Experiences of a Young Boy
By William J. LeMaire
Copyright © 2017 William LeMaire
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TABLE OF CONTENTS
War is, of course, terrible. Any war. All the suffering, all the death, all the wounded, the destruction, homelessness, cruelty, hunger, fear and panic. It may also bring out the best in some people: heroism, patriotism, compassion, and altruism. But one would never think that war might be seen as an adventure.; in some ways for me it was.
I was born in 1933 in Belgium a small village called Duffel not far from the large city of Antwerp which my sister and I called “The Big City.” Antwerp has a big port, among the biggest in the world at that time, located on the river Scheldt, which links it to the North Sea. Today and even then, almost 80 years ago, the port of Antwerp has great importance for the economy of Belgium and the rest of Europe as a gateway to the rest of the world.
Duffel is a small town about 13 miles from Antwerp located on the river Nete. It once was a center of textiles, where the coarse material was produced and used to make something that many of us may have owned at one time or another, a Duffel (or Duffle) bag or Duffel coat. On September 1st 1939 the Second World War broke out in Poland; Belgium was invaded by the German army in 1940. For the better part of the next four years my country was occupied by the Germans. At the time of the invasion I was a seven year old boy and when Antwerp was finally liberated by the allies in 1944, I had turned 11.
In this short book I want to write about my memories of this period of time from the invasion of Belgium, through the German occupation, and to the immediate post war era. For most Belgians this was a hard and sad time full of suffering. While I experienced some of that suffering and the fear as well, many of my memories are about exciting events (to a young boy) and experiences, to the point that I remember this time as an “adventure.”
I will justifiably be faulted for talking so lightly about a dark period in Belgium’s and the world’s history; for seemingly having somewhat enjoyed this period of time, while people were indiscriminately killed, tortured, and exterminated by the Nazis and while there was much suffering, destruction, maiming, and death. Remember though that I was a little boy growing up and mostly unaware of the atrocities occurring away from my immediate environment. Also, my parents did their best to shelter me from the many horrors.
Thinking back, I realize that I should have been more aware of the seriousness of this era. That awareness grew by leaps and bounds as I grew older. Years later I became fully conscious of the gravity of what had happened, but at the time I was not. And now, more than seventy years later, I admit that I feel a bit guilty about that. Yet I feel that it may be of some value to relate my youthful experiences of that time, the way I saw, felt, and lived them. I apologize to those who may take offense for the somewhat casual and lighthearted accounting of this dark period of time in Belgium, Europe and the world. And of course I wonder how many other boys and girls of my age at that time had similar experiences and feelings.
In this book I relate these experiences from memory as I never took notes and the reader will need to overlook some discrepancies that inevitably have crept in when the events took place so many years ago. I describe these anecdotes the way I remember them now and while these are certainly true occurrences, their details might have become a bit blurred. Once again, I hope that the reader will forgive me for writing so lightheartedly about a tragic period of time in human history. I am writing this “memoir” because I hope that readers might be interested in some of the lighter parts of this dark period, but honestly, I think that I am doing this to get it “off my chest.” In talking to my contemporaries and even some younger people now, while I live in the United States, I am often asked about World War II in Belgium, so I think that recording some of my memories may be of interest to my contemporaries and maybe even to a younger generation that never experienced this part of history.
In trying to remember some of the details of my overall experience I did rely considerably on the memory of my little sister, Oda (one and a half year younger than I), who has a far better recollection of fine details that have totally disappeared from my own memory. Over the years I have had many discussions with her as she brought up interesting and useful details that I am happy to include here. This writing is certainly not meant as a historical piece, so the reader must forgive me for inaccuracies in dates and places. So here it goes.
“Oda, Oda, come quick, run.” I was in the yard looking up in the sky. Seconds earlier I had run outside myself after hearing an ever-increasing droning sound that was completely foreign to me. My little sister came out and we both stood there open-mouthed staring high up into the distant sky, where we saw a large formation of at least 50, maybe a hundred, silver airplanes approaching until they were overhead. “What is this?” I screamed at my sister as the sound was deafening by now. We had never seen so many airplanes and and even though we had no idea what this meant, we knew that something big was going on.
That night at the dinner table, my father spread a newspaper that he had brought home from work out on the table and pointed to the headlines. “Kids” my father told us, “the Germans have invaded Belgium; Belgium is at war.” It had been a bright sunny day and aside from the planes flying over, everything seemed the same to Oda and me. That night in bed (we shared the same room) Oda asked me “What is war, Wim? What is invasion?” We had no idea. We kept guessing what it all meant in whispers till very late, much later than our usual falling asleep time. Would we still be going to school? Would we be able to play in the yard? Would our dad become a soldier? Would there be gunshots? How about bombs? What were those planes doing? Would we have enough to eat? What are Nazis? Who is Hitler?
Some of these questions were answered at home, but it was mostly at school, where the constant talk was about the war that we learned what was going on. Whether all the information we heard from our friends and even from the teachers at school was accurate, we had no way of knowing. Home at night I would tell Oda what I had learned. “Oda, King Leopold III is staying in Belgium. He has not fled to England as the queen from The Netherlands did.” or “Oda they told us at school that we have to put out all the lights at night or cover the windows with shades.” Oda would reciprocate with what she had learned at her school. “There is a rumor, Wim, that they might ration food. I hope that we will have enough to eat.” And so it went on. I was always proud to bring home some news that nobody else had heard.
According to my parents’ story, I came into this world at home in Duffel, delivered by a midwife. There was no scale, but apparently the midwife held me up by the feet and admiringly pronounced my weight as being at least five kilos. I do not have many recollections of my early years in Duffel, but I remember Marie, our maid, and I remember her as a wonderful lady, feeding Oda and me, bathing us, and protecting us from the wrath of our parents for our mischief. We went to the local school, played soccer, climbed trees in the yard and played “hide and seek,” scraped our knees and did all the things every seven year old boy, his little sister, and their friends would do.
Our house had two stories and a basement. We had electricity but no running water, central heating, or bathrooms (we used an outhouse). To give us our weekly bath, Marie would boil a kettle of water on a wood stove and pour that hot water into a portable sitz bath, already partially filled with cold water. After the bath, poor Marie had to carry buckets of the dirty bath water back to the kitchen and pour it down the drain there. It is funny how one sometime remembers minute details while forgetting many others. I remember Marie holding a large round loaf of bread and slicing it against her chest. “Marie, how come you are not cutting yourself?” Oda and I asked her. “This is the best way to cut great bread slices, but you have to be careful. And you guys never try it, hear me!” she replied.
Marie told us all kind of stories, some of them scary, and we loved them. I remember one day that she carried Oda and me, one at a time, upstairs in a wicker basket. We listened to Marie telling the story that we now were in a balloon soaring high in the sky and looking down at all the sights and activity below us. Her storytelling was often accompanied by some candy treats, or cookies, she had baked especially when the once a year farmer’s fair was on in the street. She would give us some coins to buy an ice cream or go try our luck at the “hit the puppets with the ball” stand. At the fair there was a Merry-Go-Round and many other stands and games right in front of the house. At night we could not go to sleep. There was loud music, singing, shouting, and the pop-pop-pop from the BB guns at the “shoot the ducks” stand. And then there were the smells. It is hard to remember which one we liked best: The aroma of the “fritte” (french fries), the smoutebollen (a kind of fritters, very popular in Belgium and the Netherlands, where they are called oliebollen) or the famous Belgian Waffles. Oda and I would sit on our knees on a chair in front of the open bedroom window watching, hearing, seeing and smelling all the activity and taking it all in. We would often fall asleep right in front of the window. That fair lasted almost a week and was great fun.
Our yard. Do I remember that yard, with cherry and apple trees and a big vegetable garden, but above all I remember the huge mulberry tree. Oda and I used to climb it when the fruit was ripe, pick and eat to our heart’s content and clamber down, hands and faces all purple and with a bucketful of mulberries ready for jam, to be made by my much older sisters. The big glass jars with jam were stored on racks in the basement along with the pickles, strawberry preserves, and orange marmalade. I remember how all these jars were covered with a layer of paraffin to close them off from the air and prevent spoiling. I hated the smell of the melting paraffin.
Ever since I can remember, our family’s summer vacation time was spent at the seashore on the Belgian North Sea coast. My parents had some connection with a kind of Bed and Breakfast in a small (at that time) town, called De Panne, the most southerly seaside resort on the Belgian North Sea coast and close to the border with France. They would make a reservation there for about a month each year. I cannot remember all the details but we used to go there by train, mostly my Mom, Oda and me. My older sisters might have joined us intermittently, but they had their own agenda being eight to ten years older than I. I remember my dad joining us off and on for a weekend and a few days, as he had his job in Antwerp. These summer vacations continued during the occupation years from 1940 through 1944, but stopped after the war was over as both Oda and I had our own summer vacation activities with the girl and boy scouts.
