Queueing for food in 'The Winter of Starvation'. Amsterdam 1944.


The name is ... time of ... it’s purely family ... another family.


I remember walking in the streets, in Amsterdam ... precisely that ... small style ... it’s good ... every morning, when we were still very, yes, very young. But we were … my parents were ... a new ... a new part of the ... a new part of the town so ... in the young ... in the early ... in the early part of the 1920s … there were practically no cars ... the only thing that I always remember ... is that, from my young ... especially for my young … up ... only till six, because then I began to go to school … that I played with my ... with my ... met with and played with friends in the street. Where it was a new, totally new part of the city ... and so there … there were young … young couples ... and so the young couples all began to gather children ... to get there ... and I was always with them ... and those four ... five of those boys ... stayed friends of the life ... all my life ... for life ... most ... apart from me, there is still only one left...


DC. Can you tell me the year you were born?


I was born in December ... God! I don’t remember the year ... because it was a new street, several young couples ... all ... several of these had children ... so ... I practically grew up with five children ... in precisely my own ... with them ... with their young parents ... they had settled ... in the newest part of the city.


From the twenty fifth year, I went abroad. In my most ... I want to ... I’m telling you totally openly everything ... I grew up in the 20s and the 30s and I saw even in a ... it sounds crazy to mention it from such an old man ... as soon as I ... I was an only child ... important to say ... so, therefore, I read ... read constantly at a very young age ... and ... I sort of grew up for myself. I thought that if I grew up, I wanted to do something for people and, especially after the ... if the Wars ... Wars, so that is what I did ... abroad ... for Holland. I decided, quite young, that I wanted to go abroad with the Government for these purposes. I will ... I sort of ... I felt ... that I must do something ... something that corrected what I had seen ... and just heard ... in the 1920s, everything was still of the War ... and, afterwards, still poor.


I read … I was an only child … and I read enormously, and always I read things that my contemporaries had not read. They thought ... from the moment that I could read, I wanted to read ... not bragging ... and grew up in a world after the War, and I decided to try to help ... from very, very young age, I could read and I wanted to read books but not books for children, books about the history of Man. I was sort of obsessed with the idea ... I don’t sit here to brag ... obsessed with the idea that when I grew up ... with the idea that I will grow up for the people ... for the people ... growing up ... an only child who read enormously.


This coffee is too hot!


My father always was a Doctor and a specialist in Neurology ... and also here ... what is the word? Psychiatry ... in his time, that is in the late 1920s, those two phenomenons ... it was the thing ... since then, there has come the body and the other ... I can’t remember ... and always, I was always in front ... sort of ... my friends were ... they wanted ... when it was nine o’clock, and after school, to play football, and I wanted to read.


DC. Was your father a big influence on your life?


My father was ... yes ... that’s funny! I’ve asked myself this question ... and more and more recently ... yes, he was. After all, he was a Doctor ... a great Doctor ... and great for Humanity ... I found him an example ... and the other thing ... and this may sound ridiculous but I was an only child and I observed and played golf ... no, not golf ... football and ... my friends ... alone. I was ... a near ... Oh good God! My words … there’s nothing there at all.


I was an only child and, as long as I grew up, I had thought ... to formulate not as a child ... I thought that, when I grew up, that I would run with the idea ... That, when I finish my studies, that I want to ... ridiculous but it is true ... and I also, when from twenty to twenty five, under the Germans ... so, in those years, I grew up ... when I work, it will be for Humanity. In the last year, the Germans ... now, I don’t know if you know this but it is true ... in the last year, the Germans literally are in the ... in the last World War ... any young, youngish man they picked and sent away to the Army. Having being an observing only child, I decided not for ... for my life ... for Humanity, if you will it, so ... so obviously, the thing I observed that I could do most for Humanity was of course ... functionaries. I was to be determined ... trying to ... I’m sitting here now and you don’t see it in me ... I’m telling the truth. I decided that I wanted to work for Man. 


What are we saying?


