Wednesday, 20 October 2010


The first British tanks rolled into the city on the tenth of September 1944. The city was ready for the victorious arrival of our liberators and they received a tumultuous welcome. Everywhere flags were flying. They were hoisted on public buildings and draped along every house front. Everyone was overjoyed, there was cheering and shouting. “Welcome Tommy”. The British soldiers were overwhelmed with armfuls of flowers and offers of beer and wine. Many citizens had saved a bottle or two for this very occasion. Children and adults alike clambered on top of the tanks and festooned them with flags and flowers to ride in triumph through the town with the celebrated troops. We begged the soldiers for their autographs. I had one of my own snapshots signed “Robert Taylor”.

Those first days were heady, emotional days, but they had their dark side too. Amidst all the feasting and rejoicing, there was recrimination and reprisals were taken out on those who had been friendly or collaborated with the Germans. One incident I shall never forget. It was a chilling, cruel spectacle. A jeering crowd stood around an open lorry. On the back of the lorry were chairs in which sat a group of women who had been rounded up and had their heads shaved. They were ashen faced and trembling. The sight made me feel sick and my mother and I quickly walked away. Further on we came to a house that was being vandalized and destroyed. All the furniture and contents of the house were being thrown out the windows and came crashing to the pavement below. The occupants of the house had fled. In our own street the same thing happened to a family whose daughter was engaged to a German army officer. The parents and the girl had managed to escape through their back garden and found refuge at a sympathetic neighbour's house. It was a sad reflection of humanity to see, amidst so much happiness and celebration, the resentment and hatred that had been festering.

Among the first advancing troops were many Canadian soldiers. They were a very wild bunch, roaming the streets totally drunk. I remember seeing two Canadian soldiers swaying side to side down the street, draped in a Belgian flag, guzzling from bottles of spirits and with more bottles stuffed in their pockets. Another time I was caught in the crossfire of two groups of soldiers fighting and shooting at each other across the street. The Canadians soon became notorious among the girls and were regarded as bad men to be avoided at all costs. The gallant British were more in favour. Later, when the jitterbugging, gum chewing Yanks arrived, they were popular with the girls too.

A big civic Liberation Celebration was organized in the city and the streets were decked with flags, flowers and coloured lights. Fireworks were lit at night and there was dancing in the streets. A long victory march took place with contingents of all the different troops. Military bands played and so did my brothers' school band. It was the first time we had seen Lieven and Georges play in a public performance. We had grown accustomed to the German military marches, but now we heard our own familiar national tunes and anthems. We also heard “It’s A Long Way To Tipperary”, and other British songs. The crowd was wild with joy and cheered on and on. It was a day never to be forgotten and the anniversary of Liberation Day has been celebrated ever since.

After a while the elation began to die down and the pattern of life returned to normal, but now there was a feeling of freedom in the air. It was as if a heavy burden had been lifted from our shoulders. We felt free to laugh and enjoy life again. Food supplies from overseas began to arrive including long forgotten luxuries like chocolate, oranges and bananas. Soon we were eating white bread again. The hustle and bustle of everyday life from before the war returned.

The war was not quite over yet. There was still heavy fighting happening in Arnhem and in the Ardennes. The Germans made a last desperate stand to hold on to a part of Belgium in the east. We lived in fear of the dreaded V2 Flying Bombs which the Germans were still launching at the advancing Allied troops.

Soon however, the Germans were defeated and peace was restored. When it was declared that the war was over and Hitler was dead, church bells rang across the town and countryside. Again there was celebration, but nothing like the exuberance of our initial liberation. I cannot remember how I celebrated Victory Day very clearly, but I will never forget my first sight of a British soldier.

Wednesday, 13 October 2010


Soon after this was June 6th 1944, and the first Allied troops landed on the beaches of Normandy. D-Day had arrived at last. One cannot understate the enormous impact this event had on the people of Belgium. The history books have well documented the desperate battles that raged as the Allied forces pushed the Germans back to Berlin. We waited impatiently for a victorious outcome for our liberators. At first the news trickled through of the heavy battles and slow advance of the American and British forces. Later we noticed German troop convoys in retreat and began to realize the Nazi defeat was imminent. Buildings they had occupied were abandoned; the equipment and furnishings were left behind. Looters moved in and took everything they could lay their hands on. Unfortunately sometimes they arrived too soon and if they were caught stealing by German troops they were shot on sight.

