Hunger Winter

The thrilling story of one boy’s quest to find his father and protect his younger sister during the great Dutch famine of World War II.
“Sometimes you have to take a chance, because it’s the only chance you have.”

Thirteen-year-old Dirk has been the man of the house since his papa disappeared while fighting against the Nazis with the Dutch Resistance. When the Gestapo arrests Dirk’s older sister, who is also a Resistance fighter, Dirk fears that he and his little sister, Anna, might be next.

With only pockets full of food and his sister asleep in his arms, Dirk runs away to find his father. As Dirk leads Anna across the war-torn Netherlands, from farmyards to work camps, he must rely on his wits and his father’s teaching to find his way.

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Chapter One

Oosterbeek, Netherlands

November 11, 1944

Bam! Bam! Bam!

Dirk Ingelse’s eyes flew open, and he raised his head off the pillow. Who could be knocking on the front door? Gestapo? His insides turned to ice.

The pounding resumed, the sound carrying easily up the stairs into Dirk’s bedroom. It didn’t sound like the rap of knuckles—it was more like the thumping of an angry fist. Or the butt of a rifle.

It had to be the Gestapo. They had been doing more raids lately, and they often came at night. Who else would pummel the front door of the Ingelses’ farmhouse in the middle of the night and risk getting arrested?

Dirk rolled out of bed and crept to his bedroom window. Easing the curtain open just a bit, he kept his face away from the window, like Papa had taught him. He couldn’t see a vehicle. But what if they hid their car? Dirk’s right hand shook.

He couldn’t hide. They would tear the place apart to find him. And he couldn’t run—they would have the place surrounded. He’d heard stories. His right hand shook harder. It had been doing that a lot ever since—

The assault on the door resumed, even louder this time. “Open up!” growled a deep voice.

Dirk turned from the window and crept down the stairs. “I’ll peek outside,” he said under his breath. “If it’s the Gestapo, I’ll say I have to grab the key to let them in.” He ran his fingers through his short blond hair. “Then I’ll dash through the house and burst out the back.” They would catch him for sure, but maybe they would leave his little sister alone.

The banging got faster. “Open up, Dirk!” the voice demanded above the battering being inflicted on the door.

Have the Gestapo come because of Papa? Have they arrested him?

How long would they wait before they broke into the house? Dirk scurried into the kitchen and grabbed a sharp knife. Weighing about forty-eight kilograms and standing a little over one and a half meters tall, he was average weight and a bit tall for his age, but if the Germans thought they would capture him easily, they were dealing with the wrong thirteen-year-old boy. Waving the knife would keep them back so he could sprint out the rear of the house. And lead them away from Anna. He edged toward the window closest to the front door.

Dirk swallowed hard and squeezed the knife handle harder. He pushed the curtain aside a few centimeters, gasped, fumbled with the lock, and swung the door open.

“Mr. van Nort!”

Why would his neighbor leave his farm at this hour of the night to come here?

Mr. van Nort hurried in, looked back at the street, and closed the door behind him. His chest heaved.

Dirk stared at the barrel-chested man, who took off his hat and fingered it nervously. “How did you—?”

“I ran.”

That has to be two kilometers!

“I had to come right away to warn you.”

Dirk gulped. Mr. van Nort stared at the knife.

“Oh.” Dirk relaxed his hand, and the knife clattered to the floor. “I thought—”

“The Gestapo took Els,” Mr. van Nort said.

“No!” Dirk slammed his hand on the table. “Why?” But he knew why.

Mr. van Nort looked at him sadly. “The Nazis will do anything to find your father.”

Even torture my eighteen-year-old sister. “But Els would rather spit in their faces than tell them anything. Especially about Papa.”

Mr. van Nort shook his head. “They are animals, and they can force anyone to talk. One man held out for fifteen days before spilling secrets.” He stared at the floor. “The next day he died from his injuries.”

Dirk grabbed the back of a chair and forced himself to swallow a sudden sour taste in his mouth. “How did they capture Els?”

“I came as soon as it happened. Els left our house, and I heard a scream a few moments later,” Mr. van Nort said.

Dirk squeezed his eyes shut, his stomach twisting.

“I ran to the window.” The neighbor grimaced. “She did her best to fight them off, but there were too many of them.”

Dirk put his head in his hands. “Why was she at your house in the middle of the night?”

“You’ve got to leave,” Mr. van Nort said.

