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My German WWII Survivor Dad, Lothar “Lute” Nikoley on Food in a War Zone

When I think of how unlikely it was for my dad—born in Stettin, Germany (now Szczecin, Poland)—to get together with my mom—born in Oakland, CA—and parent four of us, it's pretty sobering.

Having heard many stories in my life of him scrounging food post WWII in order to survive, I asked him to write up a few paragraphs.

~~~

I was 5 years old in 1943, living with my grandparents in Wriezen, Germany. Potatoes where a big part of the daily diet. My grandparents had a rather large piece of property where they grew all of our vegetables and fruit: apples, cherries, grapes (which were mostly used for making wine), and berries. The main crop: potatoes. We also had laying hens for some animal protein & fat. 

The thing that most profoundly sticks in my mind in terms of food is...potatoes, a lot of potatoes, at least during most of WWII. Later, toward the end of the war and after, food was so scarce that even potatoes weren't very available. By then, I was 7 years old and was able to forage the fields and woods for anything that was edible. My grandmother—who lived to the ripe old age of 96—taught me what was good and what to avoid. I ate a lot of weeds made into sort of a spinach soup, flavored with bones and other stuff my grandmother scavenged from trash cans.

When we got back to my grandparents' home after having been evacuated for the last few months of the war to a suburb of Berlin (Kleinmachnow), food became a little more available, and the main sustenance again was potatoes with a little salt added, and sometimes some margarine. Occasionally there was some meat gravy and a little meat to go with the potatoes, which was a real treat. Lunch usually was a sandwich of homemade bread & homemade jam.

In Nov, 1947, I was finally reunited with my parents and siblings in Tellingstedt. I had only happened to be visiting my grandparents in 1943 at a point where the war became so intense I was unable to get back. After the war ended in 1945, it took my mother almost three years of red tape to get me back.

I was a couple months short of 10 years old. Due to the diet of mostly potatoes but far too few of them, I was very malnourished. I was a skinny runt, but otherwise healthy. So in the summer of 1948, off I went to a North Sea coastal resort to gain some weight. I remember fish was plentiful and also meat and vegetables and fruit, but always lots of potatoes. I fattened up a bit by the time I got back home to resume my diet of mostly potatoes and bread—but meat and fish had became more plentiful. Still, often, the main meal of the day was potatoes, salt, and margarine or schmaltz.

And the fact is, I still love eating potatoes.

As far as living out the first years of the post-war period in the Russian controlled East, all I can say is that all of what I remember of their treatment is bad. What little food we had from the garden and fruit trees, they just helped themselves to whenever they wanted. They were mean and nasty to kids like me, even shooting at me just to scare the hell out of me. They didn't help with the huge food shortage.

~~~

In 1952, the entire family of two parents and seven children were fortunate enough to be sponsored for immigration to the US. They left out of Bremerhaven on the USNS General M. L. Hersey (T-AP-148), passed through Ellis Island and bussed it across the country to Reno, Nevada, where my dad & mom met in high school and where I and my three brothers were born.

Comments

  1. Thanks for sharing this.

    I’m 24 years old, and both of my surviving grandparents spent their early years living in Dust Bowl Oklahoma/Kansas. Talking to them about their early days and the diet they subsisted on humbles me to no end, no matter how many times they tell the same stories. I can walk several blocks and hit two 24-hour grocery stores, inside of which I can buy 12 different varieties of apple, for instance. Both of my grandmothers remember getting an orange – and only that – for Christmas, and they were delighted to have it. And of course, though this now seems a distant memory, there are places in the world today where food is more scarce even than that.

    I don’t know that I really have a point in saying all of this. I’m certainly not saying all of our food should be choked down with guilt. But it really is an unbelievable luxury that our food circumstances are what they are, and we can hardly be thankful enough.

  2. For all the ‘problems’ we face in our daily lives we are also truly lucky to be born into such a world of plenty. It’s great to be reminded of that, so that I can remember to be grateful and honour all of our ancestors, and current fellow humans who are not so lucky. Be thankful people, and do what you can to make the world a better place for all. Thanks for the post.

  3. Lute – Thank you for sharing these personal details of your life. I would love to hear more stories of your life before, during, and after the war. I can’t imagine going through all that as a child.

    Regarding your diet of potatoes–how were they mostly prepared? Boiled? Did you eat many raw?

    Sorry to reduce your story of wartime atrocities to a question about potatoes, but that’s kind of the topic lately. Thanks for sharing and I wish you well in the new year.