The older I became the more I wanted to ... I wanted my world to be a wide one ... what was it now? At that age, I didn’t formulate anything to myself of course ... but this is

exactly true.


I studied law.


My Grandparents came from a different time ... a totally different turn over ... generation ... totally different. We were ... my group fell out ... Oh God! I’ve lost myself.

I was born ... immediately after the First Word War … 1919. There has never been anything like it ... What I saw! The poverty during the ... during ... during the two ... between the two Wars ... and twenty five, when it finished ... the Great War ... no, forty ... at my age, it was decisive ... yes ... I can hardly imagine how it was. I wanted to do as much as possible with as many possible men ... with as many people as possible ... too much to do ... and I sit here, not on the brag. I did what I could.


My Mother ... I was an only child because my Mother medically, after the first child, could not govern ... could not have a second one ... any more ... therefore, I grew up with two adults ... people already of the world and I sat and had meals with them ... and these were the 20s and the 90s ... the 1920s... awful for so many people. So, I grew up with the idea ... lit up for a relatively short time ... not sit here to brag ... I will work for people ... for Humanity ... so, during the Second World War, I lived hidden from the Germans ... so the feeling grew up in me ... and that was that I want to try my life ... I hid ... in the cellars. During the last years, any young man the Germans picked them ... the last year ... in the last year and a half, any young man walking up the streets the Germans would catch him ... it was simply unbelievable ... unbelievable, and so, and so I also hid. I worked it out for myself. It is interesting to work for and with other men ... during the War, I decided that I wanted to work for Humanity against war. I came to England, this England and not the other. I sat with a prominent Dutch and ... Dutch man ... he questioned me once over what I wanted to do after the all ... I said I wanted to ... most of all ... that there should be no more ... oh, the word is gone ... fighting ...


DC. Wars?


Wars, yes ... Oh my God! The only way I can do is by countries ... Diplomacy ... I became a Diplomat … and, in my younger years, in languages ... six languages in my career but not worthwhile to continue. During the War, I started talking to a friend of my father ... my father was a man who was well-connected, a highly respected Doctor and a Psychiatrist. He listened to me, and never contradicted me, because he understood that this was what I wanted to do, even if it brought itself with it that I would leave my parents and they had no other children. So, during the War, I wanted to do blackly ... black was ... what the Germans ... not so ... the German occupancy ... they picked him up and sent to the Front, in Russia … so I thought ... I must myself hide and, during my hiding in Heidelberg, and with my friends in the country or, in the last year, with my parents in a sort of ... in the cellars ... the feeling grew ... it is something so terrible and so unnecessary and I formed, in my head, the idea that I want to work for as many people as possible. My father was a Doctor ... two places in the Hospital and another ... and he was a Neurologist, certainly an interesting man to talk to. One day, he ... one of his patient ... one ... a prominent man in Amsterdam during the War ... once asked to my Father, ‘What does your son … I … plan to do after school?’ In my school, my Secondary School, he had two ... two sons ... both a little older than I ... and now ... Ah! ... and he was the first man in a worldwide bank system ... my father and that man had also a ... in any case, I cannot formulate it at all any more … a very prominent man in Amsterdam during the second year ... my father was a Doctor and this man whose sons I knew ... an interest in each others’ family ... during the Occupation of ’44, this man once asked my Father ... once asked my Father, ‘Do you know what his son ... I ... will ... ?’ … I was hiding from the Germans ... ‘What will your son want to do once the Germans are away?’ This was to my Father ... during the War ... ‘He is most passionate to do something for Humanity’. I had hidden for five years, can you imagine? And so, that man helped me enormously ... he had such influence in Amsterdam, and I went to school with his sons ... so he said, ‘Send your son to me and I will have a talk with him’ ... and so ... Ah!


