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" They that die by famine die by inches." -- Matthew Henry
September 7, 2009 6:41 PM   Subscribe

The winter of 1944–45 is known as the ‘Hunger Winter’ in The Netherlands, which was occupied by the Germans in May 1940. Beginning in September 1944, Allied troops had liberated most of the South of the country, but their advance towards the North came to a stop at the Waal and Rhine rivers and the battle of Arnhem. In support of the Allied war effort, the Dutch government in exile in London called for a national railway strike to hinder German military initiatives. In retaliation, in October 1944, the German authorities blocked all food supplies to the occupied West of the country. Despite the war, nutrition in The Netherlands had generally been adequate up to October 1944. Thereafter, food supplies became increasingly scarce. By November 26, 1944, official rations, which eventually consisted of little more than bread and potatoes, had fallen below 1000 kcal per day, and by April 1945, they were as low as 500 kcal per day. Widespread starvation was seen especially in the cities of the western Netherlands. Food supplies were restored immediately after liberation on May 5, 1945.
But for many, who weren't even born when it started, the hongerwinter continues. Why? In part because "certain environmental conditions early in human development can result in persistent changes in epigenetic information" via DNA methylation. Epigenetics seems like a little bit of Lamarckism: environmental effects on a parent -- or even a grandparent -- can be passed to offspring, even without permanent changes to DNA. (previously)
posted by orthogonality (26 comments total) 25 users marked this as a favorite

 
My mum lived through this as a young girl. She doesn't really talk about it but she did say (as the first link does) that her family ate tulip bulbs.
posted by carter at 6:45 PM on September 7, 2009


Huh. Were the Dutch always as tall, relative to the rest of the world, as they are now?
posted by darth_tedious at 6:51 PM on September 7, 2009


Weird that this subject came up; I was just doing some research on Audrey Hepburn earlier today and read that she and her family also lived through the Hunger Winter and made bread from tulip bulbs. It was said that she was so traumatized by the events of her childhood, she turned down the role of Anne Frank because it would've meant having to deal with too many painful memories.

Thanks for the links, orthogonality.
posted by LuckySeven~ at 6:57 PM on September 7, 2009 [2 favorites]


Answering the question of darth_tedious. No, the "tallness" of the Dutch is very recent. Hundreds of years ago they used to be the shortest people in Europe (average man about 5'5" tall).
posted by hithere at 7:09 PM on September 7, 2009


I heard about a national starvation issue in Europe, I think during WWII, in which US (Allied?) bombers flew over enemy lines, into hostile territory to drop food to the starving people.

Was this that?
posted by paisley henosis at 7:19 PM on September 7, 2009


Paisley, you sure you're not thinking of the Berlin Airlift?
posted by orthogonality at 7:22 PM on September 7, 2009


Yep, that's probably what I was thinking of, sorry for the mix-up.
posted by paisley henosis at 7:37 PM on September 7, 2009


My father used to speak with great distaste about how the farmers acted during the hongerwinter. According to my father the farmers showed very little mercy to the starving people who came wandering from the towns to beg for food at their farms. The farmers apparently made a lot of money from those people taking their jewellery in exchange for food.

There's a blurry picture alongside the wikipedia article of tulips in a Dutch field spelling out 'many thanks'. Seeing that moved me quite a bit.

A few years ago a teacher made his class eat tulips so that they could experience a little bit what the hunger winter was like. Most of the childrens got sick. Because the centers of tulips are poisonous.

Paisley, there were RAF bombers who dropped bread from the sky. That picture I mentioned was made during that 'operation Manna'.
posted by jouke at 7:49 PM on September 7, 2009


Not only RAF Lancasters but also USAAF B-17 bombers in 'operation Chowhound'. They dropped all in all a 100.000 tonnes of food during 5.200 sorties.
They did drop the food in German occupied, and thus hostile, territories. But the droppings where being allowed by the Germans and as a result they could fly much lower and make sure people would know where to go to get the food.

I've heard old Dutch people talk about the food droppings and their feelings of immense relief with great emotion.
posted by jouke at 8:01 PM on September 7, 2009 [1 favorite]


Tulip poisoning. I'll be damned if I don't learn something every day.
posted by crapmatic at 8:03 PM on September 7, 2009


Ah, Operation Manna. But really, the point of this fpp was to talk about DNA methylation and the epigenetic effects of prenatal famine.
posted by orthogonality at 8:06 PM on September 7, 2009


Don't moderate the thread ortho.
posted by jouke at 8:07 PM on September 7, 2009 [1 favorite]


I'm sorry, again, for the derail. This is absolutely fascinating stuff. I hadn't heard about the famine itself, which is fascinating, but the echoing repercussions are amazing.

