Audruicq and Polincove – France
For days we traveled in that boxcar, moving sometimes forward, sometimes backward, but mostly standing still. I lost all notion of time, of when I slept, what we ate and when – always apprehensive when my father left the train to buy food along the track, anxious when we had to go relieve ourselves behind a tree, so afraid that the train would leave suddenly without us. The train was my home now, the few bundles and small suitcases we used as pillows all we possessed. As long as I was with my parents and brother, I felt secure even when we had to lie in the ditch next to the tracks while a German plane flew over, so low! Luckily the pilot did not strafe us.
Then one morning a scream spread from car to car: “Les Allemands sont là” (the Germans are here). We saw people jump from the train and run toward the village across the field. Our car doors were closed toward the side where the German tanks cut across the fields so that we never saw them. Yet panic overtook us.
First my father jumped from the boxcar and ran along a ditch that crossed the field while bullets whistled by. In turn my brother jumped off, turned around and offered my mother his hand to help her down. What a perfect gentleman, he is so calm. This reassured me. We followed all the other people running and ducking along a different ditch across the field. Everybody pointed at my father running by himself, hair flying, exposed, all alone. They shouted something to him that I did not understand.
That day an idol fell a notch in my esteem as I saw that, in his panic, my father had forgotten us and our fellow travelers and ran all by himself like a scared rabbit. It did not matter that we all came together again on the road beyond the fields, that we were all herded into a house by French soldiers; my father in his fear had not remembered his family!
The house we shared with the many train refugees had previously been converted into a French army post. Each ground floor room was filled with double-decker bunks filled with straw. There must have been a toilet or latrines somewhere. Finally my mother made me lie down in an upper bunk while the dull background music of shots and explosions lulled me to sleep.
How many hours had we sat around on boxes or suitcases? Did we have breakfast that morning? Suddenly everybody moved to a rear room where only a small window admitted a ray of light. I hardly paid attention to the people around us. Everybody seemed so tense. My parents, as usual, talked as little as possible in order not to betray their German accent. All through this exodus we lived in a perpetual fear of either being lynched as German spies by an angry mob or of falling into the hands of the Germans. People were just too hysterical, suspecting every foreigner to be a parachutiste (paratrooper) spy. How we longed for a peaceful place for German Jews to settle.
The house shook. A grenade had destroyed the front room where we had slept the night before and which we had vacated a short while ago. More time passed. We just sat there in silence, waiting. Many months later, my father told us that the box he sat on bore a label saying “dynamite!” We spent another night in our makeshift quarters.
At dawn, suddenly everybody rose. These hateful words were shouted into the room by angry soldiers, guns at the ready. “Hände hoch, die verdamten Schweine haben auf uns geschossen!” (Hands up, these damn pigs shot at us). This was my mother tongue. I understood these words bellowed into the peaceful room filled with French and Belgian civilian refugees here somewhere in Northern France. I could not see the German soldiers, as I was standing behind my father. I just saw him raising his hands slowly, and then stretching his arms as high as he could above his head. I was lost among this crowd of adults all stretching their hands toward the ceiling. So even though nobody could see me, the smallest child, I also raised my hands. How senseless it all seemed, how could we have shot at somebody, me or my parents? All of us were just scared and tired civilians.
Slowly we filed out of the house. I kept very close to my father. At the door I had a good look at the German soldiers facing us with their guns, swearing at us all the time for shooting at them. So this is a German soldier in this funny shaped gray helmet extending over his ears, in this gray green uniform with grenade heads protruding from the top of his black boots, looking at us with such a brutal face, weapon pointing straight at us. Hands high, we waited in front of the house while the soldiers chased everybody out including the people upstairs. Dawn had just broken and many people were snatched out of bed. An old man in blue workman’s clothes stumbled out, one foot bare and one foot wobbling in an unlaced boot. “Schneller, schneller” (faster) screamed the soldiers.
Where are the French soldiers who had been here when we first arrived from the train, those who had been shooting on and off day and night? I wondered. They just abandoned us to the Germans and now we will be shot. The Germans took us prisoners, us civilians of all ages. Two soldiers were instructed to march us prisoners off, one at the head and one at the tail of the column, each with rifle at the ready. I marched with my father while my brother marched behind us with my mother at his side. We marched on the deserted road, in the gray of the morning, each alone with his or her thoughts. Why are they taking us away and where to? The back of the column was slowing down. “Schies’n nieder, Paul” (shoot him, Paul) yelled the soldier in front close to us. “Papa, what are they going to do?” I whispered. “The old man has only one shoe and cannot walk fast enough. Don’t look back now,” my father said. How can these soldiers be so cruel, I thought, their faces are so smooth, so young and yet so heartless. I did look back. The soldier and the old man had stopped behind us. The old man was kneeling in front of the soldier, his hands together. Was he begging for his life or saying his last prayer? I did not want to see more and turned around. A shot rang out and I heard the soldier run to catch up with us. Paul, you just committed a murder. Will it haunt you the rest of your life? The old man must have a family. Are they also marching in this column? How I hate you soldiers. Men put on a uniform and stop being human. Why does the uniform do that to them. Never will I trust a soldier regardless of the color of his uniform. Did not the “Poilu” (a nickname for a French soldier) with the green scarf cry “Maman, les Allemands sont là” (Mommy, the Germans are here) and run away from his post the first day we arrived from the train. Is that how a man is supposed to act?