The man ... he helped ... he was a big influence. He was, in peacetime, the top man in a small committee, he had money and influence in Public Affairs. My Father, during the Occupation ... one of his patients was a very, very prominent man ... he met with my Father and sometimes ... his children were in the same school ... one older ... what that man said was the greatest and the most important moment in my life ... that man said, ‘Let him come and talk with me’, and I did. This is in the hollow winter ... the winter of starvation ... under the Germans ... ’44 ... I literally have seen people falling dead in the street ... and if, in the last year, a German saw me, he would pick me up of the street and send me to Russia ... and so I hid. I was a young man ... I knew from during the War that ... well, I had gone through that and now I say, and this sounds grand but it was not, I decided that I must work ... that I must do what I can, however small, to ensure that there will not be another Adolf Hitler. So, Father ... I went to school with these two boys, not in the same class, both older ... and he had some complaint for my Father ... and so the doctor and the patient had a little talk and so the other man, who was the greatest man in Amsterdam … a bank ... and money ... therefore influential ... he said to my Father when he was a client, a physical client ... his legs ... he said, ‘I get the impression that your son ... that he ... so ... will work ... it sounds crazy ... to work for as many people as possible’. He said that, ‘In peacetime, I am also the President of the Committee that accepts new, small groups of would-be diplomats’ ... so I did ... I was personally seen ... he said to my Father, ‘Let him come and talk with me’ ... and I went to him, and he said, and this is literally honest, he said, ‘I see, in you, someone who wants to work for nothing else but the World’ ... and he asked, ‘What do you think of Diplomacy?’… and it was so my way of thinking. It was a little difficult if the Government will not support ... ‘Would I go to England?’ … here, in Amsterdam, there is nothing I can do ... that man said to my Father, ‘Send me your son’ ... we had a talk together and, at the end of the talk, he said, ‘I knew his son ... two classes higher’ ... he said, ‘Oh yes!’ … he said, ‘In your talk, I don’t see the words of a businessman, I see a Diplomat’ ... his word ... a Diplomat. That is it. It was difficult under the Occupation ... I said, ‘What should I do?’ ... he said, ‘In peaceful time, I am the man unique in the Ministry ... of the Committee’ ... of course, he was a professional Diplomat. I knew his son ... he knew all about me because we went to the same school and the boy, two or three years older, went to his Father and asked his Father to help me. This is in the beginning of the last year of the Occupation ... he said, ‘Do I read you right? You are not a businessman, you are a Diplomat’ ... precisely. His name is gone ... I forget everything. In any case, he said, during his talk, he said I knew his son ... he said, ‘May I make an observation about what you must become?’ ... and he said ... and now I’ve forgotten what he said. He was a great help. I worked for the Government of the whole World.


I came to England when I left service, my wife is English, it was in the beginning of my career working for most possible people, and I was in London ... I was ... I think I was twenty six, maybe twenty seven, a young Diplomat ... and I went to a party ... I saw something in that girl, at a party where we met, and I took her out and the day after, I said, ‘This is the girl I must marry!’ She was everything. She was also a Diplomat, the Private Secretary of a very minor member of the Luxembourg Parliament. We met at a Diplomatic party in London.


My memory ... I don’t know ... my head is so nothing compared to what it was ... the memory ... I feel there is so little I can still do. My mind ... I can’t explain it ... I have no head anymore. 

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We see here a sort of stop-start text, rather like a horse running up to and then refusing the jumps in the arena. Peter is able to set up his idea in his head and get some way through the sentence, but he often runs out of words before he gets to the end. It’s most often nouns that he can’t find. Linguists are interested currently in what this sort of pattern of language tells us about the way our linguistic output is constructed. It seems unlikely that we select all the words we will need for the sentence and then assemble them, like a Lego model. If that were so, we might expect that a person with Alzheimer’s would perhaps line up all the important referring words (nouns and verbs) and not worry so much about the little words that glue the sentence together—as we see in the Broca’s aphasia of people who have stroke damage to the left hemisphere of the brain. Instead, it seems plausible that we plan sentences as frames (probably already containing the verb), and expect to slot in the important reference nouns. It’s that last minute slotting in that is a problem here, perhaps because Peter’s short term memory problems make it difficult for him to hold onto his planned idea. - Alison Wray.

