss?" cried Londa coming up with her tally sheet. "Who's talking of dismissing them? Look here. They've already opened over seven hundred food parcels. More than [61] seventeen thousand tins are already sorted and shelved. It's unbelievable."

"It will be when I tell you why," I said. I knew what happened to her welfare heart when I told her. "In any event," I added, "you weren't so damned naïve as to say it would be like playing shop. Dear God, when will I ever learn what I'm up against?"



[I've been reading snatches of The Wild Place (1953) while on visits to my Mum and Dad. They worked at Pestalozzi Children's Village for a few years around 1960; Kathryn Hulme's remarkable book was background to where their war orphans came from. It's too precious to risk borrowing, but this time I photographed a few pages, as transcribed above.]

Central Europe after the war was nearly starving and nearly in collapse. Germany was full of displaced Poles and Russians. The UNRRA gradually realized that any Russians who were repatriated were never heard of again; Stalin found it simplest to assume that any Russian found in Germany must have deserted.  Also, the boundaries were re-drawn at Yalta: Poland acquired a lot of Prussia. but a large region that had been Eastern Poland was ceded to the Soviet Union. Polish DPs from east of the river Bug weren't welcome in Poland, they were sent on to their original village. Unsurprisingly they were very apprehensive about being sent "home".

Wildflecken, in north-western Bavaria, was originally a training camp used by the Wehrmacht and the Waffen-SS. From 1945-1951 it became a displaced persons camp. Then it became a US Army training base, and from 1994 a German army training area containing the Warfighters Simulation Centre.


The Wild Place won the Atlantic Monthly prize for non-fiction in 1953. Contemporary notice:


Kathryn Hulme was an American, born in San Francisco in 1900.

The gigantic efforts of reconstruction and humanitarian aid in those post-war years, largely led by the USA, were formative for the consensus of  humane and liberal values under which most of my life has been spent.

However, a few days after I  wrote this post, the USA pulled out of the UNHRC (the modern equivalent of UNRRA), posturing in Stalinesque manner about it being a "cesspool".


We are beginning to think of the USA, today, in the same way we used to think of Russia/USSR in my childhood. Russia had been the nation of Chekhov, Tolstoy, Pushkin.... How could the land that brought to birth these universally beloved monuments of civilisation, how could that land have turned into the dark sink of our century where truth was suppressed and life cheap, power corrupt and justice unanswerable: a nation as hostile to its own citizens as to the rest of the world? (And if we began to allow ourselves to enthuse again, e.g. when we flocked to the Russian Exhibition at Earl's Court in 1968, encouraged by Harold Wilson, and purchased the colourful Russian dolls as souvenirs.... the following week, the Soviet tanks rolled into Prague. They were making fools of us.)

So with the USA today, a nation where democracy has almost collapsed, where the appearance of civilized life continues as a sort of nostalgic habit without foundation. (This all goes much further back than the current President, whose behaviour is only a virulent symptom.)

I think we will look back to to the era of Kathryn Hulme's memoir (along with film noir, Billie Holliday, Duke Ellington, Nabokov, John Ashbery etc etc...) as representing some sort of high watermark of American civilisation. Such journalistic characterizations are always slightly illusory. The nation then was grossly materialist, gas-guzzling, and corrupt. Segregation still ruled, Civil Rights was in its infancy.  Political repression grew worse in the 1950s. This was already a fearful nation. But the best things the USA had to give the world, it gave then.



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