V-Day: Rationing and Starvation

Victory Day, which takes place today, has made me think of food, eating and starvation during the war. I am no historian, but I’ve heard a lot of stories about what it was like. Regular people in Europe were somewhat short of food for the better part of the War. Most were not starving though. But sugar was heavily rationed, as well as all products that contained much sugar.

Meat, egg, flour, milk, flour and cream were also rationed during the war. The interesting thing is that in Nordic countries at least, the health of the population was better than ever during this time. This was true for Norway which was occupied by Germany during this period. Also for Sweden which was just very exposed but remained free, and for Finland which joined up with the Germans. In Finland there was starvation – but in terms of many welfare diseases, the general health condition in the country still improved. This is something they taught us in school – Home economics 😉

Heart attacks, cancer, ulcers and just about all common ailments became less common during the war. This was very pronounced and clearly measurable. Of course, the medical profession was kept busy with war injuries instead.

The reason for this?

Answer: Almost no sugar, less fat, less red meat. Instead people ate more homegrown vegetables, potatoes, wild game and fish. They generally consumed a fair bit less calories than normal, however without starving. And it did wonders for the health of the population.

My grandfather told me he kept rabbits during the war. The plan was to eat them if it came to that. Additionally he had an extensive vegetable garden and the nearby forest was full of deer. However, since he lived in Sweden, things never got that bad.

But others starved badly. Not far from us, in Leningrad, things turned really nasty. Leningrad was under siege by the Nazis. All routes into the city were cut off. The Nazis bombed the municipal food store-houses. True to form, the Soviets had centralised everything in one place. Just one hit took out all the food for most of the city. It didn’t take long for starvation to set in. About five million or so live there. They all starved to for several years. Something like a million people died. Every family lost several members to starvation. To make things worse in Leningrad during the siege, the winters were the coldest on record. People couldn’t find fuel to heat their houses. Everything was burnt to keep them warm, including priceless antiques.

Some people actually turned to cannibalism during this period, eating dead relatives rather than dying. I also read a book in school in which they actually cooked the soles of shoes, since there is some nourishment still left in the leather soles.

Leningrad ’41-’43: Cold winters, no food

But the good news for victims of famine is that for adults who suffered famine, it’s not hard to bounce back when plentiful food is again available. The body was actually designed with a mechanism to cope with starvation. Just as we have mechanisms and procedures in society for coping with disaster. The body has a store house (body fat). When that’s used up, the body knows exactly in which order to prioritise resources in a way that leaves the best chance for recovery without permanent damage. (This applies to adults. For children, starvation is a danger and must be avoided at all costs. Height is the first thing that gets affected in children. The body knows that ideal height is not essential for survival.)

The concentration camps obviously were places of starvation, particularly towards the end of the war when the supply routes were cut off and food couldn’t reach the inmates.

The Partisans who fought between enemy lines, hiding in the forests often had to resort to eating whatever they could scavenge in the forest: Trapped game, roots, berries, mushroom.

The Germans starved more after the war than during the war. Apparently half of the women alive in Munich shortly after the war, prostituted themselves once or more to the allied soldiers, just to be able to afford to buy food. The shame was so great that this didn’t get talked about openly until well into the 1990s. Some no doubt carried their shame into their grave. Yet – what German woman wanted a war, or started one?

A body can take A LOT before it packs in. I was reading Beauty Beyond Bones blog. She used to be an extreme anorexic and was so malnourished that most of her hair fell off. Hard to imagine a person can starve themselves that badly while surrounded by food. The psyche too is very powerful. Mysterious. She found faith and healing and is now a fun and inspirational blogger.

More attesting to the wonders of what the body can achieve: Babies were born in Auschwitz – I actually met a person who as born there. She was far from the only one. Her mother slept with some camp guard and got pregnant. She carried the baby to term inside Auschwitz and gave birth in the barracks. Both mother and baby survived and were evacuated to Sweden after the war.

So what’s a bit of sugar or carbohydrate abstinence to all this?

Member of Soviet women sniper’s corps
Honoured on Victory Day

Victory Day makes me think of the brave people who did what they had to do, in order to survive the madness that engulfed our continent. I no longer believe that the war was a black and white affair of good versus evil. The victor writes the history. And sadly, it wasn’t long after VE Day that the Cold War commenced. During my lifetime alone, the narrative regarding the War in my own country has changed at least once, possibly twice. There is a whole shade in which to fit in who was a hero, a villain and anything in between. No country got involved to help the Jews for instance. It was all about national interests and righting perceived wrongs

The writers of history can say what they want. It’s still the little people, the normal people that count at the end of the day. It didn’t matter if they were in Germany, in the USSR, in Norway or hiding in the forests of Eastern Europe. They were innocent victims who didn’t want a war. They probably would have gone along with whatever ideology prevailed, for an easy life. Just like we do today. Whether capitalism, socialism or national socialism. They did what they had to, to survive and pull through. This brave generation of whom only a remnant is still with us. Glory to them. С днем победы! Слава!

A favourite V-day song of mine from the USSR. People out in the field started singing it, but the authorities didn’t like it because it was potentially indecent (not by todays’ standards). It’s about casual love affairs during the war. People didn’t know how long they’d live, and needed love and human warmth to pull through. Later on this became a popular Victory day song.


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