We did not expect our city to be taken by the advancing Allied troops without a struggle. We braced ourselves for a siege. We were prepared if necessary to seek refuge in the reinforced foundations of a nearby unfinished University Hospital building that had been started before the war began. It was just a concrete skeleton structure but was solid and we hoped it would provide the protection we needed from gunfire. Thankfully our city was spared from much heavy fighting and damage. Some bridges were blown up at strategic points to cover the enemy’s retreat. There was however one night of fierce gunfire. We gathered in the hospital that night, but it would have been better to stay home. The loud ear-piercing sound of the gunfire was amplified by the bare concrete structure. Then there was a direct hit on the hospital. It was a deafening explosion and it tore a hole in the thick concrete in the upper section of the building. We thought for a moment we were going to die. The next morning we learned that the Allied Forces had broken through and there was little resistance left from the fleeing Germans.

Wednesday, 6 October 2010

Devotion And Adventure

In the spring of 1944 we knew that something was about to happen at last. For us the war had been a stalemate until now. Battles had been fought in far away places, Africa, Russia and so on, too far away for us to concern ourselves with. We wanted things to change here in Belgium so we could get out of the static situation we had been living in for four years. A new excitement took hold of people in anticipation of the approaching and long-awaited liberation from the hated Nazi oppression. Rumours were circulating; messages were broadcast from London to secretly operated wireless radio receivers. Leaflets were dropped from British planes to keep us informed and telling us to be ready.

At the same time there was an upsurge in religious devotion. With the new hope came a fervour for prayer to invoke heaven’s intercession for our cause. Churches were full. Peace masses were offered and Novenas were held. In the Belgian countryside there are numerous roadside chapels. During May, the month of the Holy Virgin, the chapels were decorated with wild flowers and many candles were lit. Every evening a crowd would gather round the chapels, rosary beads entwined around their fingers, to recite the rosary prayers. At the end of the gathering hymns were sung. Even for the skeptics among us, the open display of hope and faith had an uplifting effect. It was a typical expression of a simple Flemish tradition.

There were also cynics. Some joker composed a satirical prayer to Hitler, despite the risk of retaliation if discovered to be the creator of such an insult. The prayer was published and ran like this:

Hitler’s Paternoster

In the name of the Fuhrer and of Himmler and of Goebbels,

Great Fuhrer who art in Germany,

Herr and master in your Reich,

You will be done in Holland, in Belgium and in France,

But in England you stand no chance,

You steal our daily bread and punish us,

As we shall punish you in return,

Hitler source of our misery,

You villain why don’t you perish,

Go to hell, Amen

As related earlier, our cat had met the fate of many others and had probably ended up in a rabbit stew. With barely enough to feed ourselves it was perhaps for the best that we did not need to feed her too. But we were sorry to lose her. That summer however, with revived hope for the future, we decided to adopt a newborn kitten that was offered to my mother. A friend of hers who worked at the laundry had a litter of four from her cat and she was desperate to find homes for them. One evening we set off to collect the kitten, which meant a tram ride across town. The lady’s brother-in-law next door had a bakery and we were pleasantly surprised with a gift of a small bag of flour and were also offered refreshments. We spent such a nice time chatting that we forgot to watch the clock and consequently missed the last tram home. Curfew time was 10 PM. We knew there was hardly enough time to reach home but we decided to try and make it on foot. Daylight was no problem because we were on double summertime and it was light until 11 PM. It was a beautiful balmy summer evening and the walk through town taking short cuts through the park, over bridges and along the river, was very pleasant. Pussy was safely tucked inside my coat. As we reached about halfway the streets became deserted as the clock struck 10. It became eerie walking through the empty streets, expecting to run into a German patrol at the turn of any corner. We managed to avoid this till we approached the railway viaduct we had to pass. From a distance of fifty yards we heard a shout, “Achtung!”, and a rifle was pointed menacingly at us. We froze and quaked in our shoes. A young German army guard beckoned us to come near. We tried to explain in halting German the reason for our still being about in the street. We showed him the kitten which he kindly stroked. He was friendly enough but still he decided to take us along to the guardhouse to be questioned by the officer in charge. We were very nervous, especially when my mother’s bag was inspected and the bag of flour was suspiciously examined. It was as if they thought it was explosive and its purpose was to blow up a railway bridge. With our limited knowledge of the German language we tried in vain to explain how we came into possession of the flour. But the officer was finally satisfied it was flour and to our great relief he let us go. We thought our troubles were over and continued on the last lap home which would only take another ten minutes. We were running across a field parallel to the road when a couple of soldiers began shouting “Achtung! Achtung!” Once again we went through the same procedure of explanations and again they must have thought us harmless and let us go.