Posted By: Cables Clegg Date: 30/07/2012 09:24

It’s interesting that Peter makes no reference to Room 21 itself, or to his current situation, other than to acknowledge his problems with memory and language.  Unlike Frances, he appears to make no connection between his current environment and the cellars where he lived in hiding for five years.  In spite of the difficulties he has in expressing himself, he seems very concerned to make this one thing known about himself, that he wanted to do ‘something that corrected what I had seen ... and heard’. He’s very insistent on this point.  There are no internal contradictions in his narrative, just the same points re-iterated over again using slightly different terms: ‘the idea that I will grow up for the people’; ‘I wanted to work for Man’; ‘for humanity against war’; ‘for the government of the whole World.’ (Did he work for the United Nations?)

Peter makes little distinction between the two World Wars, or indeed the inter-war period of terrible poverty that separated them; he seems instead to envisage a single half-century long calamity for which he is driven to make some form of atonement.  It is difficult not to associate this with survivor guilt.  This is not to suggest that Peter has anything to feel guilty about. Survivor guilt is a recognised syndrome in which people who have emerged alive from traumatic events struggle to reconcile their visceral relief at having come through with their knowledge that others with an equal right to life did not. (1.)  In extreme cases survivors can develop a conviction that they have caused the death of others by not dying in their place.

It could be argued that survivor guilt permeated the whole of Western society in the post-war era and that this is why the period was characterised by a reluctance to talk about the real events on the one hand and the construction of hackneyed and mythologizing victory narratives on the other.  Recently these myths have started to be painfully dismantled in a series of works of fiction such as The Night Watch by Sarah Waters (about the realities of the London Blitz); Day by A. L Kennedy (about Bomber Command) and Atonement by Ian McEwen (about Dunkirk).  It is interesting that both Waters and Kennedy reverse traditional linear narrative by working backwards in time so that the original events are approached from successively closer standpoints, as though it is only possible to confront them by edging gradually closer.  Atonement uses an even more complex narrative device in which a fictional ‘happy ending’ is constructed for characters who, in the broader framing narrative, do not survive.  (Apologies for the spoiler if you haven’t read this book.)

Both in these works of fiction and in Peter’s story there is something reminiscent of Walter Benjamin’s representation of the ‘Angel of History’, based on a drawing by Paul Klee. (See attached)

Benjamin also talks about the ‘weak Messianic power’ which attaches to children whose parents, or broader society, have high expectations of them to right the wrongs of the past (Jan Palach comes to mind again here).  As the only son of a humanitarian doctor it seems that expectations of Peter were high in this respect.  In his career as a diplomat perhaps he saw a way of playing out this destiny so that the sins of the world were expiated and his own survival was turned to the greater good.


Both Frances and Peter lived in occupied countries during their formative years, and experienced traumatic historical events.  Both have been ‘foreign correspondents’ of one kind or another.  Both make frequent reference to their parents as key influences for good or ill.  Neither makes reference to those events in mid-life that might be expected to make up in large part a conventional life story.  This conforms with research findings that there is a ‘memory bump’ in dementia related to the period between approximately 18-30 years of age when individual identity is being formed, and major life events are most likely to occur.

1In the immediate aftermath of the attack on the World Trade Centre 9/11 I remember seeing a man in his 70s interviewed on television, still covered in plaster dust and clearly in shock.  He was talking ebulliently about how he had escaped the huge blast of displaced air and falling masonry by running as fast as he could, and in the process outstripping ‘a lot of younger men’.  I often wondered about his longer term psychological state.


1. German Troops enter Amsterdam 1940

2. Klee’s Angelus Novus; His face is tuned toward the past.  Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe that keeps piling ruin upon ruin and hurls it in front of his feet.  Theangel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed….’

Posted By: Cables Clegg Date: 15/08/2012 12:47

"This is in the hollow winter ... the winter of starvation ... under the Germans ... ’44 ... I literally have seen people falling dead in the street ... and if, in the last year, a German saw me, he would pick me up of the street and send me to Russia ... and so I hid."

Posted By: Cables Clegg Date: 20/11/2013 09:21