I have limited but great memories of these vacation. “Oda, it is low tide right now; let’s go out and catch some shrimp.” It would take us at least five minutes to get to the water as the sandy beach was one of the widest on the Belgian coast at low tide. We would then wade into the shallow water with our net and scoop up as many small grey shrimp as we could get. “Enough, Oda let’s go back!” Back at the B&B someone, my mom, older sisters if they were there, or one of the B&B people would cook the shrimp right away. They would then dump them in a heap on some newspaper on the kitchen table and it was Oda’s and my job to peel them. It was a tedious job and If it was early in the morning we had them for breakfast, otherwise later for lunch or dinner. The shrimp were small but delicious. I can still taste their salty flavor if I think about them.
When we were little, our mom, one of our sisters, or an older friend would take Oda and me for long walks on the dunes or on the beach, gathering shells, playing tag on the beach and hide and seek on the dunes. On weekends I remember the photographer with his big camera on a tripod trying to hustle clients by loudly yelling: “Profitez du soleil et du beau temps” (take advantage of the sun and the good weather). He had two huge (for us little kids) furry dogs that he used for props for the photos he took of clients. We got to know the photographer and he let us play with the dogs when he was not taking photos. They were friendly dogs and loved to run after the balls we threw down the beach, but Oda was always a bit scared of them as they were so big. It was amazing to us that they could see at all as they had so much long hair hanging over their eyes.
When we wanted to go play or swim in the water my parents had rented a little wooden cabin that we could use to change into our bathing suits and store our toys, shovels and pails and keep our shell collection. The funny thing about these cabins was that they were built on wheels. At high tide they were located way up at the water’s edge but at low tide the water edge could be as far as half a kilometer away, a long walk. Therefore the cabins were relocated down by the water’s edge for the duration of the low tide. To haul them down and back up that far on the sand the proprietors used the famous Belgian Draft horses to pull them on their wheels. The sand was rather hard packed, so it was not too much effort for the horses.
One other advantage of the hard packed sand was that one could do some incredible beach sailing. When we were little, we could only watch these sleek trI-wheeler buggies with a sail fly along the beach. To prevent collisions with strollers a section of the very long beach was reserved for them. “Oh Oda, don’t you wish we could do this?” Sure enough when I was a bit older like nine or ten, my parents would let me do it, and boy did I have a blast. One sits low, close to the sand in a seat on the metal frame with one fat rubber wheel in front and two on the back. In the middle is a an aluminum mast with a boom and a sail that one can tighten or loosen depending on how fast one wants to go, just like a sail boat. Steering is done with one’s feet on pedals that direct the single front wheel. Boy that was so much fun, but could also as bit dangerous if there was a lot of wind, and turning too sharply could flip these buggies over. Nowadays there are a lot of sophisticated variations of this sport and I have even seen some buggies propelled by kites.
Another fun activity at the beach was horseback riding. When we were little we went on small ponies or even a donkey, just walking and occasionally a little faster trot with an attendant holding the reins, But again when we were older we could get on them by ourselves and have a run on the beach and into the shallow water, which the horses seemed to love.
When I look at the photos we still have of that time, it is interesting to see the incredible evolution of beach attire that people wore those days. Oda and I wore very similar knitted full bathing suits and so did my father, mother and sisters. There were no bikinis and no “Speedo” swim trunks.
What a wonderful and peaceful time it was, except for the occasional (maybe frequent) fight I had with Oda. That is until that day in May 1940, when everything changed. The day after seeing the planes flying overhead and hearing the family explanation that there was a war, our dad come home early that evening from his job in Antwerp. He frowned. He did not even give us the usual hug but went straight to the living room where Mom was knitting. “We are going to leave the house right away” we heard him tell Mom.
Through some connections that we never knew about, my father had heard that the Belgian resistance was going to dynamite and blow up the bridge over the river Nete, which runs through Duffel. This was supposed to slow down the advance of the German army into Belgium.
As it happened, our house in Duffel and the yard were separated from that bridge by only a narrow road along the river. The bridge was right there, almost in our back yard, with river barges chugging by day and night, the on board Malinois or Schipperke dogs barking at the slightest movement or provocation on the river banks.
“Kids, listen!” my father explained, “When that bridge is blown up, who knows what will happen to the house? The house may get torn up and we may get hurt. We will have to leave, and soon.” That evening our whole family packed. I made sure that my favored Adventures of Tintin books were in my suitcase. I would not be without them, no matter what.
My parents knew a nearby farmer and the next morning a large horse-drawn wagon showed up in front of the house. Everyone: my parents, Oda and I, and my three bigger sisters (eight to ten years older than I) with the help of Marie, loaded the wagon with items that were important and useful to us: some mattresses, small furniture, clothing, blankets, toys, suitcases, photo albums, important papers, etc. Pretty soon the wagon was full and ready to leave. My parents put my little sister and me squarely on top of all the “stuff” and off we went to the countryside and the farm, where we were to stay for as long as necessary. Oda and I, on top of the wagon, giggled all the way to the farm. This was fun! Little did we realize that we would never live in that house again. We also never saw Marie again, even though I know that my parents kept contact with her.
I have no idea where he had gathered it, but my father’s “intelligence” information had been accurate, as a day or so later the bridge was indeed dynamited and some large chunks of concrete fell on the house, causing considerable damage and making it uninhabitable, but luckily no one was injured. We had just left in time. We stayed at the farmer’s house (I cannot remember for how long), until my father found temporary housing for us in Antwerp with his older sister, who lived in a huge house close to the center of the city.
My dad’s sister was a widow without children and was rather particular about how kids should behave. While she allowed us to live in her house for a while, my little sister and I had to sleep in the attic and eat our meals in the kitchen. We were not even allowed to enter either the living or dining room. “Don’t touch this! Do not sit there! Sit there! Stop making that noise!” was all we heard all day. We went to a Montessori school nearby and tried to adjust to our new environment. Again few details stick, but I remember the teacher. She had unusually long fingernails and when we had done something wrong she would come and tap on our heads with her fingernails. It did not really hurt but it did feel funny. At first we had no friends, there was no yard, no trees to climb, no place to get dirty and we could not go out and play in the street as there were trams rumbling by every few minutes. We even had to be walked to school accompanied by our big sister. Did we ever miss our Duffel!
After a while, what must have been several months, my father found us a rental house in one of the suburbs of Berchem. It was a three story row house. All the houses in that street were narrow but all had a pretty deep backyard. For privacy, each yard was closed in by a brick wall, high enough so that one could not look over it or not even think of climbing over it without a ladder. The street itself had two lanes separated by a wide, chestnut tree-lined center strip, big and wide enough to play soccer, ride our bicycles. play hide and seek, tag, and other games. Oda and I liked our new house and we made many new friends. Life seemed to be back to normal.
I started going to grade school in the center of town and commuted each day by tram. There was a tram stop only two blocks from the house. These trams were always packed with school kids and people going to work in the morning and afternoons when we rode them. We enjoyed hanging outside on the hand rails with one, or if possible two feet on the steps to the frustration of the conductor. School hours were from 8:30 am till noon and then again from 2:00 pm till 4 pm. There was no lunch room at school so most kids returned home for lunch which was the main meal of the day, and then went back to school. That was for me 20 minutes by tram each way. Later when I was a bit older I would go by bike. Twice a day: back and forth, rain or shine. Riding my bike on the slippery cobblestones was not always fun. When it rained I put on a water proof contraption that had a hole in the middle to put my head through, like a poncho. In the front it went all the way over the handlebars to protect my thighs from the rain, but sagged in the middle where the rainwater collected, which was a nuisance as periodically that collected water would suddenly slosh off and often into my shoes. I quickly learned how to care for my bike, change a flat tire, oil the chain and adjust the gears. Being a good brother, I also took care of Oda’s bike.
Tuesday and Thursday afternoon we were off from school but Saturday morning we had class. Afternoons off and weekends were devoted to soccer and cub scouts activities. We often played soccer and even Oda would join “the boys.” She was tough and was accepted as one of us. It was a fun time and as will become clear later on we had little understanding of the gravity of the situation and the occupation of our country by the Germans.
During recess at school and on the tram to and from school there was constant talk about what someone had heard or had been told. We started seeing German soldiers patrolling the streets and were fascinated with the three wheel motorcycles they were often using. We admired their neat uniforms and were awed by the guns they carried. We wondered if they ever used them and what would happen if they did. But we were frustrated because we could not really understand what they were saying, even though we picked up a few words here and there and mostly nasty ones like “schweinhund” (pig dog) or “dummkopf” (dumb head) or worse.
The German occupation meant enormous difficulties for many and a burden on everyone. But for me it seemed that little had changed. Yes, we had left Duffel and my friends there, but now we lived in a new neighborhood and I went to a new school (which I liked) with new friends. One of the earliest memories I have in our new environment came almost immediately after we moved into our rental house in the suburbs of Antwerp. As I related earlier, the house was a three story row house with a narrow, but long walled garden in the back. The house right next to ours had been available for rent for some time, but now the Germans had requisitioned it and had moved in a group of maybe 10, 20 soldiers. We and our other neighbors had little contact with them, but they appeared friendly and civil. I noticed that one of the soldiers always whistled when my older sister (she had 10 years on me) Miekie walked in or out of the house. I teased her a lot about that: “Hey Miekie, he likes you! Hey Miekie, he wants to take you to the cinema! Hey Mieke, why don’t you go see your friend next door!” But Miekie wanted nothing to do with him; she scolded me for teasing her and kept her distance from the soldiers.There was a lot of coming and going in that house but nothing obnoxious or dangerous.
