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WORLD WAR II in ANTWERP BELGIUM

Experiences of a Young Boy



By William J. LeMaire



Copyright © 2017 William LeMaire

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Dedication: I dedicate this book to all the valiant allied soldiers who liberated Antwerp, Belgium and the rest of Europe from the German occupation in WW II. I am making this book available as an ebook for free download. In lieu of the usual download fee, may I suggest that the reader make a contribution (no obligation) to: the Gary Sinise Foundation at: P.O. Box 50008, Studio City, CA 91614. I selected this Foundation because of its high rating amongst charities, it relatively low overhead spending, but above all its lofty mission:


At the Gary Sinise Foundation, we serve our nation by

honoring our defenders, veterans, first responders,

their families, and those in need.

We do this by creating and supporting unique

programs designed to entertain, educate,

inspire, strengthen, and build communities.


You may remember Gary Sinise as the portrayer of Lt. Dan Taylor in the landmark movie: Forest Gump. Donations can also be made online by visiting: www.garysinisefoundation.org/donate. Please mention this book with your donation.

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TABLE OF CONTENTS

1) PROLOGUE

2) START OF WORLD WAR TWO IN BELGIUM

3) WAR YEARS IN ANTWERP

4) LIBERATION OF BELGIUM BY THE ALLIES

5) AFTER THE LIBERATION

6) EPILOGUE

7) ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS



PROLOGUE

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.



START OF WORLD WAR II IN BELGIUM.

“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.



WAR YEARS IN ANTWERP

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 2x4 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.


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