  4. Lute Nikoley says:

    Yes, it is all about potatoes and how marvelous they are, because they can be prepared in so many ways. However, the way my mother and grandmother prepared them was mostly by boiling, sometimes with the skin and sometimes peeled. Also frying with lard was a favorite.
    Now at nearly 75, as Richard wrote, I still love eating potatoes and his mother Bonny my wife of 53 1/2 years knows lotsa ways to cook them.
    Richard, thank you for this fine post. And I can still do ass to the grass knee bends with 80 lbs in weight added to my 172 lbs.

  5. EatLessMoveMoore says:

    Off-topic but not really – Jimmy Moore on David Duke’s radio show: http://www.livinlowcarbdiscussion.com/showthread.php?tid=9495.

    Neo-Nazi admirers of Hitler must be the hot new trend in LC/Paleo now.

  6. Hei, I even know Tellingstedt, had a lot of Holidays nearby in Süderheistedt.

  7. My parents were from a Soviet controlled country and what convinced them to immigrate was the food, they used to get big cans of “chicken soup” which was the only meat available and one day my dad found a big curved beak about 3 inches long in the soup and realized he hadn’t been eating chicken.

  8. Every time some weak, fat, lazy fuck tells me she “can’t live without” diet Coke or she feels “deprived” if she doesn’t eat junk food, or that she is “starving” on 1500 calories of clean, whole food…I tell her to go talk to someone who lived through the Depression, the Holocaust, active duty/combat military service, or a refugee from a famine-stricken, war-torn country and think about how goddamned ridiculous she sounds. The number of people who refuse to separate “wants” from “needs” is astounding. Thanks to your father for sharing his experience.

  9. Bay Area Sparky says:

    Good post for the holidays. Never hurts to be reminded of the difficulties and sacrifices made by our forebears (even if you’re human).

    Makes me reflect again on my parents upbringing in Japanese-occupied Korea. My Mom’s Dad owned a fishing fleet so food was still abundant for her although the business was disrupted to say the least. Then the Korean War followed shortly thereafter. My father was an officer in the South Korean Navy and when given leave would take his ration of rice and walk 20 kilometers or so through the hilly terrain to bring the rice to his Mother and more than once he passed by North Korean soldiers in the countryside. He also encountered a Siberian/Amur Tiger in the forest during one of these journeys.

    Sometimes I wonder how people who have been through so much can adjust so well in the aftermath. Great story Lute and thanks for sharing.

  10. I think the best thing to do is eat the fuck out of the best food you can get. Juice fast? It is disrespectful. You have all this food available to you and you are eating JUICE?

    Eating a 24 ounce steak? Now you are showing some respect.

    Love the potatoes but I think what any immigrant loves most about the U.S. is the vast array of animal flesh products on display at a good supermarket, chicken pork beef and that little section that is devoted to lamb, it is a never-ending feast of raw meat.

  11. Dr. Curmudgon Gee says:

    thanks for sharing the story.

    my dad grew up after WW2 in poverty, too. so there was rarely meat. he ate so much vegetables now he hates vegetables & all he wants is meat, meat, meat.

    my high school biology teacher also grew up in poverty after WW2 (in Taiwan). the staple food was sweet potato (or yam?). only rich people could afford (white) rice. as a result, she said she really hated yam & never wanted to touch it again.

    so it is interesting that your dad still loves potato.

    regards,

  12. Gabriella Kadar says:

    One of my friends who emigrated to Canada as an 18 year old because of the 1956 Hungarian uprising says “I came to Canada to eat meat”. His parents had a farm and during the second world war when the Russians invaded, the family hid out in an underground bunker they’d made in the back yard of the house. Mostly they were trying to keep the women and girls of the family hidden because the Russians were raping and killing women.

    Did they live on potatoes? You bet they did.

  13. Richard, I loved this story. I would like to thank your father for sharing this with us, real life stories are the best

  14. My gran spoke of the Great Depression and wearing shoes too small for her feet and just stuffing them with newspapers to make them stretch. Her poor feet were badly misshapen. She also spoke of eating condensed milk and things out of a tin as a rare luxury. She also had a real fear of banks, she liked to hide money under her floor lino. She always stashed food that could be preserved (she made her own ginger beer in a bucket) and loved to have cheese in the fridge and ate it even when it got stale. In old age she lived quite frugally with the constant reminder that economies collapse (she was born in 1904) so she had lived with the knowledge of both world wars too. But she had a sharp sense of humour and loved to sing and read stories to me.