One day I was doing my math homework late in the afternoon. I was sitting in my room on the third floor facing the back garden. I had my window open because it was a nice, sunny afternoon. I heard what sounded like gunshots in the back of the house. So naturally I went to see what was going on and looked through the window right down on our German neighbor’s yard. There I saw a few of the soldiers target shooting against the back wall. I was fascinated as I had never seen real shooting and kept watching until one of the soldiers noticed me and signaled me to come down: “Kommen sie hier!! Kommen sie hier.” Of course as an eight year old boy I was excited and ran down the stairs, out the door, and into the next house. The German soldiers were friendly to me, took me into the back yard, sat me down on my haunches and put one of their guns against my shoulder. They showed me how to aim and while one of them steadied me, they let me to pull the trigger. “Bang!” what an ear-deafening excitement for a young boy. I did not even notice the ache in my shoulder from the recoil and was betting that none of my school friends had even come close to a gun. I never told my parents about that experience. To this day I can still smell the gunpowder when I think about this experience, but I never discharged another real gun in my entire life, other than a BB gun. Should I have felt guilty about shooting a German gun? Was this an act of collaboration? I would ask myself much later. But at the time I felt excited and proud and even boasted about it at school.
Food and supplies became increasingly scarcer and soon became rationed. Each family received a certain number of food stamps per family member which were then exchanged in stores for a predetermined amount of different foods. The rather irrationality of the system was that the same number of stamps were allotted to each family member regardless of age. As a result, having a baby in the family was helpful as that baby was allotted the same amount of stamps as all the other members. Because a baby will consume far less than, let’s say an eight year old year boy, there was leftover from the baby’s allotment to help feed the rest of a family. This did not apply to us as we had no baby in the family. Thus we often did not have enough to eat in a family with growing kids.
One way of supplementing the food was to grow some ourselves. Many people did that and the local government allotted small plots of land in any open area within neighborhoods. We had been assigned a plot close to our house. We fenced it off, built a small wooden shed to store equipment and started cultivating. I helped my father turn the earth, flatten it and make beds for a variety of vegetables, potatoes, carrots, beets, lettuce, beans and cucumbers and even some flowers. It was fun and rewarding doing this alongside my father. I felt a sense of accomplishment. How excited I was when we dug out the first potatoes, pulled up the first carrots, and cut the first sunflowers for Mom. Boy did these potatoes taste good, and the carrots were better than any carrot I had ever eaten. Mom gave me a big hug when I brought her the flowers. Of course the earth needed fertilizer, which was not available anywhere. What to do?
Now I need to backtrack a little bit. At that time in Antwerp, many of the daily needs of the people were brought into the neighborhoods by horse-drawn carts. So, for instance the milk cart would come by every morning and announce its presence with an easily recognizable bell. Housewives would then come out with their container and the milkman would scoop the required amount of milk with a long ladle from large aluminum cans into the smaller containers of each customer, and even fill their order of eggs and butter. Different carts, with different bells came with vegetables, and even beer and also ice blocks to fill our coolers as most families did not have a refrigerator at that time, These various wagons were horse drawn and horses of course needed to “poop” from time to time. That makes great fertilizer.
I had a shovel and bucket ready for the occasion and when my father came home from work at 5:30 pm or so, he would call out to me with ”Wim, quick, on the corner of the Elizabeth laan and Koninklijkelaan, there is a big pile of horse manure.” I would grab my shovel and bucket and run out as fast as I could, trying to beat the competition. I hated that but it had to be done and it was not considered a “girl’s job,” Our little vegetable garden flourished with it and provided us with a welcome little extra. So I felt that I contributed.
My parents had managed another way of supplementing the scarce food supply. I did not figure that one out until much later. We would get a periodic visit from a little older lady, whom I will call “Jeanneke.” She was not pretty, rather heavyset, and had an odd shuffling gait. She visited our house about once every two weeks. My mom would let her into the dining room and Oda and I were never allowed in. When she left, she would hug us goodbye and tell us “See you in a couple of weeks.” She always had a little extra for us, like a small piece of chocolate or a lollipop. Oda and I would whisper to each other that she was not really as heavyset as we had thought, and walked more normal. Her breasts did not seem so saggy and her rear end was really not that prominent. That evening we would have a special supper with extra butter, a piece of meat and some fresh bread. The reader will figure it out, but for me and my sister it took a while to realize what was happening. Smuggling of course was rampant and for the smugglers quite lucrative until they got caught. The penalties were apparently severe. Our little “Jeanneke” evidently never got caught and where she got the stuff only she (and maybe our mom) knew. I am sure that my parents paid dearly for it.
As food was rationed, people often needed to stand in line at the bakery or grocery store to buy food. Most of the time these lines were long and Oda and I would be sent out to keep a place in the line. We played tag and relieved each other in the line till our turn came. Schools also provided some supplements to the students. One such supplement I remember vividly was the daily tablespoon of cod liver oil we all were given in school. When I close my eyes and think about it I still can taste it. It was horrible but there was no way of escaping this prevention of vitamin A and D deficiency dose. We all lined up in front of the school nurse, opened our mouths and swallowed, or sometimes gagged. Every Friday at the end of the school day, we also were each given a dried smoked herring. These tasted pretty bad and many of us boys had no use for them. I remember that on our way home from school on Friday afternoons we went past some fancy houses and then put our herring in the mailboxes. That was certainly not very nice but that is what we young boys did, and we got away with it.
Food was only one of the many commodities that was lacking. Houses were heated by wood or coal stoves. People would get their supply of coal by trucks which dumped the coal on the sidewalk in front of the house, from where it then would be shoveled into a grated opening that led into the basement of the house. Coal was scarce as well and Oda and I would be sent out with a bag to collect some of the left over coal lumps after a delivery in the neighborhood. Another way to fuel our stove was to take old newspapers and dunk them in a bucket of water. We would then mold the thoroughly soaked paper by hand into tightly packed balls, the size of big tennis balls. We then placed these paper balls in the sun to dry and used them later as fuel in the stove. These compressed dry paper balls burned slowly, and I suppose that they did not really give off much heat. But they were cheap and easy to get.
There was another good use for old newspapers. Toilet paper was scarce and expensive so my task was to periodically fold the old newspapers into nice, let’s say 8 by 5 inch pieces, cut these pieces and pierce one corner with an awl and thread a piece of twine through the hole so that it could be hung in the toilet to be used as an alternative to toilet paper. Sometimes, when we ran out of newspaper, I would use the old train schedule books. These were made from rather hard and smooth paper, and this “toilet” paper was certainly not favored by the users, as the reader can imagine.
As the only boy with four sisters I was also assigned the shoe polishing chore of the entire family. I always managed to get the black, brown and yes, sometimes even dark blue shoe polish mixed up and all over my hands. I did not like that chore at all. But one of the worst memories I have about living with my four sisters during those times has to do with taking a bath. The water in the house (we had running water in Antwerp) was heated by an on-demand tankless water heater powered by gas. Gas was also rationed and expensive. So there was to be only one bath per week on Friday nights. That does not seem so bad, but what was really bad is that my four sisters and I were only allowed to fill one tub for the bath of all five of us. Miekie, my oldest sister was the lucky one as she could go first if she was home, followed by my three other sisters, with me being the last one. By that time the water had considerably cooled, but worse than that, it also had a thick layer of scum on top. How disgusting! Maybe this was the first time that I subconsciously became aware of the notion of sexual discrimination. I think we should all five of us have taken turns on Fridays, or pulled straws to see who would be the first to get in the nice hot and clean bath. But no, such were the house rules.
In retrospect, it is amazing how one sometimes remembers little details, while others are completely forgotten. One such memory is from the day that Oda had gotten into trouble with our mom and Oda was crying her head off, while I was peacefully doing my homework. When I heard my dad opening the front door, home from work, I ran out in the hall to greet him. Rather than returning my affection with a hug, he gave me a rather forceful spanking. He had become so used to associating my sister’s screaming with something bad I had done to her that he thought her crying that afternoon was my fault as well. He just assumed that this time it was the same and I needed this punishment, undeserved as it was this time around. I was mad as hell, but in retrospect I suppose that that punishment might have be applied to all the other times I had gotten away with it. Nevertheless that seeming injustice was something I remember even to this day.