We were relieved when we finally reached home and welcomed our kitten to her new home with a saucer full of precious skimmed milk. We considered naming her “Achtung” or “Fritz” but she was the first cat we named “Marouf”.

Wednesday, 29 September 2010


By the spring of 1944 the bombing raids over Germany by the Allied Forces became a regular exercise. We could hear the roar of the heavily bomb-laden aircraft flying overhead, they were in formations of hundreds. They just droned on and on. It was a frightening sound as it was a menace you could not see. They usually came at night hidden by low clouds to protect them from anti-aircraft attack. Now and again a stray bomb would land somewhere near causing death and destruction. However the real danger from bombing attacks over Belgium came after Easter 1944 as the Allied Forces were preparing for D Day. Railway depots, bridges and other strategic locations were the targets but sometimes things went wrong and bombs would land off course in residential neighbourhoods and kill civilians.

One such raid was aimed at a nearby railway complex on Easter Monday 1944. I remember it so vividly because I have never felt so afraid in my life. It had been a beautiful spring day and we had been on an enjoyable visit to friends in a nearby village. We returned home late and had just retired to bed when all of a sudden the sky lit up as clear as daylight. We got out of bed, opened the window and looked out. There were hundreds of bright flares floating down from the sky above. We just thought how pretty they looked, like a fireworks display. Then we became aware of the aircraft flying overhead. Without warning, the first powerful explosion made the earth shudder and a blinding flash rendered us almost paralyzed with fright. I don’t know how we managed to descend the stairs but we got no further than the hallway when all hell let loose. It was raining bombs in a continuous thundering succession. The entire house was shaking, the windows rattling and the blinding flashes of light came with each explosion. Each time a bomb hit the earth the impact felt like a punch to my heart. I was frozen numb with sheer terror. We were in our nightclothes and in bare feet. As we stood in a corner of the house, my mother prayed out loud, calling for protection from all the saints in heaven. I held my arms wrapped tightly around her, partly to comfort her and also to support myself upright as my legs shook uncontrollably. The bombing only lasted about fifteen minutes, but it seemed like hours. When it was over there was an eerie silence for several seconds. Then we heard the voices of our neighbours as they came out of their houses into the street. Everyone was in a state of shock. Some people were numb, some were talking excitedly about the experience, and many of them were crying.

We looked around for damage. Miraculously there were only broken windows, no one was harmed, but there were plenty of shattered nerves. Our immediate neighbourhood had been spared. The nearest bombs had fallen about a half a mile away on a trail behind our housing estate. They had missed the factory they were aiming for and had left huge craters in the fields nearby. There had been a direct hit on a small pub in a nearby village, killing the landlord and his wife. Fortunately the customers had all left at the first sound of the attack. The bombers just missed the Don Bosco Seminary School for boys as they flew along their departing route. We could hardly believe we had not been hit as the bombs had sounded so close, as if we were in the middle of it all.

The next day we found out that most of the damage had been on the other side of the river Schelde in the village where we had visited our friends the previous day. Many homes were flattened and there were numerous casualties, however our friends escaped with just broken windows, cracked walls and shattered roof tiles. Among the dead was an entire family. The daughter had been a friend of mine who sat at the same bench as me in the factory where I worked.