“She helps the Resistance, doesn’t she? And that means you do too.”

Mr. van Nort held up a finger. “If Els doesn’t talk right away, they’ll come here for you and your little sister. That’s how they work.”

The room swam before Dirk’s eyes. “We’ll go to Tante Cora’s house in Doorwerth.”

“But there’s no food in the cities,” Mr. van Nort said. “Ever since the Germans—”

“I know. But that’s where Els told me to go if anything ever happened to her.”

“Take as much food as you can carry.” Mr. van Nort looked through the window at the street, then back at Dirk. “You need to leave right away. They’ll be coming for you, son. Take Anna and go. Now!”

Chapter Two

After Mr. van Nort left, Dirk’s mind raced. What are the Nazis doing to Els? But he couldn’t do anything for Els right now, and he had to get moving right away to save Anna. If he and Anna found Papa, then Papa would rescue Els. Dirk snatched two coats from the front closet, dropped them on a nearby chair, and flew up the stairs. In his bedroom, he threw on clothes over his pajamas for extra warmth.

How soon would the Gestapo come? In an hour? Fifteen minutes? A car with its lights on approached the house. He peered outside. No!

Dirk’s muscles tensed, and his eyes flitted between the approaching car and the long driveway which led to the farmhouse. Should have kept the knife with me. His breathing became more rapid. If he ran down the stairs right now, he might dash out the back door before they surrounded the house and draw them away from Anna.

But the car passed the farmhouse.

The next one could be coming for me. With fresh urgency, Dirk rushed to his dresser, jerked open a drawer, grabbed a gray stone shaped like an extra-large coin, and jammed it into his pocket. He rushed into Anna’s room, grabbed the first clothes he saw, and shoved them into a bag next to her dresser, pushing them in so hard he ripped a seam.

Anna’s doll lay on the bed next to her. But he couldn’t carry Anna, food, and the doll. He reached over his six-year-old sister, untied the orange ribbon in the doll’s hair, and crammed the colorful strand in his pocket.

“Anna.” He shook her shoulder. “We have to go to Tante Cora’s.”

Her eyelids fluttered. “Huh?”

“It’s time to go.”


How could he tell his little sister that the Gestapo had hunted down Els and wanted them next? “It’ll be all right. Tante Cora will take care of us.” Anna’s limp body resisted his effort to sit her up. “And we’ll play a game on the way. We won’t let anyone see or hear us. It’ll be like hide-and-go-seek at Oma and Opa’s.”

“I love Oma and Opa,” she said, still half asleep.

“Yes. And they love their grandchildren, too.”

Anna’s long blonde hair swung forward when Dirk sat her up on the bed to slide clothes on over her pajamas. He scooped her up and hurried down to the kitchen. While she dozed on a chair, he yanked open a cupboard. He stuffed a half dozen potatoes into his pockets, shoved a loaf of bread under his shirt, and tossed a dozen apples into a bag. Wish I could carry more. Dirk threw on his coat and helped Anna with hers but only took time to fasten a few buttons on each jacket. He grabbed the bag of clothes, slung the bag of apples over his shoulder, and lifted Anna in his arms, but she was heavier than he expected. Uh-oh. He shifted her onto his back, and she leaned into him.

“We’re going to play the quiet game now. You can go back to sleep.”

“Uh-huh,” she murmured.

Dirk scurried away from the house, his muscles taut, looking left and right like radar scanning for enemy aircraft. The moon provided enough light for him to see. Papa would know how to keep from being spotted. But Papa isn’t here. It’s up to me.

At the edge of their farm, they passed a white birch tree, Mama’s favorite, but Dirk couldn’t bear to look at it. It brought back too many memories. His voice cracked as he said softly, “I’ll protect Anna, Mama. I promise.”

He glanced back and suddenly regretted his strategy. He’d chosen the most direct route to Doorwerth. But the road threaded through farm country, with few places to hide if someone approached. What if a dog barked or if one sleepless person looked out the window? Car headlights would be obvious from a distance, but what if the Gestapo rode swift and silent on bicycles? Though the Dutch rode bikes more than the Germans, if anyone was out on a bike after curfew, it would be the Nazis. Dirk’s chest tightened. And what if they raided his home and then searched the roads for him? It’d be easy for them to catch him when he was carrying Anna. He frowned.

Also, this road was parallel to the train tracks. The Germans moved troops at night by train to be less visible to Allied planes. What if just one soldier on a passing train saw two children out this late after curfew?