One other chore that befell me was to cut the grass in the back yard. We did not have a grass mower and that chore needed to be done by hand with a small sickle. When the grass grew too tall, I was sent into the yard and on my knees to cut the grass. Luckily our yard was rather small, and I did not really mind this chore as I had a pet rabbit that ran loose in the yard and I enjoyed playing with “Rood Oogje” or Little Red Eye, and feeding it the cut grass. Red Eye had a snow white pelt and was very tame. One day however my parents decided that they needed to sacrifice Red Eye for food. That was a sad day and it was done without me knowing about it. I cried that night and as you can imagine, I did not eat that rabbit stew. From Red Eye’s pelt my mother sewed some warm mittens for Oda. I wanted nothing to do with them and was mad at her each time she wore them.
At one other time I had a pet magpie in the yard. This bird had a broken wing and could not really fly, just some low level flapping and getting only a couple of feet off the ground. She (I assume it was a she) was tame and as soon as I came in the yard she would come hopping and flapping to me and sit on my hand or shoulder while I fed her some choice scraps. She even tried to talk, but she really never did. I do not remember what eventually happened to her.
I also had a bunch of homing pigeons. There must have been at least twenty which I kept in a large wooden cage that my father built. It stood on a flat part of the roof at the second story level. I loved to watch the flock of pigeons circle in formation around the neighborhood and come swooping down when I whistled or shook a container of birdseed. They made their nests of straw and hay in small individual wooden compartments my father had built against one of the walls. I enjoyed watching them sit on their eggs and would go by several times a day to see if the eggs had hatched, I was so happy and proud of the little baby pigeons. I kept that pigeon coop pretty clean and the birds well watered and fed.
I also trained my pigeons by bringing them with me in a basket by bike and releasing them ever further from the house. They always came back, but I never participated in the racing competitions which were popular in Belgium and a source of much betting and buying and selling of champion pigeons or their eggs. Mine were never any good in racing as I had allowed them to inbreed, but I just loved having them. My parents thankfully never decided to eat any of them. One day I caught a neighbor’s cat in my pigeon coop with several dead pigeons. How that cat got in, I do not know, but it made me so mad that I grabbed the cat by her tail, swirled her around and let go at top speed. That taught her a lesson and I never saw her again but I felt bad about abusing that animal.
Having homing pigeons is something special in Belgium and racing them is a big sport. During the occupation that sport had been suspended by the Germans, but after the liberation it resumed in full force. On Fridays the pigeon owners would bring their prize pigeons to a gathering place, usually close to a local cafe. The pigeons were then ringed with a soft metal, numbered ring on one leg, placed in big flat wicker baskets together with many other pigeons and then shipped by rail to a destination south, mostly to France. At that destination, they would be released to find their way home in the shortest possible time. Distances would vary, depending on a particular race. The pigeon owners gathered in a local cafe and over some good Belgian beer placed their bets. The release was almost always early on Sunday morning. They would home into Antwerp and usually arrive there by noontime Sunday. But noontime Sunday is the time for high mass attended by most Catholics. So the church is packed at noon on Sunday, even with the “pigeon racers” who would all sit in the very back of the church waiting for the signal that the pigeons had arrived. Who was going to give that signal? Well one of the owners was standing outside the church with his eyes fixed on the southern sky, looking for the first glimpse of a flock of birds (these pigeons usually returned in big flocks). When he saw them he would blow his whistle and all the owners, sitting in the back of the church would immediately (it did not matter where in the ceremony it was, gospel reading, sermon, or communion) get up and en masse leave the church to run or bike to their homes and try to get their pigeon back in the coop. As an altar boy serving at the noon mass, I often observed this big, and sometimes noisy exodus. I never heard the parish priest complain about this. I now guess that he might have had some bets in as well. Who knows?
Once in the coop, the owner would grab the bird, remove its ring and drop that identifying ring in a small box which marked the time when the ring was entered in the box. Later that day all the owners would then meet again in the cafe and over some more beer open the various boxes and declare the winner of that particular race. I have been told that sometimes rather large sums of money were involved. No wonder that price pigeons and their eggs were traded for considerable sums of money.
There was one problem with this system. The winning time was not the time when the bird got home and swooped down on the roof of the house, but the time when the ring was dropped in the timing box. That could only happen if the bird was back inside the coop. And depending of the circumstances and the season that sometimes represented a problem. Let me explain. Most of the time when the pigeons arrived at their home, they were hungry, as they had purposely not been fed since they were placed in the wicker baskets for shipping, almost two days earlier. They were then eager to get into the coop to have some food. So most of the time there was little delay between the time of arrival and the time that the ring made it into the timing box; however, sometimes, and mostly around harvest time, apparently the flock of pigeons flying over corn or wheat fields would spot some grain on the ground, swoop down and spend time getting their fill of this unexpected food before continuing their journey home. When they then arrived home, they were not hungry at all and leisurely sat on the roof contently cooing and ignoring all the attempts of the owner to get his bird inside. These attempts involved shaking a can of dried corn or other seed, whistling, or letting some other pigeons out in the hope that they would entice the “racer” back in. This was certainly an exciting sport which resumed and got bigger after the war. Results of major races were even published in the sport section of the local newspaper.
Between the house and the grass in the yard we had a small tiled patio. In the summer we often sat out there, played games like hopscotch, marble shooting or rope jumping, but in the winter my dad would flood it and let it freeze over so that we could slide. That was a game to see who could slide the farthest on our shoes which had leather soles. Sometimes we used our wooden clogs, which were much better for sliding.
Not far from the house and located between the suburbs and the city limits proper and encircling a large part of the city, there was a circle of defense moats and sand hills, probably stemming from the first World War and before. In the summer these moats were ideal for fishing and the hills for cross-country bike racing. In the winter these moats would freeze over and we loved skating on them. A rough game of ice hockey, usually with home made hockey sticks was our favorite. Skates then were much different from what they are now. They consisted of a flat wooden platform with a metal blade underneath. We would tie them to our regular shoes (boots if we had them) with leather straps. Sometimes they were a bit wobbly, but they worked and we had much fun with them. Nowadays these fortifications around Antwerp no longer exist and have been replaced by high speed highways and boulevards. This is the sacrifice we make for progress.
All this seems like a lot of fun, and it was, but I cannot forget the darker and scarier side of this war time in Antwerp. There was the ever present scare of bomb attacks and my parents had converted our cellar, which was big and stretched below the entire house, into an emergency shelter, with sleeping cots, blankets, flashlights, candles, first aid supplies canned food, water, and even gas masks. The horror of gas attacks by the Germans in World War I was apparently still much present in our elders’ memories. The ceiling of the cellars had been reinforced with some 2×4 wooden planks supported by wooden pillars. My parents also had an arrangement with the next door neighbors and had cut a large hole in the wall that separated our cellar from theirs, in case we needed to evacuate our house and could not for some reason get out. That hole in the wall was called by us: “The Hole of Kretz” (the name of our neighbors) and as of today Oda and I still refer to it by that name. In fact when Oda visited Antwerp many years later, when the war was long over, she stopped by our old house and rang the bell. The current owners let her in and showed her around, including the cellar with the hole was still visible but cemented close and patched over. The owners loved the stories that my sister told them about the house. Even though we spent many nights in the cellar when the sirens went off we never really had any serious events.
Then there was the mandate that no light was supposed to shine from houses at night. That was meant to prevent the pilots in the nighttime air raids to have a clear view of the towns. Thus all houses, including ours had blinds and/or blackout curtains. It was a bit eerie to walk in the streets after dark with no or little light visible, as streets lights had also been turned off. Not only was this eerie but also a bit scary as it was easy to get lost in the dark even in one’s own neighborhood. In any case we did not go out much anyway at night as a curfew had been imposed. I cannot remember when and at what time that curfew went into effect.
I hated the sound of the air-raid sirens. The were activated at least several times a week when approaching allied airplanes were detected. They were loud, intermittent, waxing and waning, and annoying but they sure caught our attention. When we were at school we had to hide under our tables or desks and at home we ran to the cellar. When outside playing soccer or other outdoor activities we would run if possible to the nearest cellar. When the planes were overhead German anti aircraft guns, which had emplacements scattered throughout the suburbs, would start shooting at the planes. I am sure that some planes must have been shot down, but I do not remember witnessing a direct hit or hearing about it. When the alarm came at night, there was the additional eerie sight of the numerous bright searchlights scanning the skies for planes. We waited for the continuous high pitched sound of the “all clear” siren to return to what we were doing. Thankfully there were not many bombing raids by the allies on Antwerp. The sirens warned about approaching plane formations but those planes were most often on their way to German towns and their aim was not Belgium. One of a number of exceptions which I remember well, was a bombing raid on April 1943 in broad daylight by the Royal British Airforce (RAF) that targeted an engine factory in one of the nearby suburbs of Mortsel. In that raid most of the bombs missed their intended target and there was much destruction of civilian structures and many civilian deaths and wounded. Today that is called, somewhat cynically, I might add, collateral damage. The large explosions from that air raid some miles away could be heard even in Berchem, where I lived. The air-raid sirens had sent us to the cellar in a hurry and I remember hearing the dull sounds and wondering what was happening. This botched bombing raid by the RAF provoked a great deal of protest and condemnation by Belgian authorities. I wanted to take my bike and go see what had happened, but my parents would not let me.
