Pieter Witte was born in 1812 in Deventer, but it would be a few more years before he would see his father, Jan Witte (1791-1854), return from war. His father had named him after his grandfather, Peter (1753-1833), a 2nd generation German immigrant, also a soldier, just as Jan was named after his grandfather Johannes Jürgen Witte (1724-1773), who had migrated into the Dutch Republic, from Lower Saxony, in search for a better life. But Pieter and his generation was to experience something very different.

How they got here

Pieter was the older brother of my direct ancestor, Jozef Witte (1816-1878), and the few other siblings were all younger than Jozef. Most likely Pieter and his mum, Elisabeth Smits, spent the first few years frequently on their own as Jan was a Foot Grenadier in the Imperial Guard [0]. The Witte’s were ‘late-comers’ at the end of the migration-wave of the late 17th / early 18th century Dutch Republic [1]. In a demographically changing country [2] they had carved out a living initially as soldiers but increasingly as weavers. As far as I can tell, Jozef and Jan never served in the military and while Jozef adopted his fathers weaver profession, Jan opted for the physically less straining job of tailor.

Urban vs Rural

After 1815 the Witte’s had ‘demilitarised‘ and settled in Deventer and taken up jobs such as tailor and weaver which made them slightly better off socio-economically than day-laborers, but living in urban conditions often came with bad health and no access to land to produce some subsistence for their own families. Industrialisation was slow in the Netherlands [3] but was beginning to affect the economy in textiles to some extent. I have little direct information about Pieter’s adolescence, but what I know seems to suggest he was struggling with his health. In 1837 he married Catharina Toornman on April 6th but their marriage wasn’t to last long. On April 25th Pieter passed away in the afternoon, leaving behind his pregnant wife in destitution. Two months later their daughter Pietje Johanna Elisabeth was born, named after the father, grandfather and grandmother. The latter two still being alive. The families of 2 was struggling in increasingly difficult economic circumstances. They had slipped into an increasingly vulnerable position for the upheaval that was to come [4].

Famine

It was 1838 that the first harvest, partially, failed in the Netherlands. Especially for poorer families, in urban areas, the situation quickly became difficult as food prices went up and real wages had been falling for quite some time by then [5]. Jozef, Pieter’s brother, married in late 1838, to Dirkje Lindt, a girl who’s family also had a migration background from Germany less than 2 generations ago. In January 1839 Jozef and Dirkje had their first son, which they named Jan, after Jozef’s father. Catharina, Jozef’s sister-in-law, remarried in 1839 and soon she was pregnant again, however fortune refused to smile on the family and Catarina’s child died 11 weeks after birth in late 1840.

The near total failure of the potato harvests in 1844 and 1845, when in many places 75% of the crop was lost due to potato blight, meant potato prices shot up, mortality rates grew and birth-rates dropped. The effects would remain visible on people’s health, especially of vulnerable groups, for the entire decade to come.

Jozef and Dirkje had another son in 1842, but there is no record of him surviving the 1844-1845 potato-shock. Their first born, Jan, however passes away in 1843. Catharina has another son in January 1845 but he does not survive beyond 4 months. Her daughter Pietje from her first marriage with Pieter, dies just 4 months later in August 1845, and finally her 2nd husband passes away just inside of the new year 1846. In the following years Jozef and Dirkje have several more children, some of whom do not make it beyond their childhood years, some who probably survived but who’s trace I have lost in the fog of time, and some who survive and leave Deventer such as my Great-Grandfather Johannes Jürjen Witte (1856-1933), named after the Johannes Jürgen who had originally left his Saxon homeland to escape the poverty of the early 18th century and came to the Dutch Republic.

Catharina didn’t marry a 3rd time. She had one surviving 13 year-old son, Lambert, named after her father,from her 2nd mariage. After losing her husband to the famine in 1846, and also having lost her youngest sister Aaltje Toornman, whose children also did not survive, she herself died in 1854 aged just 42 and possibly due to health ravaged by years of undernourishment. Lambert, her only surviving son, would pass away 3 years later aged 16, and following just after him the Catharina’s father died, aged 78. Catharina’s parents had lost half their children and grandchildren in the potato-famine years of 1845-1846 and the decade following it.

Modern Times

If you would have asked me at any time in the last decades whether I have ever known hunger, I would surely have answered a full-mouthed: “No!” It was something my parents would always correct me and my siblings on. Whenever any of us would say ‘I am hungry’, they would correct us: ‘You’re not hungry, you have an appetite!’ This must sound as some ridiculous middle-class ‘woke’ language-policing nowadays to some reading this.

Jacobus Johannes Witte (1925-2003) and me.

But I was born in 1966, way before anything was woke. The Witte family had moved their nest from Deventer to Utrecht in the early 20th century. It seems they initially paid a heavy price for the hunger years of 1844-1846 also in terms of human capital and educational outcomes, not entirely out of line with other survivors [5]. But two generations later educational attainment was on the up again when my grandfather, Cornelis Witte (1899-1968), became a Typesetter, work that required reading skills.

Source: Wikimedia Commons

Yet, after a century famine was to return one more time.