  15. All that frugal living couldn’t have been too bad she lived to the ripe old age of 94 years passing away in 1998. I still dream of her place that I knew in my youth and living there as though she left it in her will to me. Such was her impact on my life that I always love reading and stories whether written or on film. I never wear bad fitting shoes and bought my daughter lovely leather shoes when she was small with plenty of room for her feet. I prefer comfort to style, as I have my gran’s poor crumpled toes in the back of my mind. She has also passed on to me and my late father her crazy sense of humour which had a deep level of survival mentality underneath. Keep on smiling, smiling and the whole world smiles with you. But keep on crying and you bring on the rain, so stop that crying get happy again.

  16. For preppers in the know, potatoes are still the ultimate survival food for sustenance gardening/farming.

    They are very easy to grow, do well in almost any climate, and have one of the best nourishment/effort ratios of any crop.

    But very few people grow their own potatoes these days because they are so cheap and convenient to buy.

  17. Thank you for sharing!

    My father was born in ’37, and is from Stuttgart. He’s told me many stories of his time during and after the war.

    He will not eat sweet potatoes to this day, as his American relatives sent many large bags of powdered sweet potato flour to them after the war. That was a staple for years, and he’s burned out on them, still.

    He was in US occupied Germany during the war, and in the West after the war, and speaks very fondly of the soldiers who were stationed in his Aunt’s village near the end of the war, who shared their food with the German kids and families, gave them candy from their own gift packages from home, and played games with them.

    He did say that many foods were in short supply in the city, but in his Aunt’s country village, they had enough, just enough of the same old foods, day in and day out.

    After the war, he went back to Stuttgart, and said the US soldiers were just as kind to them, there. Sharing food, treats, and being pretty friendly to kids and adults alike.

    He was inspired to move to the US, join the Army (The Big Red One!), get a college degree, and become a citizen as quickly as he could.

    Thanks again for sharing.

    Roland

  18. Thanks for sharing.

    In Werner Herzog’s excellent documentary, “Little Dieter Needs to Fly,” Dieter Dengler recalls his childhood in Wildberg during and after WWII, boiling wallpaper to get at the protein in the glue.

  19. Lute Nikoley says:

    Wheat paste is used for wallpaper. At least when I was hanging it.

  20. Catherine says:

    I just came home from Amman and Aqaba and all I can say is that some of you better never go there, ha ha ha. People believe all kinds of things, get a grip.

  21. Thank you for your story Lute, brief as it is here. Would be wonderful to hear more sometime.

    I have learned a lot about Germany and her people in the last year and I have much more appreciation and admiration for both now as a result.

    Happy New Year and cheers from an Irish gal, my people know a thing or two about potatoes too ;)

  22. Lute Nikoley says:

    Mary, yes the home of potatoes. Yeah, my story as a kid growing up in nazi Germany, would make a book, except I’m not a writer.

  23. Galina L. says:

    Thank you, Lute, for telling your story. My mom is also 75. During the war she spent four years in Siberia between age 3 and 7 in a foster home for evacuated children. Her mother was working on evacuated military plant in another part of Siberia, while my Grandpa , her dad was in Army. While being there, she forgot her parents, and her connection with her mother never got repaired even after she resumed to live with her parents again. Her brother was born in 1944.

    There were some books published after perestroika that Hitler started the war without being prepared enough because otherwise Stalin would invade Germany on July 7 1941. What do you think about it? History is sad.

    I was taught to forage for eatable wild plants as well despite to the fact it was not necessary when I was a child . Children collected eatable mushrooms, wild blueberries and strawberries, sorrel for making a soup. I think potatoes and rye sourdough bread are wonderfully delicious.

  24. Pauline says:

    My partner’s parent were Dutch but born in Indonesia, his mother was in a prisoner of war camp for five years where his eldest brother was born. His parents were separated during the war and his father sent by ship to South Africa. After the war the Red Cross re-united his mother and father in South Africa and 3 more boys were born. He grew up in what was then Rhodesia and they moved to Zambia. My daughter’s paternal grandfather was in the South African army and in his early 20s went to Europe to fight during the war. He was captured and put into an Italian prisoner of war camp for a while, and never fully recovered from it. He could not speak about that time without bursting into tears so he did not speak often. He did tell stories of being in a train and standing like cattle all squashed together and the horror of it. How resilient are we as a species to survive so much and still all be here to tell the tale.

Trackbacks

  1. [...] Posts RSS ← My German WWII Survivor Dad, Lothar “Lute” Nikoley on Food in a War Zone [...]

  2. [...] It happened quite suddenly. He tuned 75 on Monday. You've sen him in comments and recently in a guest post. [...]

  3. [...] regime, six of them boys. One, Claus Peter, died in infancy. You've read my dad—Lothar's—story of near starvation. But it was oma who worked for three years to get him back after the war. They immigrated across [...]