Elizabeth Breslav doesn’t watch fireworks. The celebratory oohs and aahs they elicit from others don’t pass her lips. For the Dutch woman, the brilliant explosions in the sky remind her too much of a time far from joyful, a time when she was hungry.
“They had these bullets and every so often one would go up glowing, so they could see where they were shooting,” Breslav said while sitting in her Oronoque Village home. “It was actually very beautiful to watch. But sometimes the planes would get caught in the fire and explode and fall from the sky. It was just horrible to watch.”
Breslav was a young girl growing up in Holland when World War II started, and a teen by its end. She lived through the Nazi occupation, though many of her friends, some Jewish, were not so lucky.
As the war pushed on, Holland was subjected to what became known as the “Hunger Winter” in November of 1944. It lasted through to the early spring of 1945.
With the country occupied since 1940, there was little to nothing left for the people of the Netherlands when the Nazi-enforced embargoes shut down food supplies. The people were starving. Eventually Allied planes were allowed to airdrop food, and flour was allowed in from neighboring countries.
But by then the Hunger Winter had claimed an estimated 18,000 lives in the small country. Breslav remembers stealing in order to survive, and how the older generation was torn between worry for the future morality and well-being of their children, and the basic need for sustenance.
“We ate our bulbs,” Breslav said, dryly. Holland is famous for its tulips, but not generally as a source of sustenance. Breslav remembers them as being very sweet but heavy and hard on the stomach. There was no real way to properly cook or soften them. “You can eat them, but you aren’t supposed to, not like that.”
To this day, the sound of the German language still leaves that same heavy feeling in the pit of her stomach. She knows it isn’t rational, but it is there, an extreme discomfort at the memories of what the Nazis put her through.
She has a book in her home of photos taken during the Hunger Winter. Workers carried cameras illegally and recorded what images they could. She stops at the picture of a young girl, in her early teens, who is little more than skin and bones.
“That might as well have been me,” she said with a heavy sigh.
Breslav noted that while the Hunger Winter didn’t begin until 1940, hunger set in the moment the Germans arrived. They claimed the farmlands and production facilities, and the majority of what was produced was sent out of the Netherlands.
“We had only what was left over,” said Breslav. As the war dragged on, what was left diminished.
At the height of the Hunger Winter, they would go to whatever they could. But there was less and less to be had. Even wood for coffins was scarce. She pointed to another picture in the book with the starving young girl. A young man rests against a bicycle attached to a cart. A body lies wrapped in linen inside. “That is how you were taken to your final rest,” Breslav said.
After the war, she left the Netherlands and has seldom been back. She lived in Paris as a translator, and moved to the United States in 1957 with her Army husband.
She’s a writer now, with a regular column in the Oronoque Villager. She also organizes a series of concerts in the condo community.
Breslav has also written an unpublished memoir about her experiences during the Hunger Winter. She laughs and offers to show a folder of the “kinder” rejection letters.
“They tell me the writing is good, the story is good, but there just isn’t a market for it,” Breslav said.
However, a condensed version of her tale is part of That Mad Game: Growing Up in a War Zone, published by Cinco Puntos Press. The editor, J.L. Powers, has collected 17 essays on what it was like being a child in some of the world’s most horrific conflicts.
Breslav will give a series of readings in the region. The first was at Fairfield University Bookstore.
She will read at the Easton Pubic Library, 691 Morehouse Road, Easton, on Saturday, Nov. 17, at 3 p.m.