Everyone suffered in some way or another during this German occupation, but one group of people took the brunt of it. Antwerp had an important diamond-cutting industry mostly owned by Jewish people. Many of these were orthodox and we were used to seeing them on the streets of Antwerp, walking in their distinctive traditional coats and hats. They had long, curled hair and sideburns. They mostly lived and worked in an area close to the central station where the diamond industry was located. At that time I knew little about the Jews, only what we had learned in religious classes. And I did not realize what the black and yellow armbands meant, that suddenly the Jewish people were wearing. And of course I had not much idea what a horror this might have meant for the wearers of these obvious signs. Only much later did I understand that these poor people were marked to be eventually arrested, shipped by train to Germany and become part of the Holocaust. History tells us that there were many midnight arrests. I never saw this occurring but the next morning there was always a lot of talk about who was arrested and where it occurred and speculation about the reasons for the arrest and what might have happened to the person arrested. Neither Oda, me, our family, or our friends had any real contact with Jewish people, so these arrests and mistreatment of the Jewish people in Antwerp made little impact on us personally.
There was also a lot of talk at home and in school about the news anyone had heard. In the beginning much of this “news noise” meant little to us kids, but slowly, as we learned more, we started to realize what was really happening and how bad it all was. My dad would come home and tell us what he had heard at work or read in the newspaper: “The resistance derailed an oil train last night” or “The resistance cut the electrical wires to a military base last Sunday.” “Dad, what is resistance?” we would ask.
After a lengthy explanation we still were not sure, but we did know that those were people who did not like the Germans and tried hard to make life difficult for them by doing bad things to them. We also found out in no uncertain terms that we should never, never try to do something bad to the Germans as the punishment was severe, not just for who did it, but also for a bunch of other people around who might not even have been involved, but still might be severely punished, put in jail, transported to a camp in Germany or even be killed. While we thought that these actions by the resistance were “cool” and taut the Germans a lesson that we Belgians were not going to let the Nazis run all over us, we also knew that these actions had a very dark side with the punishment of innocent people.
Little did I realize that my parents might have been involved in a nonviolent way with this resistance. After the war was long over, Oda related to me that during the war there were occasions that our mother had confided in her and given her a message scribbled on a piece of paper, which she was supposed to pass, unseen, to the priest in the Catholic church at the time she approached the bench to receive communion. She also told me that on at least one occasion a somewhat disheveled man in tattered clothes came into the house and disappeared into the bathroom and came out shaven and neatly dressed, only to leave in a hurry. I never saw him myself but one can only surmise now that that man probably was a downed pilot who needed to disappear in the crowd and try to return to England, and that the messages passed secretly by Oda had something to do with that. I was never made aware of these activities by my mother, but Oda was and she told me about it much later. Apparently, my father stayed out of that activity as he was afraid of losing his job if he would get caught, or worse be arrested and deported to a concentration camp. I keep wondering now if my parents might have been involved with other nonviolent “resistance” activities without telling us. If I had known at the time I would have worried that they too might be arrested and sent to a concentration camp. Early on I had not much idea what a concentration camp was other than a prison somewhere far away. Of course later on that became all too clear to me.
Indeed such clandestine activity might have been more common in our family than Oda and I realized. After the war was long over we found out that our future brother in law had actually been sent to a concentration camp for helping in hiding downed British pilots. More about that later.
And so it went for more than four years. We became accustomed to living with rationed food, going to bed somewhat hungry many nights, being woken up by the sirens announcing a possible air raid, and scurrying to the cellar to await the all clear siren. As I mentioned earlier, Antwerp was never really the target for bombing raids, with some exceptions, and life went on, modified by the many inconveniences described. Oda and I went to school, my father went to work and my older sisters went to boarding school in the Netherlands. Towards the end of these four years Oda had developed her own circle of friends and we were doing fewer and fewer things together.
We had no TV at that time and the radio stations were censored by the Belgian government under German control. As you can imagine, we only heard what they wanted us to hear. To follow what was really going on I had made myself a small primitive crystal radio. These were extremely simple to make from leftover scraps of copper wire, antenna wire, and an easily obtained crystal of galena. I believe that my crystal was given to me by an older friend from school. Without going into details of the various connections, the radio was made by mounting the crystal on a small piece of plywood and a stiff wire that could be manipulated against the crystal to find the right frequency. Again one of my friends had a drawing on how to do it and shared it with me. No outside electrical power nor batteries were needed. The produced sound was rather faint and one needed to listen with a headset. I used to listen at night in bed to the BBC with its characteristic calling tune of the first few notes of Beethoven’s 5th symphony. The BBC was transmitting in different languages, even my native Dutch or Flemish. This radio was primitive and many times lost its signal. Even if I did not understand all the details, I became aware that something big was happening in Europe. June 6, 1944 was D Day and the beginning of operation Overlord of the allies. Europe was going to be liberated from the German occupation, as was announced on the BBC and everyone hoped. But not so quick: the war would not officially end for more than a year later, September 2, 1945.
The allies entered Belgium on September 2, 1944 and liberated Antwerp four days later. Some small parts of Belgium remained under German occupation and it took till February 4th 1945 for Belgium to be completely liberated. And of course history tells us that the second world war ended officially in Europe on May 7, 1945 with the unconditional surrender of the German Army.
Apparently the liberation of Antwerp went relatively smoothly for the allies. It was the 11th armored division of the British Army that liberated Antwerp and unexpectedly met with little resistance from the Germans. The Allies benefited tremendously from assistance by the Belgian resistance in this regard. The Germans had planned to destroy the harbor upon their retreat from Antwerp by mooring a number of ships loaded with explosive in several strategic locations with the intention of blowing them up, thereby destroying important harbor installations. The Belgian resistance knew about this plan and was able to defuse these explosions before they happened, prevent the demolition of the harbor and deliver it to the allies intact.
While there was no great battle for the liberation of Antwerp, my most vivid memory of the liberation of Antwerp occurred right in front of my eyes on our street (Elizabeth laan) in the suburb of Berchem. There in broad daylight in the tree-lined middle strip of the street was a gun battle between members of the resistance and some straggling German soldiers. They shot at each other from behind the trees in the street. When the gunfire broke out, my parents quickly closed the blinds. Oda and I, curious about the “pop, pop” of the gunfire so close by, had partly pulled up the blinds so that we could watch through the opening between the slats. How exciting! Mom discovered us peeping through the slats and immediately closed the blinds again and sent the two of us to the cellar to finish our assigned chore, the de-sprouting of the heap of potatoes in the cellar. Like many families, we had a large stash of potatoes in one corner of our cellar. Because these potatoes were mostly in the dark, they inevitably started to sprout and needed to be de-sprouted every so often, to keep them edible. Oda and I were assigned this boring task. And now with all this excitement in front of the house we were relegated to the basement and all we were managing to glean is the sound of gunfire. We never saw the “good” stuff.
On the day of the liberation of Antwerp, September 4th 1944, there were scenes of street fighting, like I just described alternating with dancing and singing in the streets by jubilant citizens. Church bells pealed all over. Apparently in the center of town and in other suburbs the allied tanks rumbled through the streets with civilians being allowed to climb on the tanks and accompany the soldiers on their triumphant entry of the city. In our suburb of Berchem I did not get a chance to witness this as our parents would not let us out to go explore and find the excitement.
The group of German soldiers who had occupied the house next to ours, had left in a hurry when the Allies entered Antwerp. But soon that same house was occupied by a group of British soldiers. They were friendly with us. Oda and I did not know any English but we, as many other kids our age had memorized a string of useful phrases that often got us what we wanted. It goes like this. Upon encountering an allied soldier (British, Canadian or US), us little kids (I was now about 11 years old) would walk up to him and with outstretched hands would recite: “Chocolates for mama, biscuits for sister, cigarettes for papa, chiclets for me” Most of the time we would then thankfully run home with hands full of the good “stuff.” I do not remember what I did with the “Lucky Strike” cigarettes I got, because my father only smoked a pipe. I probably sold the cigarettes. But the chiclets were something else. We had never known about chewing gum and this was a big treat.
The soldiers tried to befriend us. They showed us their weapons and ammunition and let us touch their equipment. Way at the end of our street in an open area without houses they had set up some big anti aircraft guns and they let me and my friends climb and touch and feel them. This was all rather different from the much sterner and forbidding Germans, even though they had let me shoot one of their rifles in the back yard, as I related earlier.
While the liberation of Antwerp went rather quickly without much fighting or destruction, little did we realize that the war was not over. While Antwerp Harbor was captured by the allies almost intact, the retreating German army had fully realized the importance that this harbor represented for the allied forces. With the rapid advances of the British, Canadian, and American armies into Europe, the Allied supply lines were stretched to the max and they desperately needed a safe place to unload their supply ships. The Antwerp Harbor was an ideal location for that task. There were however three main problems the Allies had to reckon with. One was the fact that the connection between Antwerp Harbor with the North Sea was via the river Scheldt and that river ran through a large area of Holland that was still occupied by the German Forces, making the passage of ships nearly impossible. The second problem was that the Germans, upon retreating, had heavily mined the river, and thus the waterway needed to be cleared of all mines. The third problem was that the Germans were now set on destroying Antwerp Harbor which they had failed to do when they retreated from Antwerp. They were going to attempt to destroy the harbor by sending the feared V1 bombs to Antwerp. These were drones programmed to a predetermined location, when their engines were shut off so they would fall out of the sky and explode. The Germans were also using these on London. They were fired from a number of locations, first from the northern coast of France but later mainly from the still occupied country of The Netherlands, the northern neighbor of Belgium. Later the V1s were replaced by the V2s which were actually rockets. More about these fierce weapons and their use on Antwerp in the next chapter.
Wow! The Germans are gone! We are liberated! We are free! No more air raid alerts; no more midnight arrests; no more food rationing; no more explosions. Think twice. The problem for Antwerp might have just begun. The Germans were set to destroy Antwerp Harbor. They had a formidable weapon: the V1 drones, also called Buzz Bombs. They started firing thousands of these those towards Antwerp from locations mainly in Holland and Germany. They were not accurate but certainly deadly. They were programmed to get to Antwerp, when their engines would shut off, resulting in a crash and a huge explosion. Few reached their intended target of the harbor, but many, and I do not exaggerate when I write thousands, fell on civilian areas, causing much destruction, fatalities and injuries. While the war years and the early days of the liberation of Antwerp were kind of an “adventure” for me and Oda, this V Bomb period was definitely scary.
I shared a bed on the second floor of our house with my sister. At night, the sirens would go off when a V1 was spotted approaching. Soon thereafter the search lights would come on and brighten the sky, then the anti aircraft batteries would blast away at the approaching V1s in an attempt to down them before they reached a populated area. If they failed, the shooting would stop as the destruction became inevitable. There then was a “deafening” silence, until my sister and I could hear the approaching drone. First the sound was faint, but then it got louder and louder until all of a sudden it would stop. My sister and I lay in bed holding each other tightly, trembling, as we knew that within the next few seconds there would be an explosion; faraway, nearby, or even on the house? Many nights we lay there wondering if we were going to be hit, but thank God that did not happen even though there were a few close calls and nearby explosions. There was also a great deal of destruction in the middle of the city. Few of these V1s fell on the harbor, their intended target. That was fortunate for the Allies as that aided in readying the harbor as a most important supply route for their advancing armies.
The V1 drones were later replaced by the V2 rockets which were quite different. There was no warning only a sharp final whistling sound before the rocket hit and then the explosion. Fortunately, I was never close to witness an impact of one of these devices but certainly heard the explosions and later the account by relatives or friends on what and where it had happened. Most of the damage happened anyway after Oda and I had left Antwerp itself, as I will tell you in the next paragraph. In the final count, these devices (V1 and V2), and there were more than 2,000 of them, did a lot of damage to Antwerp and caused deaths and wounded many, but they had no major impact on the harbor, which eventually became functional after the bombs stopped; mines were cleared and the control of the lower river was returned to the allies. My parents forbid me with penalty of house arrest for several days, to go look at the places were bombs or rockets had fallen and under no uncertain terms forbid me to play in or explore any ruins.
Soon after the bombing of Antwerp started, my parents thought that the situation was too traumatic and dangerous for us kids and they made arrangements for Oda and me to move away from Antwerp. My mom had connections with an order of nuns who ran an old folks home in a smaller town called Overmere in the countryside SE of Antwerp about 45 km away. They reserved a room for us and we were going to go to the local school. We were glad of this change as we were becoming scared with the almost nightly alerts and explosions. Oda and I arrived in Overmere on a Friday afternoon and got settled in with the friendly and caring nuns. The plan was for us go to the local public school on Monday. That Sunday, A V1 drone intended for Antwerp was shot down by the anti aircraft guns over the town of Overmere and fell on the school. It demolished the school but killed or injured no one as the school was empty on Sunday. However, school demolished meant no class. So my sister and I were free to do what we wanted as the nuns did not keep close tab on us. We had a blast. Another adventure. I am not quite sure what Oda ended up doing but I went to the local farmers who taught me to milk cows, to help them with baling hay, wield a pitchfork, feed the chickens and pigs, shovel manure and many other fun tasks. I even rode some of the famous Belgian draft horses when they were used to plow the fields.
A local farm-boy showed me how to catch moles. We walked in the fields together and watched for some activity on the ground, a mole digging its tunnel underground and pushing up the loose dirt. “There, there by that fence, see the movement of the loose dirt” he would whisper. We would then approach gingerly as these moles had excellent hearing and a sense of vibration of the ground. Soon he had figured out which direction the mole was digging. He would then take his shovel and slam it deep into the earth just in front of the mole, which would be trapped with a shovel in front of it and no way to turn around and escape. Then he would pivot the shovel with all the loose earth in front of it and more often than not the mole as well. As these animals are blind they would have no way of escaping in the open air and be an easy catch. Pretty soon I got the hang of this too and caught my quota of moles. With our catch of the day we went back to the farm, where the boy also taught me how to skin the moles and dry the pelts. These skins were rather valuable and used for making fur coats. I cannot remember how much each skin would fetch but with their sale we made a little pocket money. With that money we could buy ourselves some ice cream, candy, a pocket knife, some soccer cards (these were big in Belgium at that time, just like baseball cards here) or marbles which we used in hotly contested marble games. There are many varieties of this game which mainly consist of propelling a marble between the thumb and index finger, aiming and trying to hit a target marble pushing it out of a circle carved in the sand or outlined with a marker on the stones. That target marble is then yours. On the way to the circle one often tries to hit an opponent’s marble out of the way. These marbles were made from glass and came in many different colors. Almost all boys our age kept a large collection of these and often exchanged them with other boys. All real fun.
When winter came it could get pretty cold and to keep our feet warm we wore wooden clogs, called “klompen” in Dutch. For extra warmth we would stuff them with some straw or old newspaper and they were rather comfortable but noisy when used on the cobblestones. We would hold competitions to see who could slide the farthest with them on the frozen ponds, just like we used to do in Antwerp on the frozen patio as I mentioned before.
So life continued, or rather rebuilt. After about six months in Overmere, when the V bombs on Antwerp stopped in March of 1945, Oda and I returned to our house in Berchem, went back to our respective schools, caught up with our old friends, exchanged all sorts of stories and settled back into our old routines.
One major impression I remember from the immediate post war era is watching the tracking down of people in Antwerp who were suspected of collaboration with the Germans. After they were rounded up, their heads were publicly shaven and they were then paraded through the city, with many people watching, mostly in silence with an occasional “boo.” For many this was an exhilarating time when they could exert vengeance on those who helped the oppressors, but for me it was a sad time to see men and women, young and old being publicly humiliated. I have no recollection of what finally happened to them, but history tells us that many were imprisoned and some even executed.
I returned to middle school, a Catholic school run by the Jesuits and called OLV College. We were supposed to attend mass every day of the week. Initially that had to be at the church attached to the school, but that turned out to be impractical. So we were allowed to attend mass in our own parish. We were supposed to present a “mass” card to the local parish priest who punched a hole on the appropriate date. Easy for us young boys to bypass that level of control. We either punched our own hole or had the parish priest do it, immediately followed by our departure from church to play some soccer or just hang out with friends. The school authorities caught on to that “fraud” quickly and decided to send one of the priests from the school on bicycle to each of the parishes in the city and the suburbs on a daily basis. When the priest arrived in our church we were supposed to go to him and have him sign our “mass” card. As each of the surveillance priests had a number of parishes to go to, and had a set route, he never stayed very long. We boys would keep watch and as soon as he was gone we would skip out and go about our “business.” The school caught on to that scheme also quickly and then made sure that the rounds of the surveillance priest was random rather than set. Some days we were in luck as our church was number one on his list, while other days we just had to wait till near the end of mass before the priest got there. One thing the school never did was have the priest come twice. If he did, many of us would have been caught. This all sounds pretty bad, but we were just boys and to us it was a game, almost like cat and mouse.
As part of our Catholic upbringing and attending a Jesuit high school, all students were supposed to go to confession every Friday. Most of the readers will know that a confessional in our Church is, usually a large, often wooden “cage.” The priest hearing confession sits in the middle behind either a curtain or a door. On either side of him is a window that opens to on an enclosed area where the confessor kneels. Each side has a sliding panel that the priest opens towards the confessor, while the other side is closed, making the whole event private between the priest and the penitent who is eye level with the priest through a metal screen. The area where the penitent kneels is also closed off by either a door or a curtain resulting in the entire setting being not only private but also rather dark.
Every Friday afternoon each class was called down in order and all students walked in single file and silently to the church, picked one of the multiple confessionals and knelt down in the pews, in front of each confessional. When a student entered the confessional all the other students moved up one spot closer. The student went in on his side of the confessional, knelt and waited for the priest to open the slide before beginning his confession. One of the assistants to the priests (surveillant) sat in the back of the church where he has a good view of all the confessionals and made sure that every student went in. There was no escape.
