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PLAIN PEOPLE: Quiet

16 minute read
TIME

Peace was a clamor, a quest, a foreboding struggle. But politicians and publicists accounted for nearly all the news. Seldom had the people been quieter than in the months before V-E day, 1946. Even where “popular” demonstrations occurred (in Detroit, or Trieste, or Cairo) they had a manipulated look as of soldiers marshaled for parade. While their leaders made history, what went on among the people for whom (and ultimately by whom) history is made? Their leaders were concerned (perhaps necessarily) with remote and technical matters—U.N. procedures, boundaries, interest rates on international loans; from what was said and done in high places, it was not easy to learn much about the world’s two billion inconspicuous humans.

TIME correspondents tried to find how it was with the people in the first year of peace and in the middle of what had been heralded as a century of plenty. The evidence they produced this week (see below) indicated that the people were politically quiet, not because they were content, but because they were tired and confused and, above all, hungry.

Winston Churchill went to Aberdeen in Scotland last week and spoke of the peace in terms the people understood well and bitterly:

“There never was a time when breathing space was more needed, a blessed convalescence, a truce of God and man.” But, he said, “this is a time when hatred is rife in the world, when many branches of the human family, victors or vanquished, innocent or guilty, are plunged in bewilderment, distress or ruin. The world is very ill. . . . Mankind cannot in its present plight bear new shocks without descending to altogether cruder and primordial forms.”

Peace was the sickly hatred Churchill described, and peace was other things: the Colonel Blimpish British mine owner who looked forward to the return of unemployment as a cure for the contagion of absenteeism (sometimes 40 percent) which broke out whenever big sports events nearby attracted his work-weary miners; the farmer (of military age) hopefully sowing his field on which a tank rusted, near Saint-Lô, Normandy (see cut); the profound, silent distrust of eleven-year-old Filomena Carciopoli, of Puzzuoli, Italy, who sullenly concealed her starving seven-month-old sister under a bed so they could not take the baby to a hospital.

Amid such concerns the people’s will pressed lightly, if at all, upon the shaping of the new world. But what the people suffered quietly now would in time emerge as history more formidable than the alarms fretting the headlines in the first spring of peace.

Less Bread for Britain

Day after day the average Briton wakes up to a breakfast of tea and toast with butter or margarine from a seven-day allowance of some six ounces. Once a week he may have an egg. Twice a week, a 1½-oz. piece of bacon. Twice a week, porridge.

His evening meal (high tea) consists of fish (cod, sardines, herring) or a bit of cheese, tea and crackers. For supper there is tea and bread.

For the week’s big meal (Sunday dinner) a British housewife can pool her family’s meat ration (25¢ worth per person) for a roast, served with potatoes, limp lettuce, cauliflower or cabbage, and steamed pudding. But dinner for the rest of the week must be leaner. Sample menus:

Monday: The remains of Sunday’s joint, boiled potatoes, pickles, pudding.

Tuesday: Fish pie (cooked without egg or fat), chocolate blancmange.

Wednesday: Sausages and mashed potatoes, jam tart (lard ration: one ounce per week).

Thursday: Canned salmon, suet pudding, jam.

Friday: Fish & chips, crackers.

Saturday: Vegetable pie, pudding.

Last week British housewives found even tighter rations looming. Breakfast foods may soon be reduced or cut out altogether. Even bread, with potatoes the staple in most homes, might soon go on the list. Meanwhile, as the Government promised UNRRA to divert some 200,000 additional tons of grain to Europe, the standard loaf shrank in size from two to 1¾Ibs. And beer production would be reduced 15%.

Candy for Dieter

Many Germans like to talk of bygone days. Their tales (pieced out by Nazi records now in Allied hands) contain much of the stuff of history, perhaps some of the stuff of prophecy.

