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Monday, 04 May 2009

Stealing Coal

By Friko of Friko's Musings

It's spring again here in my small corner of the South Shropshire Hills. Winter this year has been harder than of late but it is over now. Besides, at times it was fun.

Winter wasn't always such fun. There was a time when frost, ice and snow were a curse and that was the winter of 1946/47 in Germany.

In fact, more or less the whole of Europe iced over, but for a country which was on its knees, with millions of people without food, without shelter, it was retribution indeed.

As a tiny child, I lived in a village on the Lower Rhine. Although we had shelter, we had neither food nor any means of heating. There were, however, trains filled with coal from the nearby mining area of the Ruhr which rolled through woods not far off on their way to the Dutch border.

It so happened that these trains always came to a momentary stop in the woods, waiting for a signal to allow them onward passage. It didn't take long for this to become known in the village. The coal was transported in low, open wagons with iron bars or steps on the outside.

A few village men risked the first raids on the trains. When nothing happened, others followed suit. Little by little, everyone was involved in stealing coal, my parents and me included.

It was always after dark when the raids took place. As soon as the train started to slow down (it was never very fast), the men clambered aboard, throwing down coal with their bare hands while the women and children frantically scooped it up into sacks or baskets. The lucky ones might have had a handcart, although it was quite difficult to drag anything but the smallest conveyance over he uneven terrrain of the woods.

We had a bicycle which helped with carrying our loot. My father pushed it. My mother was ill with starvation and unable to carry very much and I was too small, although I remember dragging a sack behind me on several occasions until we got out of the woods and my father loaded it onto his back.

Because we were such a small group, we never managed to take much coal - enough for loading the stove once or twice only. Others were better organized; a family of several men and older children could carry two or three sacks away on each raid.

The authorities soon became aware of the raids. The trains never stopped for long, at most five to ten minutes, not enough time to steal large quantities of coal. However, it was a criminal offence - even people in danger of freezing to death could not be allowed to get away with it.

We never knew how the military police found out but, within a week or two, the raids were regularly interrupted by several all-terrain army vehicles arriving along the tracks, lights blazing, whistles whistling shrilly and much confused shouting. The men jumped from the wagons, women and children dragged away what they could and, abandoning the rest, the thieves fled into the woods.

Nevertheless, the raids continued for most of that winter. Not always did get the military police get to the signal box in time; sometimes they came when the train was already moving again and the families were just about to vanish into the woods.

I never heard of anybody being caught and punished. Why that is so I don't know. Children and women would have been easy prey. Did the soldiers and policemen resent having to leave their vehicles and follow the fugitives into the dark woods? Why were they occasionally late arriving? Were the barracks too cosy on these bitter nights? Were the raids over too quickly for decisive action?

Or, did they have a heart?

[EDITORIAL NOTE: All elders, 50 and older, are welcome to submit stories for this blog. They can be fiction, non-fiction, poetry, memoir, etc. Instructions for submitting are here.]

Posted by Ronni Bennett at 02:30 AM | Permalink | Email this post


Friko - It is hard for me (and probably for most Americans) to begin to imagine what living in Germany, or anywhere in Europe, was like during or just after the War. This is a terrific story. Based on the evidence you have presented, my thought is that these raids were designed to keep this activity to a relatively small scale. So I come down on the side of, "they had a heart"! - Sandy


I agree with Sandy. They could have stopped it completely but didn't.

Do you think they let it go on because they also had a family at home who were cold and hungry?

In any case, Great Story!

I've been doing research for a book on life in Germany after the war. This story gives good insight. I would like to think the officials had to appear that they were serving justice , while actually showing compassion.

Friko, a great story that gives insight into the deprivations that most of never knew. I can't imagine how difficult life was during this terrible time, but you have painted a vivid picture of the fight for survival.

This is just the most moving story thank you for sending me this way via somewhere else.
I remember my Aunt telling me, she was an Army nurse and went to many places in Germany towards the very end of the war and she said it was the most harrowing of times.

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