The ordeal of the attack had left us all nervous wrecks. Each time we heard an aeroplane after that we were all panic-stricken. There were numerous air raids in preparation for the liberation campaign but never again did they come so close. I marvel at the endurance of Londoners who had to put up with unrelenting air raids from dusk till dawn during Hitler’s savage assault on Britain in the summer of 1940.

Wednesday, 22 September 2010

Preoccupations : Food And Warmth

We faced a bitter winter. 1941-1942 was a particularly arctic cold period and worse still the war took on a new intensity. Our newspapers were censored by the Germans and were filled with stories of successful German military campaigns around the world. This news and our private troubles made our already low morale even lower. All we wished for was an end to the war, an end to the food shortages and to be freed from the oppressive presence of the enemy. By then it was clear to the population that there was an evil, menacing element hiding behind the outwardly civilized and disciplined German force. Particularly the SS troops and the Gestapo were feared as stories of their atrocities circulated among the Belgian people. However the full truth of the atrocities perpetrated by the Nazis was not fully understood until it was exposed at the end of the war.

As winter approached, a hard frost set in and it was bitterly cold. Fuel was almost unobtainable and the scanty monthly ration we were allocated was hardly sufficient to provide heat for one week. We had to be very sparing with our supply, saving as much as we could for the weekends when my brothers came home. We kept out coats on in the house to keep warm when we returned from work and went to bed immediately after our evening meal. As in every emergency, again we found an answer to the problem. With friends, we set up a rotation to spend evenings in each others' homes on alternate nights and thus to share the warmth of one family’s fuel ration. This also alleviated the dullness of our lives. The gatherings were cosy and enjoyable. We played cards and games, and exchanged stories. We started hobbies. People discovered dormant talents they did not know they had. With so many commodities in short supply, all kinds of materials were put to good use. Old clothing was unpicked and new garments sown from them. Old knitwear was unraveled and knitted up anew. Nothing was wasted; everything possible was made use of. We still had my father’s old khaki greatcoat; it was unpicked, and the parts washed and dyed chocolate brown and turned into a fashionable warm coat with a pale blue lined hood. It was one of the best coats I ever had.

We became very inventive and resourceful and all sorts of objects were made with amazing ingenuity. For example, at the paper factory where I worked, we could buy reels of cellophane paper strips. From this we crocheted attractive and durable handbags and shopping bags. They came in all colours and sizes. Soon they were so popular we could not make enough of them. We sold them for a small profit which provided very welcome pocket money. Sometimes a lucky finder would come into possession of a silk parachute, found hidden or buried somewhere. They made lovely garments and sold for a lot of money. If someone got near to a crashed or shot-down aeroplane they could procure a piece of aluminum or Perspex from the wreckage. This was used to make rings, bracelets, medallions and so on. These became collector’s items in the years after the war. These combined activities brought some light relief to the community. The only thing our hospitality to one another could not provide, apart from warmth and an occasional drink of “Ersatz Coffee”, was something to eat. No one could spare even a crumb. It became customary for visitors to bring their own refreshments. On rare occasions, if someone did have a windfall of some extras to share out, this was indeed a special treat.

To supplement our meagre coal ration we used to go to the factory where I worked. There were heaps of ashes piled up high outside the furnaces. In the bitter cold it took us several hours to collect maybe a bucketful of ashes. We mixed the ashes with our coal to make it go a bit further. Whenever a stick of wood could be found to provide a bit of warmth, it was taken. There were nightly wood chopping raids by gangs of men who slinked out in the night with chainsaws and axes. Nothing was sacred. There must have been some beautiful trees felled, even in public parks. Entire trees were dragged, pulled, rolled and transported home somehow. The resulting fire logs were sold on the black market. If you were caught there was a heavy prison sentence.

