Thursday, 24 December 2015


My paternal grandfather was a cigar smoker. During the 30’s he realized war was on the horizon. From about 1934 or 1935 onwards he bought extra cigars every week. Not to smoke, but to store away. All sorts of them. From the cheap to the expensive, and from all over the world. Even into the early years of the war he managed to continue squirreling some away.

He built up quite a stockpile, much to the annoyance of my grandmother. “Look at all that room those things are taking up!” He had hundreds of cigar boxes, and given how small that home was, I can see that it became a large investment of space as well as money. He dug out a secret compartment under the closet in their bedroom to hide them in. Their house was searched by the Nazis on several occasions to look for radios, “onderduikers” (Jews and others hidden in peoples houses), you name it. They never managed to find his stockpile of cigars. 

As the war progressed, their value became evident. Virtually everything was in short supply, the Nazis taking anything they wanted to fuel their war effort. If food, fuel and clothing were scarce, you can bet that tobacco was even more so. But as we all know, scarcity or prohibition is no impediment to people wanting the drugs they enjoy or are addicted to. My Opa had something that people wanted, and it allowed him to procure food for his family and others as well. (A family on the street that we grew up in, had hidden a Jewish man in a little cubby hole under a garden shed. This was done at unbelievable peril to themselves, but they managed to pull it off for three years, until the war ended. Another dilemma they faced was that since rationing was so strict, they couldn’t very easily procure food for their “lodger.” And since the food the Nazis doled out was essentially starvation level rations, sharing it with him became harder and harder. My grandfather was one of the very few people who knew about it, and since he had quite a few connections, got food from the black market to help feed him, using his cigars as payment.)

Besides the black market, my grandfather would also go out to the countryside and buy food directly from farmers. My mom told me that he was always very principled about it. When farmers would try to charge outrageous prices for a few eggs or potatoes he would always ask them what they charged for them in May 1940. 
“These cigars cost so much in May 1940. I’ll give you the equivalent for them.” He refused to pay extortionary prices for items. If a farmer was trying to get 10 guilders worth of cigars for 10 cents worth of potatoes he would go to the next farmhouse and try his luck there. He was willing to do fair May 1940 value prices for May 1940 value trades. If that farmer wanted to turn around and sell those cigars for an outrageous sum, that was his business. But he refused to go along with it.  

My father and uncle were also sent out to the countryside in an effort to secure food, always with the admonition not to pay outrageous sums for anything. They moved mainly at night, in an effort to avoid German checkpoints, who might well steal all that food from them at the point of a bayonet. I think they also did it to avoid Typhoon fighter-bombers, who would fly low and attack just about anything that moved. I recall my dad telling me of one time when he and his brother had to jump off their bicycles and into a ditch when one came tearing along behind them. They were convinced that he was going to stitch them up with 20mm rounds, but he fired up a target a distance ahead of them. They found out later that it was a German truck. While my dad was always happy to see Germans die, it unnerved them so much they opted to move as much as possible at night. Besides, they wanted to avoid having to dive into ditches as much as possible, given that doing so would jeopardize the more precious than diamonds eggs they were trying to get back to the city in one piece. 

My dad’s family probably fared a lot better than a lot of other people during that terrible time. The fact that my Opa had the foresight to cache a stockpile of cigars was a very wise move, one that my Oma never begrudged him again after she realized how smart it really was.

Another cool story about him was that he was an electronics engineer. He knew how to build radios and made the smallest possible ones he could so that people could listen to the BBC (an activity strictly forbidden by the Nazis). He did this at the behest of some people in the underground, who distributed them, and provided him with parts. Despite the huge risk he took doing this, these connections allowed him not only to get a hold of food, but also allowed him to pull in a huge favour. Anyone over the age of sixteen could be forced to go work in Germany, on farms or in factories, as my maternal grandfather was. (He was a skilled machinist, and was taken away at the point of a gun to go to Germany and work in the Heinkel factory.) He didn’t want this fate to befall his son, so he asked for a fake “Ausweis” (identification papers). It stated his birthdate as being in 1930, even though he was actually born in 1928. This bit of subterfuge may well have saved him from perishing in one of the many bombing raids that were decimating German industry.

I never knew my grandfather, given that he died of cancer long before I was born. (He died in agony, his body riddled with tobacco induced cancer. Sorry cigar lovers.) According to my mom, he was exceeded in quality only by my father. “He was an extremely fine man. I’m honoured that I knew him.”

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