A Hunger Winter

Four years into German occupation, in the winter of 1944-1945, almost exactly a hundred years after a Potato Blight had wiped several families from amongst my ancestors, hunger returned. As the Nazi regime was in its slow but inevitable collapse, and Allied Forces had liberated the southern part of the Netherlands, resistance in the country was growing leading to a general strike of the railroads in September 1944, against which the Nazi Occupiers retaliated with a total ban on food transport within the parts of the country they still held. Food droppings to bring first relief only occurred in late April 1945. The 7 months of hunger in between also coincided with a severe winter. The Dutch Hunger Winter would become one of the world’s most studied famine for long-term health and socio-economic effects [6].

My parents and their siblings were distributed across the country in three very distinct regions in terms of the impact of the famine. My mother lived in the East of the country, a rural and agricultural area where food supplies did not run out, but legal distribution was next to impossible due to the ongoing occupation. One of my uncles from my dad’s side, had been in hiding in the South of the country, from ’41 onwards, to avoid being captured for forced labour in the German war industry. By September 1944 he was in the liberated part of the country where food supply and distribution were uninterrupted. My father and his other siblings were in Utrecht, which was cut off from food supplies for pretty much the entire winter and only meagre rations were collected every now and then on very risky “food marches” across the surrounding countryside. Doubly dangerous because he and his brother were also in hiding to avoid being drafted for forced labour, something which was punishable by execution.

By January-March ’45 people were dying in the streets, cats and dogs had all but disappeared and people resorted to the eating of nettles and tulip bulbs and pretty much anything they could get their hands on.

A lot has been written on the impact the Hunger Winter has had on on kids who were born during or just following the famine, including on health, for example [7] work by one of my current direct colleagues, and on general socio-economic outcomes [8]. I myself have nothing but anecdotes to offer.

Experiencing the Hunger Winter as a 19 year-old left a deep, scarring and lasting, and physical, impression on my father and his siblings. The oldest, who had been entirely unaffected, was much taller than his two brothers and sisters, which they sometimes half-jokingly attributed to him not having ‘worn the face of hunger’. My father and his younger brother, as well as the two sisters, remained relatively short in length for their generation. However due to the exceptional situation at the end of the war, educational opportunities were available that perhaps otherwise wouldn’t have been. My father, in part based on his experiences during the war, desired to study medicine and went on to become the first in my entire ancestry to go to college.

Epilogue

Much like Audrey Hepburn, who was also a survivor of the Dutch Hunger Winter, so my father in his later life frequently wondered whether some of his ailments, some of the inner obstacles he battled, were scars of the famine. The four stages of hunger [9] were a regularly returning topic of conversation during my childhood and adolescence. It was within that context that the constant reminder of “appetite, not hungry” should also be viewed.

In the past years I have wondered occasionally about 2nd generation effects. Such effects are under study [10], [11], and some times I wonder whether there’s any connection with fact that the mean life-time of me and my 3 siblings so far has not yet exceeded 60, even though only two of us are still alive, and I am the youngest aged 56. Probably there isn’t … probably the lasting personal effect on me is that I have grown up in the knowledge that I have never been hungry, only ever had appetite, and that this is one hell of a privilege.

Sources
  • [0] Wiki-page of the 3rd Foot Grenadiers.
  • [1] Van der Woude AM. Population developments in the Northern Netherlands (1500-1800) and the validity of the’urban graveyard’effect. In Annales de démographie historique 1982 Jan 1 (pp. 55-75). Société de Demographie Historique.
  • [2] van Zanden JL, Prak M. Demographic change and migration flows in Holland between 1500 and 1800. In Working on Labor 2012 Jan 1 (pp. 237-245). Brill.
  • [3] Mokyr J. Industrialization and Poverty in Ireland and the Netherlands. The Journal of Interdisciplinary History. 1980 Jan 1;10(3):429-58.
  • [4] Bergman M. The potato blight in the Netherlands and its social consequences (1845–1847). International Review of Social History. 1967 Dec;12(3):390-431.
  • [5] Thompson K, Lindeboom M, Portrait F. Adult body height as a mediator between early-life conditions and socio-economic status: the case of the Dutch Potato Famine, 1846–1847. Economics & Human Biology. 2019 Aug 1;34:103-14.
  • [6] Ramirez D, Haas SA. Windows of vulnerability: consequences of exposure timing during the Dutch Hunger Winter. Population and Development Review. 2022 Dec;48(4):959-89.
  • [7] Conti G, Poupakis S, Ekamper P, Bijwaard GE, Lumey LH. Severe prenatal shocks and adolescent health: evidence from the Dutch hunger winter. medRxiv. 2021 Oct 14:2021-10.
  • [8] Scholte RS, Van Den Berg GJ, Lindeboom M. Long-run effects of gestation during the Dutch Hunger Winter famine on labor market and hospitalization outcomes. Journal of health economics. 2015 Jan 1;39:17-30.
  • [9] Wittenberg. D. This is what Hunger Does. De Correspondent (2016).
  • [10] Tan CM, Zhibo T, Zhang X. Sins of the fathers: The intergenerational legacy of the 1959-61 Great Chinese Famine on children’s cognitive development. Available at SSRN 2409452. 2015.
  • [11] Tolkunova K, Usoltsev D, Moguchaia E, Boyarinova M, Kolesova E, Erina A, Voortman T, Vasilyeva E, Kostareva A, Shlyakhto E, Konradi A. Transgenerational effect of early childhood famine exposure in the cohort of offspring of Leningrad Siege survivors. medRxiv. 2022:2022-11.
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