Stille Nacht. On Christmas Eve, 1938, Hans Wilhelm Weidner told his wife: “If things would only stay this way.” He was a successful Nürnberg contractor whose two secondhand trucks were kept busy by the Nazis—even though Weidner himself had managed to stay out of the Party. His wife Babette had got a new coat that year, his 16-year-old son Franz was learning the contracting business, and his 13-year-old daughter Sybille was taking piano lessons. They were used to coffee cake, butter and jam for breakfast and the milk and buttered bread for Gabelfrühstück (second breakfast). At noon every day, there was meat. At five, there was coffee cake for Jause, and supper consisted of soup, fish or meat, potatoes, vegetables and dessert. They had a nice apartment—three bedrooms and a well-furnished living room. Christmas Eve, there was a big tree in the living room and they all sang Stille Nacht. (That night, the records say, 1,700 prisoners were put to death at Oranienburg.)

Let Them Eat Cake. By 1939, the second breakfast had disappeared. Herr Weidner was now a Gemeiner (common soldier), but his family still had goose and dumplings for Christmas dinner. Next year, Frau Weidner bore her husband another son, Dieter. She wrote to the father at the front: “I wonder if it was wise?” The trucks had been requisitioned by the Army, and she had to take a job as a cook. Butter and eggs were scarce. But there was still goose for Christmas, and Frau Weidner found some French perfume under the tree. (That Christmas, the records say, the Gestapo executed 23 Maquis at Châlons-sur-Marne.)

In 1941, there was meat only three times a week, but there was plenty of cake, sausages and cheese. Franz, who was also in the Army now, sent his mother a fur coat from Russia. (At Buchenwald. 600 died of exposure that December.) By 1943, there were only fish patties, potatoes and beans for Christmas dinner. Sybille was working in a war plant. Young Franz had died at Stalingrad for Führer und Vaterland. In 1944 there was still enough sugar left to put up apples and cherries, and friends in the country sent tomatoes to go with the fish on Christmas Day. (At Treblinka, prisoners ate watery soup and a quarter-pound of mouldy bread.)

In 1945, the Weidners were bombed out, and the two women had only one coat left between them. From the Red Cross came news that Father Weidner had been captured in Austria. Sybille no longer played Schumann in the evenings. That year there was no Christmas dinner.

Strange Sweet. This spring, Sybille went to work for the Americans, and things were a little better. Most meals consisted of soup and potatoes, with a thin slice of sausage and cheese three times a week in the evening, and a small chunk of meat on Sundays. By standing in line for hours, Frau Weidner could get bread and now & then some cereal. Sybille even brought home some G.I. candy for her small brother. Dieter looked at it uncomprehendingly. “What is that?” he asked.

Strength for Harvest?

Innocenzo Pietropaoli fed himself and his wife Natalina and his daughter Maria by tilling his acre of land at Anticoli Corrado, a mountain village 35 miles north of Rome. Even in the remote and incredibly rich days of 1938, its produce (half of which went to the landlord) had to be carefully husbanded to feed the Pietropaolis.

In winter, the family rose at 8, breakfasted heavily on beans, potatoes, greens and polenta (corn meal). A little after 10, when the frost was off the ground, Innocenzo started to work; he did not stop until dusk, when there was another meal of polenta, minestrone and watered wine. In the spring and summer, when the work was harder, there would be richer food: bread soaked in olive oil, sardines, pasta, greens, cheese and wine.

In 1939 came war and another child, but little change. Innocenzo, who had scant appetite for heroics, wangled a job as a medical orderly and his wife got a Government allotment.

Figs & Frogs. But by the time the armistice sent Innocenzo home again (and cut off the allotment), the neglected farm yielded only enough for his wife and the children. They ate figs, chicory weeds, green apples, and frogs caught in the ditches. For the first time in his life, the peasant Innocenzo Pietropaoli went begging. In the fall he got a job as a harvester on another man’s farm. His wife walked behind him, gleaning stray ears of wheat (eleven pounds a day).

All through 1945 life was a little better, but last winter the big drought parched the land. This spring, Innocenzo again stood in his field, clad in his army uniform (the only clothes he had), but he did not seem to be able to work as he used to. “How to get through to harvest time?” he asked. “How to get enough strength to work the land till then?”

Clay for Bulk

From Hengyang, TIME Correspondent William Gray cabled last week :

Spring in Hunan is about as fair a sight as any landscape painter could want. Rain-washed red hillsides are green again. Young willow leaves festoon the roads winding through the rice paddies. But the springtime beauty of this central Chinese province, one of the nation’s “rice bowls,” ends with the landscape. A portrait painter in Hunan would find an ugly subject—the bitter, bony face of famine.