Can someone explain DNA methylation for someone who doesn't understand the link up top or the Wiki article? Dumb it down a shade?
posted by paisley henosis at 8:23 PM on September 7, 2009


jouke, great to hear your input here. I also hadn't heard of the hongerwinter. I have a specific fondness for Holland which stems from a Dutch schoolchum.
posted by mwhybark at 8:39 PM on September 7, 2009


er, the Netherlands, so sorry.
posted by mwhybark at 8:39 PM on September 7, 2009


Paisley: to my mind you are very on topic, and not derailing the discussion at all. In fact, I find the direction you have gone much more interesting than the scientific aspects.
posted by Antidisestablishmentarianist at 8:43 PM on September 7, 2009 [1 favorite]


Thanks for this, and for the family stories.
posted by LobsterMitten at 9:31 PM on September 7, 2009


Can someone explain DNA methylation for someone who doesn't understand the link up top or the Wiki article? Dumb it down a shade?

Essentially, the DNA stays the same, but methylization "turns off" certain genes. DNA stays the same when cells divide, but so does methylization. Thus, methylization that occurs in a parent -- for environmental, non-genetic reasons -- can be passed to children.

The end result is that the effects of nurture -- in this case, famine -- can be passed down the generations -- in this case, the mother's malnutrition during the hongerwinter results in children with greater susceptibility to schizophrenia, obesity, and cardiac problems.

This ends up looking like Lamarckism, the inheritance of acquired traits, which is a departure from strict Mendelian inheritance. Among other things, it might explain why stresses (like malnutrition) cross generational boundaries, appear in adopted children, etc., even though their DNA is not changed.
posted by orthogonality at 9:43 PM on September 7, 2009 [3 favorites]


This is why certain physically gifted people can survive on Pop Tarts and coffee all day without any noticeable problems - their grandparents ate well and passed along good genes - but the Pop Tart eater is going to pass junk genes to his/her offspring. So the cycle of life, individual health is a point along a continuum of fluctuating between health and sickness across generational timescales. Which is why we need to cull the weaker members before they breed and pollute the gene pool (just kidding).
posted by stbalbach at 10:07 PM on September 7, 2009


their grandparents ate well and passed along good genes - but the Pop Tart eater is going to pass junk genes to his/her offspring

Sorry to be the science pedant, but the whole thing about epigenetics is that the DNA sequence itself is not altered, what is passed on is the epigenetic information - the pattern of methylation of the bases (usually cytosine) that make up the DNA.

Also pop tarts are high in essential nutriliciousness and form one of the four apexes of the food trapezoid.
posted by JustAsItSounds at 12:17 AM on September 8, 2009 [7 favorites]


As a counter anecdote to Jouke's story, my grandparents and therefore their children and my siblings and me, owe our lives to various kind and courageous people – including farmers – who opened up their houses and farms to hide a Jewish couple from the Nazis in the Netherlands at great risk to themselves and their families.
posted by ponystyle at 2:41 AM on September 8, 2009 [1 favorite]


Sorry to be the science pedant

Don't apologize for this. stalbach is horribly wrong and orthogonality while technically correct due to using a qualifier is also potentially a bit misleading - there is nothing lamarckian at all about it. Not even in appearances because the cause was post conception - it was a change that occurred in the phenotype rather than genotype and there isn't evidence that it passes on and is in fact evidence that it doesn't.

This effect has been a staple of agriculture forever. In fact those not so tasty bulbs require a number of environmental conditions in order to become beautiful flowering tulips and when those are not present they will not express the phenotype we want (ie not flower or stay dormant for a season).
posted by srboisvert at 3:16 AM on September 8, 2009


orthogonality: Essentially, the DNA stays the same, but methylization "turns off" certain genes. DNA stays the same when cells divide, but so does methylization. Thus, methylization that occurs in a parent -- for environmental, non-genetic reasons -- can be passed to children.

The end result is that the effects of nurture -- in this case, famine -- can be passed down the generations -- in this case, the mother's malnutrition during the hongerwinter results in children with greater susceptibility to schizophrenia, obesity, and cardiac problems.

This ends up looking like Lamarckism, the inheritance of acquired traits, which is a departure from strict Mendelian inheritance. Among other things, it might explain why stresses (like malnutrition) cross generational boundaries, appear in adopted children, etc., even though their DNA is not changed.


Wow, that absolutely blows my mind. Thanks.
posted by paisley henosis at 7:35 AM on September 8, 2009


Not sure that we had a FPP about epigenectics already but the idiotic Nazi connection makes it one of the worst ever. Two thumbs down.
posted by yoyo_nyc at 6:08 PM on September 8, 2009


Great post. It is also somewhat heartening to know that we're able to 'salvage' something -- like the knowledge being gained from these studies -- out of what was a completely horrible situation.
posted by Zinger at 7:51 PM on September 8, 2009


This is really great: a lot of interesting backstory and a twist I didn't see coming, combining two very intriguing subjects rarely considered in the same frame. Thanks, orthogonality.

It's a more common experience than we realize: parents that experience severely traumatic conditions often pass on a ghost of those conditions to their children. This is certainly an established psychological phenomenon, and it's an odd turn to find that there are physical aftereffects of trauma as well.
posted by koeselitz at 5:10 AM on September 10, 2009


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