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In 1946/1947, Germany — and much of Europe — experienced one of the hardest winters in memory. It came to be called the Hungerwinter in German.

Life in the ruins became nearly unbearable for many. Especially in the Ruhr area where I’ve done most of my research, the food situation was catastrophic. Record low temperatures froze the waterways so that ships with perishable foods imported from abroad were trapped in the harbors. A bad harvest meant less fresh food sent from the agricultural parts of Germany to the cities. In Essen, it’s said the actual ration people received amounted to just over 700 calories a day per person.

A coal shortage, due only in part to the coal exported by the Allies from the Ruhr region, meant people had trouble heating their homes. The “White Death,” as the Germans called it, took its victims. How many people died as a result of hunger, cold and illness in this period isn’t clear. Some historians estimate hundreds of thousands.

German public television produced an interesting docu-drama on this, so interesting to me that I bought the book based on the show. Hungerwinter: Ăśberleben nach dem Krieg links the fate of several different families over that winter.