The Hongerwinter - or Why I Can't Rip Wrapping Paper

This piece was originally posted as a Facebook note in December of 2013

The other day, our office building's property manager arrived with a Christmas gift basket. If you work in an office building, this is one of those little perks that come with your tenancy. As my co-workers and I begin to pick the basket apart, I eagerly pull out a small box of chocolates, wrapped in red paper. That's the point where I get weird.

I freeze. My hand hovers over the box, seemingly immobilized by an unseen force. I hear myself say, "This paper is too nice to rip," and out of the corner of my eye I see my co-worker give me a pointedly odd look. I step back to my desk, grab my utility knife from my tools drawer, and return to the front desk. I proceed to carefully and delicately slice each piece of scotch tape on the package until I can unwrap it without tearing the paper at all.

The chocolate is filled with candy cane crumbs; I'm disappointed at the adulteration of the lovely milk chocolate. I flatten out the wrapping paper which I laboured to remove relatively unmolested. It's a nice bright red with gold foil accents, but it's emblazoned with the logo of Rocky Mountain Chocolates. It wouldn't really be appropriate to re-use the paper to wrap a different gift, so I fold it neatly, carefully, and place it in the recycling bin. 

Pretty weird, huh? It might not seem that way if you're Dutch. To understand exactly what I'm talking about, we need to take a trip to back to Holland in 1944. 

After World War I, the lowlands (both Belgium and the Netherlands) had a strong desire to stay neutral in any future European conflict. Sadly, this was a desire wildly incompatible with the German military thought of the time. First off, the Nazis wanted to control Europe; all of Europe. Secondly, they wanted access to the coasts where any Allied invasions were most likely to land. In May of 1940, the Netherlands was invaded by Germany. The invasion was a brutal four-day war, which ended with the Dutch monarchy and government fleeing the country for Britain, and the total surrender of the Netherlands to Germany.

My Oma, as a young woman, lived under that regime of occupation - An era of forced labour, Anne Frank, and scarcity. 

Oma was one of those rare Dutch people with slightly darker skin and hair (most Dutchies are pretty fair-coloured). Holland has a very old love-hate relationship with Spain, so the Huiders would joke that Oma was proof that there was a Spaniard hiding somewhere in their family tree. Oma also wore glasses and had the prominent Huider family nose. One day, while waiting at a train platform, a German soldier got it in his head that Oma was an escapee from the group of Jewish people that he and his squad were loading onto another train. It was only because members of her family were nearby and stepped in after noticing the altercation that Oma was not shipped off to a camp.

By 1944, it was obvious that the war was going very badly for Nazi Germany. Hitler was a man of bizarre fixations. Unfortunately, one of them was Holland, which the German military remained very determined to hold onto. Allied forces had gained a foothold in the South of the country. Sensing liberation was close at hand, Dutch rail operators became uncooperative with the German governors, who in turn responded with a food transport embargo. By the time the two parties had resolved to work together again, an unusually harsh winter had set in. Canals, which had typically served as a medium for food delivery into urban areas, were frozen and impassable. So began the Hongerwinter. 

Rations were mandated, reduced to 1,000 calories per day, and then further reduced to 580 calories per day. My Oma starved. Her family starved. One of her brothers died of starvation. People walked miles in the cold out to farms in order to dig up tulip bulbs to eat. It's estimated that 18,000 Dutch people died of malnutrition during the Hongerwinter, with malnutrition being a contributing cause of death for many more, particularly the weak and elderly. 

By spring of 1945, the situation had become so dire that, at the urging of exiled Prince Bernhard, the Allies and Nazi Germany negotiated safe passage for RAF planes to deliver food drops to the worst stricken areas. Fortunately, Canadian forces entered the country shortly thereafter and forced the surrender of the German occupiers. Generations later, the Dutch have not forgotten that it was Canadian forces who liberated them.

That's how my Oma met my Grandfather, a Canadian soldier. But that's a story for another day.

The Hongerwinter was over. But it left a lifelong mark on my Oma. Nothing could be wasted; everything must be saved for later, just in case. You never know - you might need it. When I hear Art Spiegelman talk about his father's compulsive tendencies to hoard strange things, I feel a tinge of recognition. The experience of going from modern middle-class urbanite to being a starvation victim in the span of a couple of years leaves a lifelong impression.

More than lifelong, actually.

Do some digging and you'll find that scientists are studying Dutch people who are descendants of Hongerwinter survivors. The new study of transgenerational epigenetics tells us that an individual's experiences can have an effect upon the expression of genes in their immediate descendants. In the population of Hongerwinter descendants, there's a higher incidence of metabolic and digestive disorders. I wonder, when my mother and I both suffer from chronic acid reflux, and when my sister and I both suffer from chronic fatigue syndrome, if we aren't a part of that statistic. It's doubtful we'll ever know for sure.

However, the impression I refer to is mostly in terms of an inherited culture. My mother is fond of telling a tale where, as a young eight-year-old in Canada, she refused to eat a plate of baked beans (a classmate had told her that baked beans were rabbit poop). Oma refused to let Mom leave the table until she had finished the beans. A standoff ensued. At 10PM, after the sun had set and the beans long since turned cold, my mother forced the beans down so she could end her kitchen-arrest. The beans were regurgitated shortly thereafter. Oma no longer forced Mom to eat when she wasn't hungry.

Despite this, my Oma's abhorrence of waste carried over to my Mom, which in turn carried over to me. Even as a child I can remember our thrill when RECYCLING became a thing we could do in our municipality: finally our outlook of environmentalism and our desire to obsessively reduce wastefulness had a combined outlet.

Yet, as a middle-class child in 1980s Canada, I had virtually no concept of "scarcity" (and good God, how spoiled I must have seemed to my Oma with my greed and tantrums). Nevertheless, my Mom's indoctrination gradually rubbed off on me, and as I got older, my Oma's stories became more poignant. By my teens, I had become really quite uncomfortable with wasting food. I have to remind myself not to get overly annoyed with housemates or girlfriends when food gets forgotten about, goes bad, and has to be thrown out (even when it's something cheap and readily available).

So two generations after my Oma starved in WWII, I, her descendant, am still working through the vestiges of a strange, sort-of hereditary post-traumatic stress. Which leads me back the beginning of my story. You see, every Christmas during my childhood, Oma made us unwrap our presents by slicing the scotch tape with a knife and carefully unfolding the paper. So the paper could be saved; you know, just in case. 

That's why, for the life of me, I can't bring myself to rip nice wrapping paper. 

Epilogue: I never got to have a conversation with my Oma as an adult or even as a teenager. She died when I was eleven. The last time I visited her was marred by an argument between us. I forget the specifics, but the gist is that she thought I was being a spoiled brat and I thought she was being a overbearing old fuddy-duddy (both were probably accurate assessments). I've always regretted that the last time we saw eachother we were glaring at eachother through a car window. I suppose that while we were divided by our generations, we were united by our intractable Dutch stubbornness.

I also need to emphasize that, despite some oblique references, I'm in no way equating my ancestral experience to the Jewish experience. Those are separate things. But in Maus, when Art Spiegelman describes the complex relationship with his father, and a few of his father's odd behaviours, it's somehow comforting to realize that your family's abnormality is, in some ways, kind of normal.

Jesse Schooffwriting