Every month, we dust off a piece of art from the British Red Cross collection to give it the attention it deserves. This painting was a topical one after the Second World War – when much of Europe was left hungry and homeless.
Look at this oil painting, and you notice the detail etched into the faces. They are all downcast: eyes on the floor and shuffling their hands. There’s a clear sense of weariness and waiting.
For artist Max Huber, in 1948, this painting was like a newscast: it captured a very current crisis.
The Second World War was over, but Europe was still reeling – and dealing with hunger and homelessness.
Life in sheds and stables
Over in Germany, the war had destroyed much of the farmland, livestock, housing and machinery.
To help rebuild the country, it was temporarily divided into four ‘occupation zones’: British, American, Soviet and French.
The Red Cross and other agencies went into the British zone to help improve the terrible living conditions.
“One old man of 63 was living in a corner of stable,” we wrote in a report at the time. “The other outstanding case was that of a woman with three small children, living in a very small shed with just enough room for them to stand up in it.
“The woman’s husband could not be with them as there was no room. The eldest child was suffering very badly with heart trouble and they had been living in those conditions for over two years.”
Walls like bacon boxes
One immediate crisis was the number of refugees.
Hundreds of thousands of people fled into the British zone from the north and Russian-occupied parts of the country. Yet – after so much fighting and bombing – only two-thirds of the homes were fit to live in.
Relief agencies quickly set up refugee camps, to keep people warm and dry. However, living conditions varied in those, too – especially as time went on and the numbers got bigger.
The Red Cross remarked: “Overcrowding has been increased by relatives arriving as refugees. One family is housed in a hut built of material not much thicker than bacon boxes.”
No time for games
With numbers reaching a tipping point, the British Red Cross and other agencies organised huge feeding schemes within the 286 camps.
The average person was surviving on around 1,000 calories a day. Half the children in one town – Jülich – were reported as 25 per cent underweight.
In fact, the number of children is something that strikes you about Huber’s painting. The picture is framed so you feel like you’re peering into the scene from their perspective. Each one is jostling in between adult legs and robes. None of them are smiling or playing.
Three weeks on a train
By the time Huber painted The Feeding, in 1948, there were still 800,000 refugees in the British zone.
It was proving especially difficult to resettle the elderly, sick and infirm – people too vulnerable to make a journey home.
For example, one train to Hanover, carrying German refugees, included 351 children, 157 women and 21 men. They arrived with only a minimum of clothing and supplies, and had to live for a while in the town’s air raid shelters.
The Red Cross wrote: “The passengers had been three weeks in transit and had spent three to four days on the train.
“All of them were particularly grateful for the drinking chocolate and other food which we were able to supply.”
Turning wheels for Europe
Maybe it was all the drinking chocolate – but, with time, people did gradually grow to look more nourished and healthy.
The Red Cross started to withdraw from the British zone – leaving the on-going care to German welfare services.
One of our final reports noted: “As each new house rises out of the rubble, slowly but surely living conditions are improving. Each new house or dwelling means that some family or families are improving their lot, and so a gradual improvement all over is effected.”
This was true all across Europe. As a new decade approached, countries were finally getting life back to ‘normal’.
Or as we put it back then – “The wheels everywhere are beginning to turn.”
Today, we’re still feeding people in distressing situations. Here are just a few: