Experience of a Belgian in 1940-1944

Discussion in 'Others' started by BWilson, May 31, 2009.

  1. BWilson

    BWilson Member

    Some fragmentary memories of my mother's experience. She was in Belgium in May 1940 when the Germans invaded.

    Not sure of the date, but she was on a train, probably from Liege to Namur, when it was strafed by German aircraft. What scared her most was that there was nowhere to go on a moving train, one just had to hope that the bullets woudn't hit.

    She and her mother became refugees for a period of several days (or perhaps a couple of weeks). She said they fled because the general mood of the populace in her town was that the Germans would wreak havoc on civilians when they came through. She remembers the refugees as a group moving without any real goal other than to place distance between themselves and the German forces. She recalled bitterly how the Red Cross, for some reason, refused to serve them any drinks or food, but that farther down the road, she and her mother encountered the Salvation Army, who provided them refreshment. For that reason, she has always contributed to the Salvation Army, as do I. At some point, most of the group simply turned around and went home.

    She didn't know anyone in the armed resistance, but knew people who distributed resistance newsletters. I believe she said once she also helped in the delivery of such newsletters. She said the behavior of people in her town to the Germans was one of avoidance -- for example, if German soldiers were walking down the street on one side, the Belgians would move to the other side of the street to indicate their disapproval of the Germans being there.

    She didn't hear from her father for a long time (he was a sergeant major in the Liege fortress), then one day they got a postcard from the Red Cross that he had been taken POW. They didn't see him again for four years.

    My mother's name appeared on a list of those bound for involuntary labor in Germany. She was lucky -- she knew a woman who was the girlfriend of a German responsible for maintenance of the list, and my mother's name was taken off the list. I think the official reason given was that my mother was the sole adult child in the household. Although I am thankful that my mother got her name of the list, I wonder what became of whoever was selected to take her place on the list.

    One wonderful day in 1944, her father came home -- incredibly thin and ill with respiratory problems after his experience as a POW. The Germans had released him temporarily so that he could recover at home. I find amusing the documents from the German occupation authority we have demanding that he report to the authorities at such and such a date for evaluation -- the date in question being after the liberation of Namur occurred.

    August 1944 was a tragic month for her family. Her eleven year old brother had gone to pick up the family's bread ration when the air raid sirens went off. An Allied air raid, trying to destroy bridges over the Meuse River, missed their target and killed a few dozen civilians, her brother among them. His name graces a memorial to victims of the war in the neighborhood of Saint-Nicolas now. Her father was back by then, just in time to lose his only son. My grandmother was haunted by the loss for the rest of her life -- she felt horrible because she had not gone herself for the bread.

    Early in September 1944, liberation suddenly occurred as the U.S. 3rd Armored Division collapsed German resistance along the Meuse and Sambre Rivers. Overnight, it was as if a dark cloud lifted -- although foreign soldiers were still all over the place, they weren't there as occupiers, and much celebration took place. Just prior to the liberation, her father said he had things to do -- apparently he participated in the uprising in Namur with the local resistance that was being coordinated by communications with the Allied forces. After the liberation, he was back in Belgian uniform, but on limited duties because of his weak health.

    She mentioned she asked one GI what the big "A" unit patch he was wearing meant (he was a U.S. First Army soldier). Conscious of operations security and probably a wiseguy to boot, he laughed and said it meant they were all from Arkansas. Another GI who was somewhat unscrupulous, traded her a large tin of "butter" for some Belgian item. The "butter" turned out to be peanut butter! For her, the sight of so large a container of "butter" was something akin to manna from heaven after four years of rationing. The impression of the city dwellers is that they had been hit most hard by the rationing and believed the farmers had held back many items for their own families -- I have no way of evaluating today if that was the case or not, but I could easily see people behaving that way during times of hardship.

    My mother recalls the fear they felt as buzz bombs flew overhead -- some struck nearby, others were bound for more distant targets. She also remembers great fear when the Ardennes Offensive started, it seemed as if May 1940 had returned -- but it hadn't. The Germans got close but were stopped near Dinant by a combination of U.S. and British forces.

    In late 1945, she met my father and later married him. Her wartime experiences were complemented by the experience of being in Germany as the wife of an occupying Allied soldier in 1946. She recalled streetcar drivers being forced to wear SS caps as part of a deliberate U.S. program to de-mythologize the SS and their authority in the eyes of the German people. She recalled both good and bad experience with the Germans; she traded cigarettes with one for a cat; in another place, she was alone on a street when some German youths saw her and threw stones at her despite her obviously being pregnant. Despite this and all the wartime experiences, although she remained wary of Germany as a country, she treated the Germans she met as individuals and made some nice friendships with Germans in the Rhineland.


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