We’ve gone without toilet paper before.

An image of a woman on the toilet with a basket of newspaper strips and a magazine caddy on the floor, her middle fingertip peeks through the middle of a folded piece of newspaper.

I spent all of Friday writing informational, factual, calming, encouraging, and supportive communications about COVID-19. Emails, an article (Changing Our Habits and Getting Creative: Church in the Age of COVID-19), texts, and about 1,000 more emails. It was a great day. I felt like I was part of helping people navigate this new reality by providing more light than heat.

But my Facebook feed was full of photos of empty store shelves where toilet paper usually was–empty shelves at megastore after megastore.

Which reminded me of a story from my family archives.

My dad was born in occupied Holland during World War II. He is the 4th of 7 kids, so he’s got 3 older brothers who remember growing up during wartime. I’ve told some of the stories elsewhere (here and here), but this one is new to this space. It has to do with toilet paper.

In September 1944, just in time for the Hunger Winter, my dad’s family moved out of the city of Velp and to Ermolo, where my Oma’s sister lived. The Holtrops owned a soup factory and had a big house in the country that could kind of fit the three families who wound up living there that winter. The Nazis had long commandeered all the actually edible food from the factory, but left them fish heads and other odds and ends that they ground and turned into gruel to nourish themselves–they ate in two shifts, younger kids first so they couldn’t see the older kids and adults gag their way through meals. After all, the youngest kids didn’t remember a time when food was delicious.

So of course there was no toilet paper. It would have been an unimaginable luxury. But it’s not like people stop going to the bathroom. Here’s what my uncle told me they did:

  • Next to the toilet was a basket with strips of newspaper.
  • When you finished your business you folded one and only one strip of paper.
  • Then you poked a hole in the middle of the folded strip.
  • You pushed your middle fingertip through the hole and used that to wipe your bum–your finger. You’d use your finger.
  • Then you used the newspaper to clean off your finger.
  • If that didn’t do the job you had to refold the paper and wipe again. With your finger.

Lovely.

Why didn’t they just flat-out use a few of those strips and leave the finger out of it? After all, during the same time period my mother’s family in Michigan used the traditional Sears catalogue in their outhouse.

I’m guessing because even the newspaper they had was rare and no, they could not spare a strip. It’s possible that it was often an underground Resistance newspaper, like this one that one of my uncles still has.

I really hope we don’t get to that point in this country. Also, I don’t get a newspaper anymore, so I’d have to use magazines and that sounds like it’d be ouchier. Do I need to stop recycling my magazines now so I have a stack all ready? Then again, if the hoarders keep snapping up all the T.P. maybe I’ll just buy a toilet-top bidet. I will not do what a friend had in the outhouse as a kid and use dry corn cobs!!!

Hoarders of T.P., I know that you’re anxious and you’re trying to control what you can, but you’ve created a problem. When the plush white rolls are back on the shelves, please let others have some. You will be okay. My father’s family all survived their finger-newspaper-toilet-paper ordeal. Well, they survived, but their humor and conversational topics definitely run to the scatalogical.


And now, because I can’t resist, here is what I learned at the Kent County Health Department today that is helping me not panic:

How is the virus transmitted:

  • Via droplets that an infected person coughs or sneezes out. The virus is only on our hands and hard surfaces because people cover coughs and sneezes with their hands or not at all, and then touch stuff.
  • The contact zone is within 6 feet of an individual with active COVID-19 for more than 10 minutes (walking past someone is not enough to get the virus).
  • If someone is infected but not showing symptoms, or if they have mild symptoms, their chance of transmitting the virus is similarly low—the disease is more likely to be transmitted the worse the symptoms are. Read that again. It is very good news, especially about our children as disease vectors. They’re apparently great at spreading the common cold and the stomach flu, less great at spreading COVID-19, because the disease affects them very mildly.

What you can do as an individual:

  • Wash your hands often.
  • Stay home if you’re sick.
  • Cover your mouth with something other than your hand when you cough and sneeze.
  • No handshakes. No hugging.
  • Limit touches to hard surfaces.
  • Spread out! Limit the amount of time you are less than 6 feet away from members of the public for 10 minutes or more. This is the virus transmission zone.
  • Before you visit someone, ask if anyone is sick, if anyone has a fever or a new cough. If so, go to a virtual visit (phone call or video chat). If not, maintain safe distance and no handshakes/hugs.
  • Disinfect hard surfaces regularly.

Permission Slips for the Resistance

My Opa (Dutch for grandfather) worked in an underground/resistance group in German-occupied Netherlands during World War II. I’ve known this all my life, but I am still learning new stories and seeing new evidence as my uncles dig through their papers and unearth some gems.

At this year’s family reunion, my Uncle Henk pulled out some war-era papers that left me awed. He laid out this dark history on a peeling picnic table on a warm and sunny day. I am now even more grateful that Opa undermined the occupying Nazis any way he could–and that he survived. Here is the story in brief, told by my uncle:

The leader was our family doctor, Oostenbrink. This work was already beginning when our family arrived in Velp in September of 1941 and Rev. Klaas Hart joined in soon after arriving. As a result at some time he also became a wanted person and had to find a safe place to live. In July of 1944 the Germans entered Oostenbrink’s and our home to search for evidence of illegal activity, which resulted in the dismantling of the resistance group and that, in turn, led to our flight by horse and wagon to the safer home of the Holtrusts in Ermelo in September of 1944. His work was utterly dangerous and a number of his group’s co-workers were arrested and either executed or sent to a concentration camp where they died.

And here is the story of a resistance worker, told in a series of permissions, notes, and newspapers.

