Brothers in Poverty

Two brothers, Hendrik Smid, my father, and Jan Smid, my uncle, with limited education, left home early in life to make their living as farm-hands in strange villages. They worked hard and saved hard to better their lot, as they could not go any lower on the ladder of opportunity than working for a farmer in Fryslân. As children we heard heard horror stories from our fathers.

Uncle Jan, two years older than heit, married Roelofje Huisman and heit found our mother-to-be - Jacobje Roelevink, whom he married in 1930. Both brothers invested their savings in buying a small grocery store, and both went broke after only a few years. First uncle John and a few years later, in 1935, heit.

That happened in part because of the terrible economical times, the hungry thirties, and part of the fact that though they were hard workers, they were less cut out for business. Uncle Jan tried his luck in the farthest corner of the Netherlands, in Limburg, where good money was to be made in the coalmines, but they didn't hire.


After a time of bitter disappointment he returned to Fryslân and became our neighbor in Hijum, at a time that heit was struggling to keep his small investment afloat and worked in his spare time for farmer Pier Jippes digging potatoes, by hand. Uncle Jan joined him there and because they worked well together, they made a few times even more than twenty guldens a week. When the potato season was over, the brothers were unemployed again, and work was even scarcer toward wintertime, when unemployment went skyward as high as thirty percent, and Poverty was a regular and lasting visitor.

On their walks from one and of the village to the other, while talking about politics, religion, and miserly farmers, all the while smoking an empty tobacco pipe.

“This is no life,” said uncle Jan. “A man wants to work and there is no work. Do we all have to die first before Colijn finally does something for the poor worker? (Colijn was prime minister of the country and belonged also to the same church as both the brothers were members of. Heit defended Colijn, actually the PM was his hero as he was the party-leader of the Anti-Revolutionary party of which party heit was a member also. His brother Jan, though a regular churchgoer, was more of a socialist.

“Colijn,” he said once, “should have his leg twisted out of his body and be smashed with the bloody end for his snosterburger.” Uncle Jan was very forceful in his talk while heit polished it.

“You must think of principles too, Jan.” he cautioned his brother, but uncle Jan replied “My kids can't get a full stomach with that garbage.” They were politically far apart but knew that they were forced now to work at a Colijn made-work project – which in Fryslân was in the cesspit of watery clay outside of the sea dikes.

The work was hard. And dirty. Very hard and very dirty. Heit once said, “The slaves in America have a better live than we have.” Some workers thought that there was a political reason behind the work being that hard, that it was designed so the workers would be too tired to make trouble. There was a justification for that thought. All over Europe was an unrest that in many places had led to revolutions, and dead tired workers have no energy to cause trouble. Hard to figure in our time, but this was during the hungry thirties, in the Netherlands known as 'the crisis' years.

One group was to shovel the heavy wet clay into wheelbarrows, held by the next group who wheeled the barrow over narrow planks for a few hundred feet or more, 'your arms were sore from holding the load of a wheelbarrow heavy with wet clay, and at the end of that distance you had to take a run onto a ramp with an upward slope four or five feet high. So, when finally on top of the summer dike you were able to dump the load. That was how a summer dike was built, designed to stem the fall storm waters from flooding the newly won land.'

When a barrow slipped off the plank everybody behind him came to an abrupt stop and had to wait until the loaded barrow was pulled back on the plank again. All the time the weight of the load was hanging on your fingers, your hands, your arm, and your shoulders. Then you had to start up again, sliding, falling, and cursing as you went. 'Yes, cursing too, said my father, who I heard never swear.

Anyone protesting the inhumane working conditions were 'tamed,' like a dog. He was quickly separated, humiliated, and made inactive. His wife was made scared to lose her grocery money and lean on her husband as well, and in that way he would tone down and apologise. The protester was turned into a docile loser, licking the boots of his masters. He was 'tamed.'

The fortunate ones still having a job on dry land saw their wages cut by ten percent, then again by ten percent, sometimes by a third time from their already low wages. And the unemployed? They were sacrificed on the capitalist altar, hung between spades and shovels, only to be used when needed.

My father once said “Some of the old men were already dead-tired at morning coffee-time.” He was talking about forty-year old's. He himself was thirty-one then. He said “I think the slaves in America had it better than we had.”

"The still wet North-Eastern polder with Schokland far in the distance was not much better than outside the dikes of Fryslân, but we were promised more money. They kept their promise – with working hard we could earn 40 cents/hour instead of 29 !"—father

Then the German Wehrmacht rolled over the Dutch neutral border, at the same time that the North-Eastern polder was ready for cultivation, needing ground-workers, thousands of ground-workers to dig trenches and ditches for drainage of the entire polder, all of its 60.000 acres, and then finally a flicker of hope began to shine in the tired eyes of the two brothers. The year was 1940.