clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Twila Van Leer: How a loaf bread in WWII Germany is a reminder of the meaning of Christmas

Twila Van Leer shares a brother-in-law's "Christmas I Remember Best" story from World War II Germany where bread helped remind them of the true story of Christmas.
Twila Van Leer shares a brother-in-law's "Christmas I Remember Best" story from World War II Germany where bread helped remind them of the true story of Christmas.

Good stories should be told and retold. So I am resurrecting a true story from our family treasury that reminds us what Christmas is truly all about.

I first heard it years ago from my brother-in-law Pieter Van Hulten. The Van Hulten, Van Domburg and Van Leer families emigrated to the United States soon after World War II after suffering through the German occupation of the Netherlands. Most of that generation of the families are gone now, but the stories should be treasured and retold to those who succeeded them.

When Pete told me the story, I encouraged him to submit it for the annual Deseret News "Christmas I Remember Best" competition. He was reluctant because Dutch was still his favored language but said he would tell the story if I would write it. It was one of the stories selected that year (I don't know which year, which serves a s a reminder to put dates on newspaper clippings, photos, etc.) and appeared under his name with the notation: "As told to Twila Van Leer." Here goes!

A hundred pounds of wheat! A miracle, almost, in the Netherlands in the grim, hungry days of 1944 as World War II neared its end.

I had bought it through the black market with money we had saved for nearly a half year. I was a railroad worker and when the queen ordered the railroad shut down to stymie the Germans, I became one of many who hid from the enemy, in constant fear for our lives.

Each month, our family received 1,000 guilders from the Dutch underground. We never knew the source of the money, but wondered if it might come from the Dutch government itself as a means of providing some financial support for the railroad workers who had been deprived of their jobs.

The wheat cost 550 guilders, almost six months' accumulation of the money we received.

Our town, Dordrecht, had been isolated from the rest of the country early in the war, with access by just one bridge that was carefully controlled by the Germans. We got food any way we could. The farmers wanted to share with their countrymen, but their harvests were taken by the Germans to feed their occupying army.

Long lines of people, many pushing bicycles or baby buggies, scoured the farmlands in search of anything to eat.

My wife, Steen, had obtained a small amount of wheat from a farmer who hurriedly scooped out small portions from bags while an armed Nazi soldier was out of eyesight.

But to have a hundred pounds! It was a blessing we could hardly comprehend in those days. It was close to Christmas and like all of Holland, we faced a bleak holiday. But we did have the wheat — much more than many of our starving compatriots.

Shortly after I obtained the wheat, the president of the Dordrecht Branch of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints came to visit. He asked to buy half of the wheat and we agreed, since the money would provide us with means for buying other foods if they became available.

As we talked, we felt we had to share somehow with the other members of the church whose suffering was as great as our own.

Though many churches had been proscribed during the war, our little group continued to meet in a hall that had been used the night before for dancing. Our speakers used a candle to follow their notes, and we burned anything we could find to provide a little heat. The association with fellow Saints provided a refuge from the unreality of what was happening around us.

My wife and I went to church separately. If I was stopped, she and our children, Bill, 5, and Minnie, 2, would not be involved.

Even in our "church," we were not safe from German intrusion. Once, an armed German soldier came into our building, and we expected that we were in serious trouble. We were terribly afraid.

The man, however, hung his weapons on the coat rack and when we began to sing a hymn, he joined us. He was also a member of the church, a young man far from his home and as weary of the war as those whose countries had been invaded.

As the branch president and I talked, we decided we must share our wheat. Each of us contributed a part of our half, dividing the blessing three ways. A third went to a mill to be made into bread. The president and I shared the cost. Each step of the way, we had to be careful. If the Germans caught us with a large amount of food, they would demand to know where it came from, and people all down the line back to the farmer would suffer.

The president had a secondhand store and was allowed to move furniture and other items through the town. It was on these trips that the wheat went to the mill and then to the baker. There was no yeast and very little sugar. Butter was unheard of in those days. We sneaked the loaves from the bakery a few at a time at night. Lookouts kept watch to warn if there were Germans watching.

On Christmas morning, taking a loaf or two at a time, we delivered the loaves to the LDS families in our area. Small families got a half loaf, larger families a whole. I forget how many families received bread for Christmas, probably 20 to 30. I do remember the joy they felt. Some of them told me it was the greatest joy they had during the war.

Somehow, it seemed an appropriate way to celebrate the birth of him who, almost 2,000 years earlier, had fed thousands with two loaves of bread and a few fishes.