Most of us did not like confession, not because we did not have any “sins” but we just did not feel like telling the priest about them. What to do? Some of us had devised a system that worked. Kneeling in the pews and slowly moving towards our turn, I would whisper to my friend on my right: “I do not really want to confess to day. How about you?” “No me neither, let’s do our trick!” When my time came I would dutifully step in the confessional, but instead of kneeling and facing the closed sliding window, I would crouch low down below the little ledge in front of the window. In due time the priest would slide open the window, and begin by saying: “My son, what are your sins?” As there was no answer from me crouching down, he would repeat his question with again no answer. Not seeing anyone in the semi darkness he would assume (I guess) that no one had stepped in and close the window. I would then step out and join the students in the back off the church who had already finished. I had dutifully been observed by the surveillant to have entered the confessional and when the whole class was done, we would march back to the classroom with the rest as if we now were free of sins (for a while). I guess that “they” never caught on.
High school started for me when the war was over, and on our way to school (mostly by bike) we passed a number of boarded up buildings and bombed out houses. The major rubble had been cleared up, but these places were a stark reminder of what Antwerp had been through, only such a short time ago. We had of course heard and read about the incredible devastation in some other towns in the Netherlands and Germany, and could only be to grateful that Antwerp had escaped with relatively minor destruction.
During high school I took six years of Latin and five years of Ancient Greek instruction. This turned out to be useful in some measure in a sort of general educational manner, but also helped me later on in my medical studies. Much medical terminology is derived from either a Greek or Latin stem. As part of these studies we had to read passages from real classic literary works; i.e The Iliad and The Odyssey by the Greek poet Homer, and the Aeneid by Virgil, and more. These passages needed then to be parsed carefully as homework, a tedious job, but necessary to keep up our grades. Doing this, we did indeed understand what each sentence or paragraph meant. and became good at it, but never really caught the beauty of these ancient literary works. This dawned on me many years later when I started to read modern English translations of these works. Reading these epic works in English I did not have to struggle to catch the meaning of words, or find what the subject, verb, and object of the sentences were. I could just read for the pure joy of reading and it is only then that I realized what the beauty was that I had missed when going through these passages was part of homework in search of a grade. We also had to memorize entire passages of some of these works. Believe it or not, 70 years later, I still can recite the beginning of the Anabasis by Xenophon in Greek. Years later I tried it out in front of some modern Greek people, but even when I spoke slowly, they had no idea what I was saying as Modern Greek differs greatly from the ancient language. When I once traveled to Greece on vacation I was under the naive notion that I might be able to converse on a basic level with the locals, asking for lodging, food, or directions. Forget that notion!
I suppose that is one of the drawbacks of studying these ancient languages, and although it helped me in my career, in some ways (and I write this with tongue in cheek) I sometimes wish that I had been exposed more to practical subjects, like calculus, a modern language, or even typing.
In grade school at the Jesuits, we had one hour of music class every week. That consisted of the music teacher coming in and teaching us a song or two. Now, I cannot keep a tune at all and that did not go unnoticed by the teacher, who would repeatedly tell me to keep quiet and not sing with the others.”That is unfair. I am in music class and I am going to participate no matter what.“ I told him. That aggravated the teacher and he got tired of telling me to “shut up”. So eventually he would come into the class, look around for me, point to me and say “LeMaire out!” So I had to go stand outside the classroom and wait till the hour was over. You can image that a student standing outside the classroom with a mixture of a mad and sad expression, attracts the attention of the principal. And on a number of occasions I had a bunch of explanations to make. But thankfully I never got into real trouble over it. I still cannot carry a tune.
A funny anecdote relates to this. Years later when living in the USA with four children and eight grandkids, I was relating this story about being sent out of the classroom for singing out of tune. We were at the home of my son with a bunch of friends. His two year old daughter, Remy, was sitting by herself somewhere playing with her toys and seemingly not paying any attention to the adults. Everybody laughed at the story, and that was it. Until about a year later when we were again at my son’s house, this time to celebrate Remy’s birthday. As expected we were all singing “Happy Birthday” when the cake with candles was brought in. In the middle of us singing, my now three year old granddaughter suddenly turned to me and while pointing to the door, said: “LeMaire out!.” That goes to show that little kids do not miss anything even if the adults think that they are not paying attention. A good lesson for parents.
In reflecting on the war years I remember that my parents, not only during the war, but even after would say something to each other in French, when they did not want us to know what they were talking about. Of course, whether they realized it or not, we had French lessons in school and their “secret” messages to each other were really not secret at all. During the occupation itself there was much talk at home and even at school about the events of the day, military successes or defeats, bombings, new Nazi-imposed rules, economic issued for the family and other topics. However I do not remember any serious discussions about what this war and the Belgian occupation really meant for us and the rest of the world. I now wonder if this absence of political and ideological discussion was driven by the fear of reprisals by the Nazis for the expression of opposing views.
Getting into trouble in school, like not finishing home work, talking in class, being late to school, and many other misdeeds, often meant to receive a green card, which had to be signed by one of the parents. The punishment associated with receiving a green card consisted of having to come to the school on either Tuesdays or Thursdays afternoon when everyone else was off and having to do additional homework instead of playing soccer. I received my share of green cards. And of course I complained at home when I received that punishment at times when I had not done what was alleged. My parents would invariably say: “We believe you, but just take it for the times you did something and got away with it.” Parents these days would be in the school right away, talking and complaining to the teacher or principal about the undeserved punishment their son or daughter received. I just wish that parents these days would be more supportive of the school and teachers.
Things that got us in trouble in school were the usual things such as talking in class, not finishing homework, fighting during recess, not attending mass or trying to skip confession on Fridays. But one of the “bad” things that some of us did in class was a bit more serious. It had to do with chemistry. We had learned that the chemical called Calcium Carbide would release a gas called Acethylene when it comes in contact with water. That gas can be ignited and was used in the famous Acetylene lamps used earlier on as light sources in lighthouse beacons, motorcar headlights, and mine lamps. During the process of producing gas when mixed with water there is a good deal of foaming going on. Some of the boys had access to small Calcium Carbide rocks from our Chemistry class, and I had some. When called upon by the teacher to the front of the class and the blackboard to do some work, the student would pass by the individual student desks. These desks all had inkwells. What I and some of my buddies would do on our way to the front, was to drop secretly a small rock of this carbide in the inkwell of one of the other students (usually someone we did not like). That caused almost immediately heavy foaming in that inkwell with ink spilling out on the desk and (hopefully) the papers on it. A great deal of commotion would result. When found out by the teacher this “offense” carried a rather heavy punishment. I pled guilty to several of these offenses.
Out of school some of my friends and I did some things that also could get us into trouble. One of these is the well known prank played by young kids of ringing the bell at a house and then run away and hide and watch the reaction of the person opening the door and then repeating that a few more times afterwards. We had devised a somewhat sophisticated variation of that. We used a sturdy straight pin which we firmly stuck into the wood of a window frame on the front of a house we targeted. The pin was placed close to the glass and at the top of the pin just under the pinhead we attached a thin cotton thread. We left the end of the thread close to the pin long enough to tie it firmly around a small rock. As a result that little rock was almost up to the glass. The other long end of the cotton thread was rolled out from its spool to a hiding place in some bushes in front of the house or the neighbor’s. When we pulled very lightly from our hiding place on the long end of the cotton thread the pin would slightly flex and then rebound. In the process the rock attached to the top of the pin would hit the glass and make a slight knock on the window. More often than not when this slight knock was repeated several times the owner would come out and look around for who might have knocked on his window. Not seeing anyone he or she would go back in the house, whereupon we would repeat the process a number of times and giggle at the frustration of the home owner.
During my entire youth in Belgium, I was member of the scouting organization. Of course during the war the activities of the scouts were much curtailed and mostly limited to local and in-house functions. First I was a cub scout, then a scout and finally in medical school a scout master. Scouting at that time in Belgium was quite different from what I have witnessed in the US. The major difference was that parents were almost never involved at all and the activities were organized and supervised by men in their mid twenties or early thirties who had been scouts themselves, were now in college or recent graduates, and donated their time to activities of their troop. In fact we boy scouts did not want our parents around, and if one of the boy’s father or mother would come around during one of the meetings, that boy could be assured of quite a bit of teasing. Here in the US the leadership of a boy scout troop is most often assumed by one or several fathers of the members.
Many summer vacations, after the war of course, our scout troop would travel by bus or train to the southern part of Belgium in the Ardennes (remember the Battle of the Bulge took place there). It is more mountainous there than the flat country of Antwerp in the north. The scouts leaders often reached an arrangement with a local farmer or landowner to allow us to set up a tent camp for a week or two. That always was a wonderful experience, with hiking, orienteering, cooking, campfires, performances, music, games, sports, and many activities that boys our age just loved. I have great memories of these camping trips, but one funny episode stands out. I believe that this happened just after the war ended as during the occupation these activities were curtailed by the Nazis.