Three more kilometers to Tante Cora’s. That would be a lot of time out in the open. A patrol would arrest him for being out at night even if they didn’t know his papa was Hans Ingelse.

That wasn’t all. His arms and legs were rapidly tiring from carrying Anna on his back. He wouldn’t be able to carry her all the way to Tante Cora’s. He needed a place for them to hide and rest overnight. But where? They’d already scurried past several farms of people he didn’t know if he could trust and one who definitely couldn’t be trusted.

Dirk bit his lower lip, and his right hand started trembling again.

“Don’t go out after dark.” Dirk could hear Papa’s words as if he had said them yesterday, though it had been a few years earlier, when the Germans started cracking down after the Dutch went on strike. “If the Germans see you out at night, they’ll bring you in for questioning, and maybe more than that.” He had put both hands on Dirk’s shoulders. “Go out during the day—act like you’re running an errand—and no one will notice you. You’re under the cover of daylight.” I miss you, Papa.

The Germans would not catch them. He would outsmart the Nazis by finding a hiding place. But he saw nothing along the sides of the road that would conceal two fugitive children.

A few minutes later the road turned west and away from the railroad tracks, now following the Nederrijn River. But that brought a new risk. If Anna woke and cried, the sound would carry over flat ground to any German barges passing in the night. Dirk took a long, slow breath and tried to calm himself a bit.

Where could they hide? The route was familiar from previous trips to visit Tante Cora, but he’d never been looking in desperation for a place to take cover. He searched his memory for a place of concealment along the road. Wait. I think there might be— His strides lengthened, and his pace increased until his eyes confirmed what his memory had told him.

Up ahead a fifteen-meter evergreen grew on the side of the road. Dirk slowed his pace and studied the lower branches, which hung low to the ground. He nodded. When they reached the tree, he gently set Anna down.

“Crawl under there,” he said, lifting the lowest branch. He eased her to her hands and knees. She was groggy and barely awake, but with Dirk’s help, she made her way under the cover of the branches. His right hand quieted. When they lay down, their coats and body heat counteracted the cool November night air.

Lying on his back, Dirk looked up in the dark at the canopy of branches and needles. What was the Gestapo doing right now to torment Els? She was one of the strongest-willed people he knew, but how would she do in the hands of the Nazis? His tears flowed. Focus, Dirk. He had to lead Anna to safety and find Papa. Papa would figure out how to rescue Els.

So much had happened in such a short time. When Mama died two months before, Els withdrew from university to come home and work to pay the bills for the family. But she was gone a lot, so Anna’s care fell to Dirk, as if the suddenness of Papa’s departure and the shock of Mama’s death weren’t enough. Dirk had assumed Papa would come back when Mama died, but Els had told him Papa couldn’t because home would be the first place the Nazis would look for him. Dirk put his hands to his eyes, but that didn’t stop the tears. And then there was the hardest thing of all—the secret he didn’t dare tell anyone.

Dirk tossed and turned. “Good night, Papa, wherever you are,” he whispered. Tired as he was, he lay awake for a long time waiting for slumber and for the cover of daylight.

Chapter Three

Gestapo Interrogation Center


Els had fought hard to avoid capture outside the van Norts’ home, but the half-dozen attackers were bigger, stronger, and meaner. Her mind and emotions reeled from the suddenness and brutality of the attack. She’d been told about arrests, but the warnings hadn’t captured the emotional gut punch of the experience. Those Nazi thugs had yanked her hands behind her back, tied them, and stuffed her into the back seat of their car. She felt like a bruised piece of fruit as they drove her to the Gestapo interrogation center.

As she jostled around on the seat of the car, a memory in the back of her brain clamored through the pain for her attention. But what was it? Every muscle and joint screamed in agony, making it impossible to focus. But she knew she had to. Her mind grasped for the memory at the edge of her awareness, like a desperate swimmer at night who flails to reach a rescue line but can’t see it in the dark ocean water.

The Gestapo car turned toward downtown Oosterbeek and would be at the headquarters soon. Els felt on the verge of recall. Papa had said something about being captured. But what? She bit her lower lip.

The car drove over a large bump. The jarring shot bolts of pain through her aching arms and legs, and she groaned through gritted teeth. Why hadn’t she paid more attention to what Papa had said? But she’d been so sure the Gestapo would never catch her. She shook her head. What had he told her?