May 30, 1942 letter to Rev. Klaas Hart, telling him to be careful because of his anti-occupation preaching.
A letter from a fellow Dutchman in the Press and Propaganda department of the National Socialist Movement in the Netherlands, telling Rev. Hart that there were ministers who were preaching dangerous sermons and they should be careful. My uncles characterized this is a funny letter, because Opa was the minister in question and this was a very roundabout way of warning him. May 30, 1942. Dutch.

Permission for K. Hart to keep his bicycle. August 27, 1942, Velp. Dutch.
Permission to keep his bicycle–technically “exempt from the obligation to surrender bicycle.” August 27, 1942, Velp. Dutch.

Permission to travel from Velp in Gelderland to Groningen between August 21-24, 1943. German.
Permission to travel from Velp in Gelderland to Groningen between August 21-24, 1943. German. The uncles remember that he said this was to provide pastoral care for his previous congregation.

Note from the mayor informing them that the Germans want their house, so they have to move. December 4, 1943
Note from the mayor informing them that the Germans want their house, so they have to move. “In connection with the claim of your home, I inform you that as soon as your home has been vacated, you must notify the Ommerschofschelaan office as soon as possible. You will be notified when the house is taken over by the German opposition from you. An inventory list of the goods left behind will then be drawn up. The keys will then have to be handed over to the German authorities.” December 4, 1943. Dutch.

Permission to take Henrik Hart (the oldest child, 9 years old) and Peter Hart (my father, 8 months old) somewhere because they were sick. October 8, 1944
Sickness transport. Permission to take Henrik Hart (the oldest child, 9 years old) and Peter Hart (my father, 20 months old) somewhere because they were sick. The thing is, nobody remembered them ever being this ill, so the assumption is that this was a ruse to move someone/something else. October 8, 1944. Dutch.

Handwritten note from Red Cross for this mysterious illness of Hendrik and Peter Hart. October, 1944. Dutch.
Handwritten note from Red Cross for this mysterious illness of Hendrik and Peter Hart. October, 1944. Dutch.

Permission from the Red Cross to go out after air raids to help anyone who needed help. October 21, 1944. German.
Permission from the Red Cross to go out after air raids to help anyone who needed help. October 21, 1944. This is after they moved to Ermelo, in the province of Gelderland. German.

Appointment from the Red Cross to "provide spiritual assistance to evacuees in these areas." October 21, 1944. Dutch.
Appointment from the Red Cross to “provide spiritual assistance to evacuees in these areas.” Because of this, he was able to wear a Red Cross armband while he went around doing his underground work. October 21, 1944. Dutch.

A note in code from a courier in his resistance group. Dutch.
A note in code from a courier in his resistance group. Dutch.

Permission from the Interior Military Forces of the Netherlands to travel between Ermelo and Velp on April 21, 1945.
Permission from the Interior Military Forces of the Netherlands to travel between Ermelo and Velp on April 21, 1945. (The Netherlands was liberated on May 5.) Dutch.

Permission to travel on all the roads in Velp. May 3, 1945. Dutch.
Permission to travel on all the roads in Velp. May 3, 1945. Dutch.

A very early edition of Trouw, the newspaper of the resistance.
A very early edition of Trouw, the newspaper of the resistance. Trouw means faithful.

A Google translation: “Our country sits, let’s just confess it, at the moment heavy in the stuffy hero. The whole life of every day bears witness to it. Also many articles in this issue of our magazine talk about it. We are overwhelmed, we are heavily enslaved and we can not resist it. Such is the conclusion of many. And others think and share their opinions in the misery of this during the striking hand of God. However, it is not good to stand by. Nothing is more dangerous than Lydelykhied. Lydelyke people, they are just the kind that the [Germans] can use.” (In Africaans, Lyde means suffering and lyke means corpses, but beyond that, Google translate cannot go.) 

A later edition of Trouw, the underground newspaper. December 1944.
A later edition of Trouw, the underground newspaper. December 1944.

A different resistance/underground newspaper: Je Maintiendrai.
A different resistance/underground newspaper: Je Maintiendrai.

Seeing these tiny permission slips really brought home how restricted any movement was during occupation: being on the road, owning a bicycle, and trying to help people were all grounds for arrest. They needed permission for every little thing, and often double permission: once from a Dutch authority, once from the Germans. Their home could be taken. From other family stories, we know their food and livestock were confiscated by the German soldiers, and they were left with fish heads and oats to turn into a barely edible gruel that final winter of the war.

With all of these permissions, he would have travelled as himself: Rev. Klaas Hart. At least one of the permissions said it only counted if the person also had their ID on them. However, he also traveled under a different identification card, that my father has (my only image of it is on a CD and my computer has no CD drive). When they moved from Velp to a relative’s house in Ermelo, it meant a two-day walk for the family of 7, including a newborn. They had to beg a farmer for a place to sleep–everyone slept on fresh hay in the barn except for my Oma and the baby, who were welcomed into the house.

Yes, this was dangerous work. My Opa used his status as a minister to enable his wartime activities. He left the Netherlands for Canada after the war because there was no work for him, and no prospects for his six sons and one daughter.

I am the daughter of an immigrant, and granddaughter of a resistance worker. I descended from people who had to flee for their lives. The pull of the family legacy of working for justice and against injustice is strong and I answer it as best I can by writing letters and emails and calling my elected representatives, writing blog posts for myself and for the Grand Rapids Association of Pastors, and attending prayer vigils. It doesn’t feel like much when compared to what my family went through in the 1940s, but it’s something. #Resist