French version here.

Helene's story

Coping with the lack of anything and everything

Photograph of Helene in 1943 During the war, we lacked everything. To eat, to dress, to move, to heat, to smoke, the rations were far from enough. So everyone invented, in a thousand ways, with what they could find, replacements for what the German army had taken during the first months of the occupation.

Let's begin with flour: a farmer friend of ours gave us some 'wheat' he had hidden; but it was necessary to grind it! Polish coal-miners, that worked in the north for about the last twenty years, had much experience of difficult situations because of wars and invasions. They taught us a lot of practical methods: How to adapt a clothes washing-machine to be a flour-mill for example.

They also knew how to make soap, (precious!) far superior to the market substitute (which was a so-called floating "soap" made out of clay which was not even capable of making bubbles). Without soap, no cleanliness, and without cleanliness, scabies, fleas and all sorts of vermin attack persons already weakened by hunger and deprivation. The method was simple: take some fat (lard, margarine, even skin of rabbit) melt with caustic soda, add some 'resin' (to harden), some "scent" (if you still have some 'Eau de Cologne') and pour it into a mold the shape of a bar of soap.

In the hospitals, where soap is indispensable, surgeons did not hesitate to take from their patients (during an operation of the appendicitis for example) their excess of fat. When they woke up, no more appendix and, curiously, no more potbelly!

For smokers, to lack tobacco is a disaster. Each tried to replace the nicotine-herb by drying all sorts of leaves and herbs: (rhubarb, corn-beard, various green stuffs cut very thin and "parfumed", without obtaining anything other than a bitter smoke incapable of giving any pleasure.

To replace coffee, one had to grill barley, oats, and/or the seed of lupins (a big flower)... Happily, with the help of our farmer friends, we never lacked milk.

With schoolboy tools (my husband was a head-teacher) and some cream from the milk, one could, in a few minutes, obtain a small piece of butter. No need to shake a bottle for hours on end... With a (cylindrical) milk-pot full of milk-cream, the pierced disk top of a chalk-box which had exactly the size of the pot, attached to a ruler, one only had to force the cream through the holes of the top for a few minutes to obtain butter!

How to cycle without any inner-tube or tires? Polish miners knew to manufacture solid tyres with rubber from conveyor-belt 'borrowed' from the bottom of the mine. With a bicycle, one can get to the fields, to cultivate alfalfa, to bring it back in a small trailer and fatten up as many as 50 rabbits!

Helene Delattre
17th July, 1997

Helene has written other stories about this period :

This story has been translated by her grand-son Alexandre.
You can ask her some question if you click here to write to him.


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