The severe winters we endured during these years were compensated by glorious summers. I remember endless days of blue skies and warm sunshine. Everything seemed brighter then. The food situation improved during the summer months. The fields yielded potatoes and vegetables in abundance. There was plenty of fresh fruit, apples, pears, plums, cherries and so on. If freezers had existed then they would have been filled to capacity to see us through the winter months. In those days we preserved food the old fashioned way. Green beans were salted in crock pots. Peas were dried. Jam making was difficult as there was no sugar and using saccharine was not very successful. Our rationed bread was made from a mixture of grains, some of which was normally used as animal feed. We also used ground horse chestnuts or conkers, which gave the bread a bitter taste. It was an awful, heavy, sticky doughy texture which did not properly dry when baked. When you cut it with a knife it stuck to the blade. The ration ran to only four slices each per day. We would cut it the night before consumption to give it a chance to dry out. The bread was so indigestible and heavy we would get terrible stomach cramps after eating it. Some people developed stomach ulcers which may have been caused by the poor diet.

Sometimes the lengths people went to in search of food were almost bizarre. People with pets learned to keep them indoors. Cats were used for a stew that some people said was indistinguishable from rabbit stew. Dogs gradually disappeared from the streets and my mother was convinced that our local butcher sold “dog sausages” on the black market. After the war was over she could never bring herself to buy anything from his shop again. She detested the man.

We are all products of the age in which we live. Today’s generation who have been raised in a time of affluence and have been well fed can not understand what it is like to be in a perpetual state of unsatisfied hunger. They have never come home from work to walk into an icy cold house and have no fuel to light a fire. They have never had to climb into an ice cold bed and lay awake for hours unable to sleep as they shiver with a cold back and freezing feet. The hardships we had to endure left a lasting impression that conditioned us for the rest of our lives. It was a hard schooling. I could never again tolerate waste of any kind. I can barely throw away a crust of bread. Whenever there is a threat of economic decline I know my experience with shortages will prove useful. I wonder sometimes if the younger generation will have to learn these hard lessons.

Wednesday, 15 September 2010


Things got worse at home. My father became very ill and could not work any more. The medical care he received was inadequate due to the lack of available medicines. Any medicines available were taken by the Germans. My father was in great pain and the only pain-relieving drug the doctor could give him was aspirin. Eventually he had to be taken to hospital and he was diagnosed with a disease that required surgery and medication that was not available. Penicillin was still not in use. There was nothing the doctors could do but make empty promises and explanations. The nursing nuns however were devoted and kind as my father lay dying in the Municipal Hospital. My father died like thousands of others due to lack of proper medicine during the German occupation, another victim of the war.

He died on September 1st 1941. He was not yet forty years old. It had been a particularly harrowing period for our family. My mother was weary with anxiety, left a widow at forty with two young boys of ten and twelve years of age at a time when life was very hard for the entire country. I was just sixteen and did not fully realize the extent of the catastrophe this loss meant for the family. In those difficult times it was impossible for my mother to support us all. My contribution to the family income was negligible. She was obliged to place my two brothers in a boarding school, adding much to her grief. It was an establishment run by the Civic Authorities, a home for fatherless, motherless or orphaned boys. It was good home where the children were very well looked after and received a good education up to the age of eighteen. Some were taught a trade, so when they were ready to leave the school, they were well equipped to go out into the world to earn a living. They were allowed to come home at weekends. They wore smart navy blue suits and a beret with the school badge. They had a warm serge wool cape for winter. Discipline was fairly strict and run on military lines. The school also had a brass band, famous throughout the land. Before the war they played their instruments in parades, in processions and other public engagements. Wherever they appeared, spectators would flock to see and hear them, they were very popular. Now their performances were confined to private occasions, prize-giving days in schools and so on. Before long my brothers were both enlisted in the band; Lieven played the French horn, Georges played the clarinet.

