Thursday, December 10, 2009

No Bright Lights For These Children 65 Years Ago

Two girls dragging a Christmas tree through the rubble of bombed-out Frankfurt in December 1944.


My parents were not yet born in 1944, but both sets of my grandparents were in the primes of their lives that year.

I never heard a lot of family stories about the war years. I don’t think there were many to tell.

Despite rationing, the American Midwest thrived during the war owing to the importance of agriculture commodities. There was no wartime deprivation of any sort in the grain belt.

Only a couple of distant relatives served in the armed services during the war, and both survived (although one was held as a German Prisoner Of War for more than two years; after returning home, he never talked about it for the rest of his life, even to his wife, and ever after refused to travel in Germany).

My maternal grandfather worked in the family firm day and night during the war years, but he must not have had any unique wartime memories to share—other than his fierce hatred of Franklin Roosevelt, a hatred that lasted until the day my grandfather died. Today people are prone to forget that Roosevelt was detested by 40-to-45 per cent of the American public throughout Roosevelt’s term of office—but I, because of my grandfather, have never needed a reminder.

Roosevelt died when my mother’s oldest brother was seven years old. When Roosevelt’s death was announced in the classroom, Uncle Edward stood up and cheered.

The teacher sent a note home with Edward, informing my grandparents that Edward had misbehaved in class. My grandfather sent a note back to the teacher the next morning, informing her that Edward’s behavior had been entirely appropriate, since Edward had never heard a good word about Roosevelt at home.

My maternal grandmother was raising a young family during the war years. The only memorable war story I heard her tell was about wartime rationing.

My grandmother and other homemakers would trade coupons throughout the war, giving up coupons they did not need and exchanging them for coupons useful to their families.

Through trading, my grandmother acquired additional sugar coupons in excess of the limit for one household—there apparently WAS a sugar shortage in the Midwest during the war—and this fact disturbed her greatly.

My grandmother was so upset over the excess sugar coupons that she could not sleep the night she acquired them. The next morning, first thing, she returned them to the friend who had given my grandmother the coupons, telling the friend to keep both the sugar coupons as well as the coffee coupons my grandmother had used in the trade.

My paternal grandfather, a farmer, had very little to say about the war years, at least in my presence. The only thing I recall him saying about the war was that “these fine young Dutch boys” (from Pella, Iowa, a town settled by Dutch immigrants) had learned to smoke while serving in the armed forces, something of which my grandfather severely disapproved.

With reference to the war years, my paternal grandmother told of the necessity of limiting trips “to town”, a necessity created by gas and tire shortages as well as the need to make civilian automobiles last as long as possible (domestic automobile production ceased between 1942 and 1945).

Those who served in the U.S. armed forces quite naturally suffered greatly during the war period. American civilians, on the other hand, experienced a cakewalk during the war compared to their European counterparts.

Minneapolis thrived during World War II. Elegant department stores were stuffed with luxury goods. Fine restaurants did a booming business. Downtown was packed every night with revelers. Six Broadway shows at a time, or more, with New York casts, played to capacity every night in the theater district. Dimitri Mitropoulos and the Minneapolis Symphony, in a period now looked upon as “the glory years”, played to full houses at Northrop Auditorium (capacity: 4850) twice a week.

Things were vastly different throughout the European continent. Civilians everywhere, excepting Spain and Portugal, had to endure a gruesome six years.

Germans, the perpetrators of the conflict, probably had the worst wartime experiences of all, and there is some justice in that fact.

However, Germany’s children were innocents—and children in bombed cities, tens of thousands of whom died, suffered grievously.

I wonder what the young German girls in the photograph were thinking as they dragged their Christmas tree through the rubble of Frankfurt.

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