Famine is not always quickly seen. In cold, rainy weather, padded black rags hide the scrawny arms and swollen bellies of China’s hungry. It takes hot days when thousands shed their rags to see the effects of slow mass starvation. In villages like Chi Ho, a shady brown clump of mud. brick farmhouses twelve miles from dusty Hengyang, you see the famine. Two months ago, when there was still rice, Chi Ho had 140 inhabitants; now it has 80, the remainder having died or gone off to the city to beg.

Hoarding for Safety. We arrived in late afternoon, the time for the peasants’ wives to be making supper—if they had any. We were met by three expressionless, grimy, starving boys. The abdomen of one was distended until he could not fasten his ragged garment over it; his translucent, putty-pale, bare skin showed a blue network of blood vessels.

Two skeletal, sad-eyed women were preparing a watery gruel for supper, composed of green weeds and splintery, hard rice husks.

Chinese newspapers had reported that the famished Hunanese also ate mud and clay. We asked the interpreter if this were really so.

“Come,” he said. “They will show you.”

A woman brought out another tray of weeds and rice husks. A fine whitish powder covered the bottom of it.

“The powder is clay,” explained the interpreter. “It comes from a mine far distant. It adds bulk and makes their meal more heavy.”

We remained skeptical. We wanted to see the clay from which the powder was made. Then a gaunt woman emerged from another kitchen carrying a half-dozen big chunks of the raw product, weighing altogether perhaps seven or eight pounds. The others looked on quietly. The woman said something to the interpreter. He turned to us and told the amazing reason why she had not shown this hoard of clay sooner: “She was hiding it from the others.”

Rice for the Rich. It is plowing season now. Because the Japanese Army slaughtered their water buffaloes, men must pull the plows. Chi Ho’s hungry farmers struggle home to their riceless suppers and one morning cannot return to the fields. Production is lost; famine is prolonged.

The ironic inhumanity of all this is that there is still food in Hunan. Scores of beggar children wander with chopsticks and empty rice bowls through Hengyang or lie exhausted in the gutters, but the city’s restaurants still serve ten-course feasts for those who can pay. We ate such a meal one night as guests of the local newspapermen, whose slightly fantastic prelude to the banquet was the presentation of carefully wrapped samples of the clay, weeds, rice husks and grass on which people were starving not far from our table.

In the city markets big bamboo tubs and bigger vats heaped with rice are plainly displayed. But the price of rice is terribly inflated and it goes only to those who can afford the black market. UNRRA relief supplies are trickling in by river junks from Shanghai. Whenever UNRRA supplies arrive, the price of rice drops, only to go up again because the supplies are not enough.

Time for Squeeze. UNRRA men in Hunan find it practically impossible to determine how much rice is actually on hand. Chinese officialdom, far more conditioned to famine than to organized relief, or more concerned with “squeeze” (timehonored graft) than with efficiency, often seems utterly callous or thoroughly inept. There is no effort to control private rice supplies. Minor officials of CNRRA—UNRRA’s Chinese extension—are afraid to make decisions. They will watch a village starve and report it back to UNRRA as dramatic evidence of famine and the need for more help, instead of sending the villagers the few sacks of flour that would save them.

Tickets for Life. CNRRA gets food to hungry people in two ways: 1) through porridge lines thrice daily, and in “soft rice” (flour and vegetable paste) kitchens set up in old temples or deserted buildings; 2) as pay for work on highway-building projects. The Pao Chang (district political bosses) give out tickets for porridge lines “on the basis of greatest need.” Women and children by the score, without the magic tickets, stand outside the kitchens and beg in vain.

The favored needy sit, dull as cattle, while a coolie ladles their gruel out of a wooden bucket. Many are rheumy-eyed from malnutrition and blink and squint constantly as they slup their food. The sound is like the suction of noisy plumbing. When they are through, they wrap their bowls and chopsticks in cotton rags and go quietly away to wait for another meal.