Wait! It was something about the first day of capture. “If they arrest you,” he had said—but there was more. She scrunched her eyes shut, willing the memory to show itself. Then it flashed. “If they bring you in for questioning, don’t tell them anything for the first day and night.” She took a quick breath. That was it! Papa had gone on to explain that if she could hold out that long, it would give others in the Resistance time to relocate. But he had added, “The Nazis know this too, and they will do anything to make you talk right away.” Els swallowed hard.

The car stopped. As they muscled her out of the vehicle and into a jail cell, her injuries roared in anguish. The cell wasn’t much longer than the old dining table at home. Now she sat and waited, knowing that any minute they’d start in on her. Moans and screams from the interrogation rooms drifted down the hallway to Els’s ears. Dutch citizens often complained that Gestapo headquarters played radio music too loud. The Resistance knew this was to drown out the screams of torture, but that music was pumped outside. Inside the building, there was no music—only the cries of brutalized Dutch citizens.

Els slumped on a thin, tattered mattress as she faced the cell door with no handle on the inside. Even though it was the middle of the night, a light blazed overhead. A guard looked in frequently through the peephole in the door. She tried to think of any other advice she’d been given about this situation. But this was real life, and anything could happen now. Anything.

Back when the Germans invaded, Els’s heart had swelled with pride at her parents’ roles in the Resistance, and she’d joined in the effort too. Only thirteen years old at the time, she began by stealing pieces of chalk from school and drawing a large V, a common Resistance symbol, on buildings in town. As she got older, she and her friends set fire to the food for the German horses and pried up railroad timbers to derail German trains. When Allied pilots got shot down, Els led them to safe places to stay. Out at night, she excelled at slinking from doorway to doorway to escape detection. The fact that many Dutch were afraid to fight back made these acts of defiance more appealing and thrilling.

Her cell door flew open. A soldier stormed in and yanked her to her feet. She yelped in pain as he hustled her to an office. “Sitz dich,” he barked, jabbing an index finger toward a chair. Els sat, facing a grim-faced interrogator. He was tall, thin, and bald. His nose had a slight hook to it, like an eagle’s beak. He pushed his face close to Els’s. “Where is your father? Where does he hide the Jews?” he demanded.

Els’s eyes grew wide. This man had just revealed that Papa was alive, and the Nazis didn’t know where he was. That was great news! She sat up straight, folded her arms in front of her, and looked the interrogator in the eye. He surged even closer to her, his nose just a few centimeters from hers. “Where is your father? Where does he hide the Jews? Tell me now.” The veins in his neck bulged as he spat out the words.

“I don’t know.”

He followed with a barrage of questions. “When was the last time you saw your father? Who was with you? Were you at your home? What time of day was it? What was he wearing? What did you talk about?”

Noting the man’s skill in using verbal variety in trying to pry information from her, Els chose a parallel strategy of varying her responses. She alternated “I don’t know” with “Papa never told me” and “I don’t remember.” Sometimes she gave no response, as if the man did not deserve a reply.

“You sit there, as I think you Dutch say it, with your mouth full of teeth,” he said as he glared at her.

“I’m not speechless,” Els shot back. “I’m just not talking to you.”

The rapid-fire questioning continued without results for about two hours. Then the man abruptly stood and left the room.

Fatigue washed over Els. She closed her eyes and slouched in her chair. Her breathing slowed.

Moments later, Els started up as a second interrogator burst into the room. A short man, he had black hair with a few flecks of gray, and gold wire-rimmed glasses. Whereas the first questioner had looked her in the eye at close range, this one roved the room, walking around Els like a predator circling his prey. Or a python coiling around a victim. “You will tell us where your father is, or you shall leave us no choice but to take harsher methods.” The other man had screamed at her. This man spoke at normal volume but with an edge to his voice. Like a snake’s hiss.

Els stared at the interrogator, making an effort to keep her face blank.

“You have a younger brother and sister,” he said from behind her.

Even the Gestapo wouldn’t stoop to harming kids, would they? Els shifted in her chair.

The interrogator stepped in front of her and bent to her eye level. “They fled your home, but we know where they’re going.”

He had to be bluffing. The Nazis were masters of terror and lying, and this had to be one more example. He fixed his eyes on hers, his gaze burning. Didn’t this man ever blink?

“It would be a shame if anything were to happen to your brother and sister.”

What did he mean by that?

