Most of us have probably heard of the generosity of the Saints in Holland who shipped potatoes to the Saints of Germany in the years immediately after World War II. This is the first of four interconnected posts about that selfless generosity: This post describes conditions in Holland in 1945 and 1946, underscoring the desperate need of the Dutch Saints to help us better understand just what they were doing when they offered their crop; part 2 concerns the potato shipment itself; part 3 tells how the German Saints used part of that shipment to help get themselves back on their feet; part 4 shows how, within a very few years, the German Saints found a way to, in part, repay the Dutch Saints for their earlier help.
The missionaries were withdrawn from Holland in the fall of 1939, leaving the Saints in 18 branches throughout the country to fend for themselves and each other. Two of the branches were immediately closed due to a shortage of priesthood administration. At least two branches were closed when the entire civilian population of their towns was forced to evacuate by German direction. The main Rotterdam branch building was destroyed in early war bombing, and that branch combined with another farther out from the city center. Otherwise, though, the branches continued to operate throughout the war.
The Dutch Saints responded with faith and brilliance to the difficulties of five long years of war. We have seen (here and here) how Relief Society President Geertruida Zippro went to extraordinary lengths to organize relief efforts for the Saints. Some of the brethren argued forcibly and successfully with German authorities who wanted to confiscate Church property, demonstrating that the Netherlands Mission was a Dutch organization, supported by the Dutch, and was not American property subject to seizure (as Christian Science property had been seized) – the preservation of their meeting houses and other belongings assisted the Dutch Saints not only in being able to meet together, but in providing shelter to those whose homes were destroyed and central points from which aid could be distributed.
Unable to maintain the full Church program, the Dutch Saints focused on keeping the youth of the Church active and close to their roots. Sunday Schools and the MIA were given highest priority. Cut off from their usual source of supplies and lesson materials in Salt Lake, the Dutch Saints wrote their own courses of study and carried on successfully through most of the war years.
Through it all, the Dutch Saints, along with the rest of Holland, were steadily impoverished. Hundreds of thousands of homes were destroyed by bombing; hundreds of square miles of farmland were flooded as dikes were breached. The country’s railcars were diverted to Germany; motor vehicles and even bicycles were confiscated; blankets, clothing, and household goods were requisitioned by Germany, leaving virtually nothing for the Dutch themselves. Whole factories were dismantled for shipment to German territory.
The real troubles began in September, 1944, when the British attacked the Germans at the Dutch city of Arnhem. The Dutch supported the British attack in every way possible, including a transportation strike. The Germans retaliated by starving the Dutch into submission. Cities along the North Sea were isolated from the rest of the country, with no food shipments allowed in. No fuel was delivered, and people burned everything – including their household furniture – to survive the winter of 1944-45. The people starved, some dropping dead on the street as they hunted for food and fuel. When the Allies entered Holland in the spring of 1945, they found a completely demoralized people, so exhausted that nothing mattered except securing enough food to live another day.
One of the first American arrivals in Holland was Frank B. Jex, a former missionary in the Netherlands and, in April 1945, a member of the Office of Strategic Services. This Office, forerunner of the CIA, gathered intelligence in the war zones and organized resistance. Caring for the needs of the civilian population was not part of their mandate – but it was an essential personal assignment for the former Elder Jex. He reached Apeldoorn, one of the branches where he had previously served, in April, and immediately went to call upon Branch President [—] Dodenbler.
I knew they had long been on a starvation diet, and it was surprising to me how well they looked.
“You’re looking fine,”I began. “how do you feel?”
“We’re hungry, Brother Jex!”
The following week I attended Sunday School in the Apeldoorn Branch. With me I brought what food we were able to save from our army rations. After Sunday School we held a “banquet” for the thirty-five members who were present.
“Dear Lord,” prayed Brother Dodenbler, “forgive us for holding a feast on thy holy day, but the need is great.”
After a song of rejoicing, each person was served one small meat or cheese sandwich, two raisin pancakes, a cup of cocoa. For the children there was the added treat of a small piece of chocolate, the first candy many of them had ever tasted. They were children of the occupation, born during the darkest years of their country’s history. The “banquet” was received with an appreciation unknown to us who have never suffered for want of food.
“It has come in answer to our prayers,” concluded the branch president.
In the following weeks, Elder Jex was able to visit the branches in Utrecht, Amsterdam, and Rotterdam, learning of Church members who had died of starvation. The daily ration for most of the Dutch had been reduced to one-tenth of the normal pre-war diet.
Of his visit to Arnhem, he wrote,
Never have I more enjoyed the spirit of a meeting than upon the occasion of my visit to that branch. I visited the members in their homes. Most of them were destitute except for a few pieces of salvaged or rebuilt furniture saved from the ruins of their former homes. In many instances whole families were crowded into one or two rooms, all that could be made habitable in badly damaged buildings. But those people had the gospel, and it was dearer tot hem than ever before.
The Church responded as quickly as conditions would permit, and Holland was one of the countries served by the Church’s early efforts to ship goods by parcel post. American members responded to Elder Jex’s plea:
The shortage of material goods among the members is so acute that all conceivable goods are welcomed with enthusiasm. The shoe problem is still among the most acute. Since the shoe uppers are still good in most cases, leather soles and nails will solve this problem. toilet soap is still appreciated as much as anything. Warm underwear of the interlock type and warm socks and stockings are badly needed. All clothing and bedding are greatly appreciated. Needles, thread, yarn, shoe laces are all scarce items.
The mission is very eager to obtain the following supplies for its recreation program: ping-pong equipment (especially the balls) and 16 mm. film for projection. There are several projection machines in the mission, but film is unobtainable. They request film to be exposed there as well as film shorts from here with news, religion, comedy, etc.
For their reading program recent books published since 1939 will be gratefully received. there is a great need for Church publications and lesson material of recent years.
Office supplies urgently needed include mimeograph supplies, paper, pencils (black and red), and record books.
One family of Saints who received a parcel from the Church wrote of their gratitude and sent their family picture.
With great joy we received your gift parcels and express our heart-felt thanks for it. the clothes you sent was very much needed. Our family consists of eight people. We have six boys, the eldest is nine years old, then one of eight, one of seven, one of four, one of three, the youngest is one year and a half. In June  we expect a new baby, so you see we need quite a bit of clothing before all are dressed and that is why we are so glad to receive the clothes you sent. It is a lucky thing that when one thing does not fit one boy, it always fits the other. We have hard times back of us, and we are thankful that none of us got lost. We know what it is to go hungry, and the kids had no stockings anymore last winter. But with the help of God we got through somehow. that’s why we are so glad to be free again. We never dared hope that our brothers and sisters out West would care for us in such a way. Our country has become very poor now, and we feel it more so with so many children and not sufficient clothes for them to wear. We soon expect our seventh child, and it is very hard to get things for the coming baby. Sheets and pillow cases are not to be had, not even pins. The show-windows are empty, and inside they always tell the same story, “We have not.” That’s not very pleasant, but we hope things will get better. We consider it a blessing to receive your clothes and blankets. Beloved family, we don’t know you, and you don’t know us, but we are of one faith, and the gospel unites us all. We hope to meet you in Zion some day, and we would appreciate it very much to hear from you. Enclosed you will find some family foto’s taken when we received your parcels. I will finish now, wishing you God’s blessing. Your brother and sister in the gospel –
And in was under those conditions, both of starvation and a keen awareness that “we are of one faith, and the gospel unites us all,” that the Dutch Saints learned that the Saints in Germany were living under even worse conditions than the Dutch themselves.
(To be continued)