Champagne for the Ladles

Headline in Shanghai’s daily Evening Post and Mercury: THIRTY MILLION IN CHINA FACE DEATH BY HUNGER AS FAMINE WIDENS.

Under a clouded sky, 80 guests relaxed on wicker chairs and awaited the beginning of Madame Elanora Garnett’s first postwar fashion show. Gathered on the broad, springy lawn of Madame’s plushy home were leading lights of Shanghai’s international set. The wife of a U.S. oil company manager came confidently attired in a new spring suit; an icy Russian brunette sat like a Raphael Madonna in a startling blue turban.

About half the spectators were Chinese, well-groomed in fine furs and narrow, split skirts. In the bygone era of extraterritoriality, they had never been invited to Madame Garnett’s dress salon. Now Madame boasted a clientele of “all the most prominent Chinese.” They are “very, very wealthy and very, very rich,” she explained. The foreign ladies, carefully sitting apart, accepted the new era with resignation.

“Approximately 4,000,000 are given little or no possibility at all of outliving the unprecedented famine now clutching fast a total of 19 provinces” (said the Post and Mercury).

Promptly at 3 o’clock a bosomy mannequin opened the show with a novelty uniform Madame had designed for Chinese airline stewardesses. As she swaggered down a long black runner on the lawn, guests clapped politely and flicked their cigarets on the grass. Occasionally they cast nervous glances at the overcast, wondered if rain would come to spoil the show.

“Among the contributing reasons for the critical food shortage in China are battle devastation, drought, floods, plagues.”

Madame Garnett, a sinewy, vivacious Russian approaching a prosperous middle age, displayed some items herself. Sophisticated guests applauded everything, jotted down style names (“Fifth Avenue,” “Solitude”), descriptions (“cyclamen,” “red and royal blue”). The piece de résistance was a black evening gown called “Tuileries” (price: $500 U.S.).

The Chinese ladies, being novices, just watched. (A Chinese husband had pleaded with Madame Garnett: “Please make of my wife a modern woman.”) The show’s finale was dedicated to them: handsome Chinese evening gowns, styled to Madame’s theory that the tight neckline must be maintained, but some lacy nakedness can be permitted just beneath the neck.

“The countryside has been shaved of vegetation by both the natives and hunger-driven refugees on their way to Hankow. .. . The mortality rate, particularly among children, is said to be exceptionally high.”

Madame Garnett’s gangling young son, who had been playing in some uncut shrubbery during the show, joined his parents inside after it was over. Her husband, an Italian businessman, poured Mumm’s champagne in honor of the occasion. The guests filed out happy and admiring. Gushed a fluttery, middle-aged American guest: “It is very difficult to get materials, you know. To do a show under these conditions deserves—” Stifled by emotion, she applauded lightly with gloved hands.

Lectures for the Poor

Americans—the kind who get around and know things—often glibly tell Indians that they have only themselves to blame for their misery and hunger: the chief trouble is, these Indians have too many children. Mohandas Gandhi disagrees. Although he and his wife practiced complete marital continence for 30 years before her death in 1944, he abhors contraception, has declared that it produces “nothing but harm.” Last week, Gandhi’s youngest son Devadas, hard-hitting editor of the Hindustan Times, made a far more eloquent defense of India’s birth rate:

“It is indecent to suggest that there is some sort of Malthusian justice in the millions of famine deaths checking excessive growth of population. It is true that Indians are multiplying too fast. But it is sheer perversity to expect people who cannot afford an elementary education and a handful of rice to buy contraceptives. Everywhere in the world slums breed human beings too fast, and India is one vast slum. The remedy is not to lecture the Indians . . . but to abolish the slummy conditions of life.”

One American came to India last week not to lecture but to listen. In the famine-stricken provinces of Madras and Mysore, Herbert Hoover rode over chokingly dusty roads past rocky farmland and dried-up streams. The coal-black natives crowded around his car. “One family here lives on four to eight annas’ (8¢ to 16¢) worth of grain a week,” they told him. “We are now eating only one meal every two days.”

Said Hoover in his report on India: “Most districts are on the edge of a precipice. It is impossible to hazard what the death toll might be.”

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