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Hungerwinter

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Almost every story and discussion about the bitter Dutch Hungerwinter of 1944-45 would feature the photo above, Boy with a Pan (“Jongen met het pannetje” in Dutch) — an iconic image of life under Nazi occupation and civilian suffering during the Second World War as well as that of a famine that hit a developed country. It was instantly controversial when it was published — many Allied soldiers and generals had it in their quarters to underline the brutality of a war whose ending could not come early enough. The famed Dutch artist Piet Zwart declared it illustrates “a period of social suffering in a way that was legible for everyone of every era.”

It was brutal few months to cap a brutal war. Parts of the country had already been liberated, but in the chaos and disruption of war, agriculture and food supplies broke down. Gas and electricity supplies also ran out, ushering in a hungry and cold winter. In that sense, the Hungerwinter, the last famine to have occurred in a developed country, was a case study on how fragile our logistics and agriculture supply chains are, and how they could be easily disrupted and destroyed in chaos and hysteria.

Butter disappeared in October 1944, followed by vegetable fats, cheese, and eventually meat. Bread and potato rations were tightened again and again. Even the black market ran out of food, and people resorted to eating leaves and tulip bulbs. In some places, the weekly calorie ration fell below the daily calorie allocation recommended. Over 16,000 Dutch people died, mostly old people and children. Many others who grew up during the famine suffered other diseases such as anemia when they grew up.

The photo above encapsulated those bitter days — widely reprinted perhaps because it looked more allegorical than other more harrowing pictures that came out of this famine (of gaunt emaciated children). It could also be contrasted with how later famines in less developed parts of the world were reported and photographed. The boy in the photo was small, his legs boney, his hands clutching the pan tightly in a clawlike grip. He stood on an empty street and stared into the distance, in an image that brought to light the worst of Dickensian horrors. In May 1960, on the fifteenth anniversary of the liberation, the Dutch magazine Margriet claimed that the boy was Willem (Pim) van Schie, whose family lived in The Jordaan neighbourhood of Amsterdam, but Pim said he could not remember it.

The photographer was Emmy Andriesse, a member of “The Underground Photographers” (De Ondergedoken Camera), a Nazi resistance group unique to the Netherlands which contributed to the war effort by taking photos of the occupation from their cameras hidden in briefcases, clothes, newspapers, and shopping baskets. For Andriesse, a Dutch woman of Jewish origin, this was a doubly dangerous job — and her photos of Hungerwinter, like others taken by De Ondergedoken Camera were smuggled out to be reprinted abroad. Andriesse developed cancer and died young in 1953, leaving behind 14,000 negatives and contact sheets which were never published until the 2000s.

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Written by Alex Selwyn-Holmes

August 6, 2017 at 6:56 am

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