I love having students from different cultures attend my classses. They tell such interesting stories about places and experiences I’ve only read about in general terms in school textbooks. My students’ stories are far more powerful and engaging, however, because they capture the individual experience in personal terms. The narrative that follows is one such example. Lillian Lejeune, a Belgian who grew up in the eye of the devastating storm that was World War II, captures here in compelling detail how years of fear and uncertainty slowly grew into hope and, finally, jubilation in the closing days of the war. Notice how she keeps the focus on her experience. That’s important.
Once Upon a War
by Lillian R. Lejeune
In 1939 Hitler’s armies invaded Poland and, for the second time, all eligible men were called to arms. The previous year had been more or less dismissed and was called “the silly war.” My father had been drafted and was stationed at the Belgium-German border. He was released shortly before the invasion of 1940 due to a serious medical condition.
On Friday, May 10, 1940, my family gathered next to the radio in the family room to listen to the continuous news bulletins. With a solemn and somber voice, the commentator announced, “Today, May 10, at 5:25 a.m., the neutrality of Belgium has been violated. For the second time in this century, we are at war. All military personnel must report immediately to your command bases.”
The occupation would last five long years.
Since D-day, June 6, 1944, we followed the advance of the Allied Armies through France and now in Belgiumand with our ears glued to the radio. Of course, we were listening to the BBC at 10:30 at night with the lights out and all the doors secured.
In September 1944, one by one, the surrounding towns and villages were liberated, including the northern part of my hometown Farciennes*, where on the major road the U.S. tanks were rolling toward the eastern front in the Ardennes. Down below we still had some shooting and a group of German soldiers had captured the DeMoulins’ foundry building. The F.B.I. (Belgian Interior Forces) were on alert and quickly responded to the crisis.
My father wanted to go up the hill to welcome the U.S. troops, but Mom refused. “Maurice, it’s too dangerous and I won’t go,” she exclaimed.
But my brother, Willy, and I were ready. “Mom, this is so important and something that we will remember forever! Please,” we pleaded.
She eventually changed her mind and away we went. What a spectacle it was! The people were singing, dancing, and embracing the soldiers as their tanks became covered with all the flowers being thrown by the welcoming crowd. All of this was a reflection of our thanks, our wishes, and the release of our bottled-up frustrations. We headed toward home, following all the happy madness moving in our direction. We saw the lights ahead of us on the horizon coming from surrounding liberated communities and our eyes feasted on the glowing display of life renewed.
As we approached our house, we knew the battle wasn’t over yet. The Germans had yet to surrender and voluntary evacuations remained highly advised. Nonetheless, we decided to stay and our now well-rehearsed emergency plans were rapidly put into play. We pushed our soft woolen mattress down two flights of stairs, followed by pillows and blankets, and I carried the mandatory sanitary bucket. All of this was installed in the large room next to the kitchen-family room, which was actually a large pantry whose walls were built like a dungeon. We had water and bread and jam. Our goats stayed in their cozy barn with plenty of food and water. We secured the doors and lowered the mechanical window shutters. Finally, in dead silence, we waited. The sounds of the firing guns drew closer and soon the Germans arrived and set up a machine gun post on our side lawn. Not a word was uttered as we quietly moved into the coal cellar. The fight lasted all night and our property became littered with casualties. After a long silence, we heard the Germans picking up their fallen comrades. After a few more hours, we heard more familiar voices shouting, “It’s over! It’s over! Come out! It’s safe!”
After emerging from our self-imposed prison and reaching the street, we heard someone yelling from up the road, “Please hurry! Help me, help me!” It was our neighbor, old Joseph, but he didn’t appear to be wounded. Nevertheless, the four of us, along with a few other neighbors, ran to his rescue. We knew it had to be serious, because Joseph was a calm, kind person who took life at the speed of an escargot. When we got to him, we were faced with a scene that was both strange and comical. Joseph had gone to rescue his goat, Nellie, after her persistent bleating eventually woke him. She was down in the meadow where she had remained during the last battle. To his surprise, lying next to Nellie was a young but motionless German soldier. Joseph slowly retrieved the soldier’s rifle, which was still at his side, and gently poked him with it. The teenaged soldier awoke, startled. Oh, my! An equally startled Joseph realized that the soldier was alive and they were both scared. Using nothing more than gestures, Joseph told him, “Raise up your arms! You are now a POW.”
“Bitte! Bitte! (Please! Please!) No shoot! I am lost,” replied the frightened soldier. The poor young man was shaking as tears rolled down his youthful face.
With the soldier’s own rifle pointed at his back and Joseph struggling to hold on to Nellie, they slowly climbed up the hill to the road, where we all met them. We didn’t have a jail, and while we deliberated what to do with him, a military convoy happened upon our small crowd. Hooray! It’s the Americans! Speechless, they looked at us and our visible dilemma, and then began to laugh uncontrollably. Soon we were all laughing as the American soldiers shook Joseph’s hand in congratulations and called all of us good people. They kindly loaded the young POW into their truck. Although captured, he smiled at us as he waved goodbye and shouted, “Danke schön! Danke schön!” (Thank you! Thank you!)
We were free! It was finally over and we looked forward to a simple dinner that night with freshly dug up potatoes. It would be our first meal at peace in our nice backyard with all the lights on and the radio blasting in years.
*Farciennes means the domain of Farcio, a Roman lord.