We had been a close and happy family and, all of a sudden, our lives were ripped apart. My father had died, my brothers were away from home and now there were just two of us left, my mother and I. We were all unhappy, my brothers took a long time to settle down in the school and only the weekly home visits made the parting bearable. The only relief my mother got from the situation was the knowledge that her sons were adequately fed at the school. It was a big enough worry to feed just the two of us and our diet consisted of the bare essentials. If there were any extras or special treats, they were carefully saved for the weekend “reunions”. We all went to visit my maternal grandmother every week who was residing at a convent home. She was very happy and cheerful and still very active despite her advancing age. She had many friends among the bedridden and infirm old ladies. She did small jobs and errands for them and in return they would give her little treats such as an apple or a much coveted sweet which she always saved for us. Her locker was a treasure trove; she would take us up to her room and always produced something for us to take home. The only thing we could ever please her with were mints. She loved mints, we could still obtain those and we took her some regularly.

My mother took a job in a laundry, it was hard work and her health began to suffer. I had been employed as a home help by the same woman all this time. Shortly after my father’s death, the family was moving to a suburb of Brussels. I was offered to move with them as a live-in domestic helper. The opportunity held a lot of advantages for a better living standard, especially having adequate food as the family were prosperous and able to buy black market provisions. It was a tempting proposition, the pay was not generous but this was outweighed by the other benefits. I was to have a comfortable bed-sitting room and once a month I would have my fare home paid to spend a weekend with my family. Despite our apprehension and yet another parting and the loneliness it would mean for my mother, she thought it would be a good solution and I was persuaded to go. I lasted exactly two weeks. I was so unhappy and homesick it made me ill. I could not eat or sleep and walked around red-eyed from crying all day. Every evening I wrote to my mother, and I felt guilt-ridden for having left her on her own. I just could not stand the thought of us all being split up. My employer was a very kind hearted woman. She could not bear to see me so unhappy and she arranged for my return home. Then I found another job at a cellophane paper company.

Wednesday, 8 September 2010


Not until the liberation did it become known to the majority of people how many of their neighbours and acquaintances were involved with the resistance and other underground movements. For obvious reasons it had to be kept a closely guarded secret. Lives depended on it and there was a lot of suspicion among the different Flemish groups that had been political rivals.

The hunting down of Jews was intensifying. Many found temporary refuge in “Safe Houses” but had to keep moving on for fear of capture. There was a network of people who helped the Jews in great secrecy. One night in 1942 we had a visit from a woman we had not seen for a long time. By this time my mother was a widow, my brothers were in a boarding school and my mother and I were alone. This woman friend trusted us and asked if we would give shelter for one night to a seventeen year old Jewish boy who was on the run from the Germans. He had fled from his home in Holland to Antwerp. His family had been captured and deported to concentration camps. He was being moved along a route to what was hoped would be eventual freedom. My mother agreed to help but was fearful as she knew that detection could bring dire consequences. We were assured that there was very little risk involved if we adhered strictly to instructions. It was mid-winter and bitterly cold, but we were not to provide any heating in a curtain drawn room, so as not to arouse the neighbour’s curiosity.

The lady would bring the boy the next evening, just before the curfew time of ten PM. It would be pitch dark and he would go directly up to the bedroom and stay there until the following evening, when he would be collected and moved to the next “Safe House”. He would be instructed to keep very quiet and not show himself at the window or do anything to arouse suspicion. When the appointed time passed by the next day and no one showed up, we wondered what happened. We waited up well into the night, even though we knew no one would come after curfew. We waited the next evening and nothing happened. No one came. Almost two years later when we saw the woman friend again, she told us she never made contact with the boy and never knew what had become of him. On this occasion she had come to ask us to hide a revolver. There were no bullets. My mother said she was afraid and would not allow the gun in the house. However when the woman suggested she could bury it in the garden my mother agreed. We wrapped the gun in a waterproof cover and sealed it in a tin box. We dug a deep hole in the garden and buried it.

Later, when all was heady excitement at the liberation of our city, many neighbours revealed themselves to be members of the resistance and joined forces with the Allies to drive out the Germans. My father’s buddy, who had been his companion on the fateful flight to France, proved to have been an active underground agent. My mother dug up the revolver and gave it to him among much emotion at the memory of my father. I doubt that the weapon was much use without ammunition, but he was very proud to posses it. I cannot remember if the lady returned to collect the gun or what my mother would have said in explanation.