Through the eyes of a refugee.

Liz McCombie.

(The author was a Polish/Russian refugee during and immediately after World War II)

In 1942 our family of four travelled by train from Warsaw to Southern Germany. It was about the last train leaving the capital before the much anticipated outbreak of fierce fighting in and near the Jewish Ghetto. This was to be the famous Warsaw Ghetto Uprising and we somehow managed to get out with our lives, if little else. We were settled on a dairy farm near a small town called Reute. Around the farm there were fields where various vegetables were grown and which our parents helped to cultivate. I presume that was the main reason for our presence in Germany – to help with the production of food for the front.

When the war ended in 1945 Germany was divided into four sectors – British, American, French and Soviet. At the time we were staying in what was to be the French sector of post-war Germany. The victorious French soldiers paraded through the town to be greeted by the locals who lined the roads, some waving, happy that the fighting was finally over, others wondering what a future under French rule would bring. I clearly remember a soldier stopping to offer me a chocolate in a round metal box, no doubt an item from his war rations. It was the first time I had tasted chocolate and I can still savour the wonderful rich, sweet taste. Chocolate has never since  tasted so good!

There were other taste sensations which we managed to obtain courtesy of army rations – powdered bananas and eggs, real coffee and superior margarine, – things which had been unobtainable during the war. Generally food during and after the war was scarce and often adulterated with cheaper, alternative ingredients. For example bread was heavy and dark brown in colour, made with sawdust and supplemented with other unknown ingredients, coffee was made from burnt seeds which were ground to a coarse powder, and meat was virtually unobtainable unless a horse had been a war casualty. Then everyone would hurry out with containers and cutting implements. I remember vividly a piece of horse we obtained in this way. It had to be marinated in vinegar and stowed in a hand basin under a bed because we did not have a refrigerator or ice-box. The tough meat had to be tenderised in this way in order for it to be edible. Most of the horses were very old or malnourished so the meat was very tough, but nonetheless a welcome addition to our diet. Fresh vegetables were mostly unobtainable unless we were able to find some in the fields. Otherwise, we obtained our greens by digging up broadleaf weeds such as dandelion which were seasoned and used in salads or soups. Collecting berries and mushrooms was another favoured activity for improving our poor nutrition. However, we were often hungry.

The worst times for us were in winter, as warm clothing and footwear were difficult to acquire. The scarcity of clothing meant that any cast-offs would be carefully re-cycled. Garments would be unpicked, turned inside-out and made into “new” pieces of clothing. Parachutes were ideal for making shirts, blouses and underwear. Woollen jumpers were unravelled and knitted up to make socks, gloves and other winter-warmers. I remember wearing wooden-soled clogs with fake leather or rubber uppers. To keep warm in bed we used to spread our spare clothing on top of the thin blankets. It is a habit I have continued into adulthood. I still spread my dressing gown across the bottom of my bed. Old habits are hard to shake!