Shortly after we had set up camp that time, a few boys started to complain of itching. “Boy, I am itching all over, and look at these red marks on my arm” they would complain. These boys were taken to a local doctor and came back to the camp with the diagnosis of “Scabies.” This is an itchy and crusty skin affliction caused by the burying of tiny mites underneath the skin. This “infection” is rather contagious, especially when people live in close quarters and when hygiene is not optimal. After consulting the medical authority, the leaders of our troop decided to have the entire group of at least 30 people treated to prevent further spread. At that time the treatment consisted of covering the entire body from the neck down with a medicated lotion or cream. The treatment is left in place for a considerable length of time before it is washed of in the shower. The day after the diagnosis of scabies was made, two medical technicians showed up, each with a bucketful of the anti-scabies agent. The product looked like liquid white wash and was applied with a large paint brush. All of us, including our leaders had to completely strip and stand in line. The technicians then came around to us, one at a time, and applied the product with their brushes. First the front and then the back. The reader can imagine that for us young teenage boys, it was a funny experience, resulting in a lot of giggling and laughter. But when we saw our chaplain (an inevitable accompaniment to our outings) also standing in line, buck naked and also receiving the same painting, front and back, none of us boys could contain our amusement.
During these camping trips we also learned a number of useful tricks, like finding edible (and not poisonous) food in the wild, making fire without matches, building a shelter in the woods, collecting drinking water from the dew in the morning, or from evaporation in the sun. One of the “tricks” that I remember is cooking a chicken without a pot. We would gut the chicken, find some clay or heavy mud in or next to a stream, and cover the entire chicken, feathers and all with a heavy coat of clay/mud. We then placed the whole thing in the fire and covered it with the red hot cinders. We left the chicken in the coals and after a while (I now can not remember anymore for how long) the clay or mud had hardened to almost brick consistency. The entire contraption was then taken out of the fire and the hardened clay cracked with one blow of a heavy wooden stick or mallet. The clay, now almost stone, fell away from the chicken with skin and feathers attached. The meat underneath was perfectly cooked, moist and tender. Someday I am going to try this again.
After the war, one of my older sisters, Jetty, ended up marrying a Dutch engineer. I do not remember where she met him, but Ernst was a nice guy and friendly to me. By that time I was 13 or 14 years old and I spent several summers at their house in the southern part of The Netherlands where he worked as an engineer in a large zinc smelting factory. He arranged a paying (very little, but exciting for a teenage boy in those days) job for me in that factory. One year I was a carpenter’s apprentice and helped build a house, cutting and hauling lumber, hammering, sawing and handing tools to the “boss.” And another summer I became an apprentice to an electrician in the factory. While at the factory I had somewhat of a free run of the place. I witnessed the intense heat that the workmen in front of the ovens experienced. I saw sweat dripping from their brows and their bodies light up from the flames inside the ovens when they opened the doors to shovel something in or out. I saw them pour the liquid zinc into molds and watched them operate the presses that made the zinc blocks into sheets. Then there was the cutting of the sheets, the bundling them together, the weighing and shipping. I learned not just carpentry and electricity, but I saw what it meant to be a laborer in a huge factory. I admired these men.
Ernst told me his war stories. As I alluded to earlier, during the German occupation he had been caught hiding and helping downed RAF (Royal Air Force) pilots get back across the channel to England. After his arrest he had been sent to the infamous concentration camp in Dachau. Because he was not Jewish he was considered a political prisoner. These prisoners were treated differently and more humanely than the Jewish prisoners. Nevertheless it was a hard time for him. He showed me the number that was tattooed on his arm and his white and black striped “uniform.” But other than that he avoided talking much about his concentration camp experiences. I can only surmise that they were unpleasant if not horrible. Later I found out that upon his return to The Netherlands he had been diagnosed with tuberculosis but completely recovered with treatment. Much later when I was living as a professional with my own family in the USA, I found out that he had been invited to Dachau for a remembrance ceremony and was asked to give a speech about his experiences. I was a bit surprised that he accepted that invitation, knowing his reluctance to speak much about that dark part of his life. But I was proud and happy that he did go. It was apparently a successful trip and can only imagine the intensity of the memories of his prison time there.
It was during these summers at Jetty and Ernst’s house that I became hooked on the famous Dutch maatjes herring. Those are juvenile herring caught in abundance off the Dutch North Sea coast early each summer. They are typically eaten raw with chopped onions. When the season for them is on, one can get them everywhere, not just in the stores, but along the roads in little stands, often with a glass of beer or a shot of Bols, the Dutch kind of gin, also called Jenever. The herring are filleted and deboned and the two sides of the fillets remain attached at the tail. Typically one dips them in chopped onions, holds them up by the tail and lets them slide into the mouth, chewing them before swallowing. What a treat! Of course they can also be enjoyed in a more civilized manner at the dinner table from a plate and eaten with fork and knife, often with a slice of toast, bit always with beer or Jenever. But the sliding part on the side of the road or in a cafe or in a shopping mall, is what it is all about! Every summer Ernst would order a small wooden keg packed with maatjes. He then invited many of his colleagues and friends to the house and we would have a herring feast. During free time from my job at the factory we did much biking, swimming, and sailing in a nearby lake. What fun-filled summers!!
Towards the end of the six years of high school, the Jesuits organized a retreat to help us senior students select our future direction. Everyone had to attend and there was heavy recruiting into the Jesuit order or at least into the priesthood. That suited my mother well as she had always stated that she would not mind me becoming a Jesuit priest. I never knew why she wanted that for me as I had no intention like that and was much attracted to Medicine. In Belgium at that time, high school ended at around 18 years of age, and one had to decide on a career: engineering, law, medicine or whatever. We did not have the four years of college that we have here in the US to “find” oneself and pick a career. In any case I picked medicine (disappointing my mom a bit), and the rest is history.
Upon reflecting on these war and immediate post war years of my youth, I can only be thankful that I was spared some of the extreme hardship and horrors that others my age and older had to endure. Of course I did experience some minor, in comparison, unpleasantness but never had to live through walls crumbling around me or or men, women or children dying or being maimed in front of me. In fact I did not see one dead body or any severe injury. I am grateful for that and have been hesitant to relate my rather lighthearted story.
Long after the war was over, I completed Medical School in 1958 in Louvain, Belgium. I married Anne just before doing a year of internship in Schenectady NY. I then signed up for a stint as a rural doctor in Africa in the Government Health Service in lieu of military service and after that migrated to the USA in 1960, where I specialized in obstetrics and gynecology in Miami. In 1966 I became a citizen of the USA and now at the age of 83 I am still living in Miami with Anne. We have four children and eight grandchildren. In medicine I have had a rather unusual career and at the urging of friends, colleagues, and family, I ended up writing an ebook about our “adventures.” The book is called: Crosscultural Doctoring. On and Off the Beaten Path. For those interested, it can be downloaded for free. Just Google “CROSSCULTURAL DOCTORING” and you will find it, or click on the link:
Any reader is welcome to contact me, make comments and add their own stories by logging into my website:
While I relied mostly on my own recall in writing this manuscript, I want to thank my “little” sister, Oda for helping to fill in some essential missing details. She lives in the Netherlands and we have had many hours of email exchange and phone conversations, in an attempt to get this right. Or as right as possible. And of course my wife Anne has kept me on the straight path, by constantly questioning the accuracy of my and even Oda’s recollections.
A whole lot of thank goes to Melissa Burley who worked hard to keep me on the straight path of grammar and punctuation. Not only that, but she inspired me to “get out of my shell” and add details and spice to the story. “Show, not just tell. Add sounds, feelings, sights and yes smell if you can,” she kept telling me. I hope that I succeeded in following her invaluable advice.
War is, of course, terrible. Any war. All the suffering, all the death, all the wounded, the destruction, homelessness, cruelty, hunger, fear, and panic. It may also bring out the best in some people: heroism, patriotism, compassion, and altruism. But one would never think that war might be seen as an adventure; in some ways for me it was. In this short book I write about my memories of this period of time from the invasion of Belgium, through the German occupation, and to the immediate post war era. For most Belgians this was a hard and sad time full of suffering. While I experienced some of that suffering and the fear as well, many of my memories are about exciting events and experiences (to a young boy), to the point that I remember this time as an “adventure.” I will justifiably be faulted for talking so lightly about this dark period in Belgium’s and the world’s history and for seemingly having somewhat enjoyed it all , while people were indiscriminately killed, tortured, and exterminated by the Nazis and while there was much suffering, destruction, maiming, and death. Remember though that I was a little boy growing up and mostly unaware of the atrocities occurring away from my immediate environment. Also, my parents did their best to shelter me from the many horrors. If a reader is offended by this, I do apologize and want to reassure the reader that now at age 83, I am of course fully aware of the darkness of the years between 1940 and 1945. Seen in this light I do hope that this will be an interesting and enjoyable read for contemporaries and others. I do not want this book to be perceived as historical, but as a series of anecdotes still present in the memory of this little boy. There might be some inaccuracies as to time and place, as memories do fade, but all happened. Again I apologize to the reader about the lighthearted way in which I am writing down these memories.