“We will capture your father. The only question is if you are wise enough to give us the information we need so nothing happens to Dirk and Anna. We would give you plenty of food ration cards.” He reached into his pocket, pulled out a stack of cards, and fanned them out in his hand, like playing cards.

“I know what ration cards look like. I’m not stupid,” Els said. If they were so sure about capturing Papa, why did they need any information from her?

“The level of your intelligence remains to be seen.” He laid the cards on the table in a triumphant flourish, like a victorious card player in a game-winning move. “Tell us about your father, and you could have all these cards,” he said. “You would, of course, be released so you could care for your brother and sister.”

If she took those, she’d be no better than all the Dutch who collaborated with the enemy! She shoved the ration cards off the table with both hands. They scattered on the floor like autumn leaves.

Els sat more erect. “I don’t know where my father is.”

“Then tell me where he liked to go and the names of his friends. Tell me where he takes the Jews after they leave your farm.” He paused. “Dirk is thirteen, and Anna is only six. Do you have any idea what prison would do to a six-year-old?”

A chilling thought flashed through Els’s mind. Dirk knew that if anything happened to her, he had to take Anna to Tante Cora’s. But what if no one had informed Dirk of Els’s capture? What if the Gestapo swooped in and captured her unsuspecting siblings? These questions gnawed at her like a swarm of rats which chew the only rope holding a ship to the dock during a storm.

Papa was right. In the first twenty-four hours the Gestapo would do anything to get information out of her. Anything.

“Tell me something about your father!” the Nazi shouted directly in her ear.

She flinched. “I won’t tell you anything about Papa,” she said in an even tone.

“You will regret saying that to me. More than you can imagine.” He stalked out of the room.

Moments later, a third interrogator entered. Unlike the previous man, he came in slowly and closed the door behind him quietly. He was tall and broad shouldered, perhaps thirty years old, with brown hair and very intense brown eyes. In one arm he cradled a black cat and with the other, he stroked its back. Els blinked several times. Since when did Nazi henchmen show any form of humanity?

“Hello, Els,” the man said in a soft voice as he sat. He looked to weigh more than ninety kilograms, very muscular. “I am Captain Johann Adler. This is Max.” He nodded at the cat. What was this man up to? The soft voice didn’t fit the fierce physique. Silently he ran his hand in long, slow strokes over Max’s back, and in return the cat purred. This continued for a minute or so.

This man seemed so different from the first two questioners, and nothing in her Resistance training had prepared Els for anything like this. She studied his facial expression for clues and slid her chair a few centimeters away from him. She had to be ready for anything.

Adler moved toward the door and opened it. “Guard,” he called. He handed the cat to the guard, and in return received a glass of water.

He looked at Els. “I thought you might be thirsty.” He sat down and slid the glass of water across to her.

What was the water for? The Gestapo never showed any kindness, so there had to be something else going on here. Something nasty. Els looked at the glass, keeping her facial expression unchanged.

“Go ahead,” he said, his voice gentle.

Something about the way he said it unnerved her. She looked at him for a long time before, with a trembling hand, she reached for the glass and raised it to her nose. After several short sniffs, she opened her mouth to drink.

In a flash Adler swung his hand. The force of the blow turned her head and knocked the glass to the other side of the room, where it shattered and sprayed water around the cell. The palm of his hand had smacked her cheek so hard it burned, but that was nothing compared to the surging blaze of her anger.

He shot to his feet. “Now you will tell me where your father is!” he shouted.

“I won’t tell you anything.” Outrage at this monster’s cruelty pushed out the shivers of fear she’d felt moments before, the way a raging forest fire overpowers chilly morning air.

Adler crossed his arms. “You are brave, but bravery with no chance of success is only foolishness. In the end, everyone talks.” With the heel of his boot, he crushed a piece of glass and slowly ground it into the cement floor, keeping his eyes fixed on hers. “Everyone.”

Adler swept from the room. A guard hurried Els down the hall to her prison cell, shoved her inside, and clanged the door shut behind her.

After some time, the flames of Els’s anger slowly died down into embers of determination. From now on, no matter what the moffen did, she would tell them nothing.

She spotted a pebble which had worked itself loose from the concrete wall. That’s it! If the Nazis were howling winds and crashing waves, then she would be stone. She would turn her heart to stone—hard, feeling nothing, saying nothing. She grasped the pebble tight in her fist and held it to her chest as she lay down on her skinny mattress. A heart of stone. Els closed her eyes and waited for sleep.