After walking in silence for a while, my father handed me his wallet. “Just in case, you keep it,” he said. We walked on in silence, following the rhythm of the German boots, still one soldier in front of the column and one soldier, the murderer Paul, at the rear, for about an hour.
We were led into the fenced yard of a temporary German field headquarters. Soldiers offered us children French chocolate which I sulkily refused. I wasn’t going to accept gifts from Germans even if the soldier smiled at me wanting to make friends. Never did I let on that I spoke German. Later on I did eat the soup they dished out – one had to survive after all. While we sat around the yard, each family huddled close together lost in thought, a low flying English single engine airplane appeared. We inwardly rejoiced at seeing a friend. Two German soldiers set up a machine gun. Some women started screaming as they thought it was pointed at them but the Germans soldiers pointed it toward the sky. With much swearing they started to shoot at the plane. How happy we were that they kept missing, yet how carefully we kept our faces void of all expression.
After a while, an officer ordered all of us into a circle around him. “Are there any Jews among you? Step forward.” There was hesitation. My parents looked at each other but did not speak. Why, I wondered, nobody knows and nobody is going to look for long noses or drop my father’s pants in this crowd. But slowly, with an apologetic look on his face, my father stepped forward and so did another man. Luckily the German military had more important matters to pursue at that time and released all of us civilian prisoners shortly thereafter.
There was but one way to go, back to the train station in search of our meager luggage. Now we walked as free individuals on the road back to the village. I kept wondering whether the dead man would still be lying there on the spot where he had been shot, dreading the sight. “Don’t look,” my father had said, but how could I avoid it? The dead man’s face was white; somebody had closed his eyes and folded his hands. One foot was shod and the other, the bare one, pointed toward the sky.
There we stood, at the end of the road, in the village we had been forced to leave at dawn (Audruiq). First, my father and brother walked to the train to fetch the few suitcases we had abandoned in our flight. “The Germans pillaged the train and forced all the suitcase locks,” they reported while setting our two small suitcases, each with one lock cut open, down at our feet. My parents were at a total loss as to what to do next or where to go. We kept standing undecided at the edge of the village square when an old man with a white beard wearing a dark cap approached us, at first looking at us attentively and then begging in Yiddish: “Reb Yid, Ich hob verloiren mayne Zien, neemst mich mit Eoich” (fellow Jew, I have lost my sons, take me with you). In Yiddish my father answered that the old man was welcome to join us, and still we were not moving. All of a sudden a man came running, yelling “Tatte” (Father) and fell around the old man’s neck. When the old man explained to his son that my father had agreed on the spot to take care of him, the son wanted to help us in turn. He told us that he and his brothers had found a lodging place. We should follow him.
We took off at a quick pace, my mother carrying a small suitcase and singing while my brother and I stayed close to her. We walked in a different direction from the morning. It was a long walk and the distance between my father and us grew longer and longer until we could not see him anymore. At a crossroad my mother stopped suddenly afraid and started to cry. She had no money, no identity papers on her which my father carried. She begged a farmer for food for us, for her little girl, me! My mother had to beg for me! We sat down by the road. My mother worried aloud as to what would become of us without our father. We waited a long, long time until he finally appeared in the distance. Sitting under a tree to have a little rest, he had fallen asleep. My mother said that he never was a strong fellow. In the meantime the old man’s son had returned to look for us. He took us to an abandoned farm which was now occupied by many refugees, the Jewish refugees, mostly from Antwerp, having taken over the whole main farmhouse complex while the other refugees had taken shelter in the chicken coops and stables.
This farm had been converted previously into a French Army post, with the ground floor rooms full of double-decker bunks with straw for mattress while all the floors of the upstairs rooms were entirely covered with straw. We settled in one of the upstairs rooms and soon were joined by other families. When we walked around the courtyard, the latrines released an unbearable stench. There were feces everywhere in the farm yard. We quickly learned to speed through that area.
We stayed in that farmhouse for several weeks. These few weeks were wonderful exciting vacation days for us children. The man who had stepped forward as a Jew at the German Army Headquarters turned up in our room together with his family. Somehow our parents had befriended them that day. Our two families became inseparable. Mr. X and Papa took a whole morning going from farm to farm trying to buy a pot. They could only afford a pot with a hole at the bottom. Somebody knew how to fix it by attaching a flat piece of metal on the inside and one piece on the outside of the pot bottom with wire. The two fathers left every day to scrounge for food. The two mothers cooked for all of us, a total of four adults and five children, all in this one pot. The huge farm kitchen was shared by everybody with lots of arguments and fights. Nobody was in a sharing mood.
The X’s had 3 children: Joseph, Marcel and Dailike, a little six year old redhead who stayed close to her mother. With the two boys, about our age, my brother and I explored the whole farm, a huge agglomeration of buildings connected by hallways and stairs. My brother, the oldest of us children, became the leader of our gang. I followed him faithfully wherever we went, always afraid to get lost in the maze of sheds. Mostly we made bows and arrows and learned how to shoot them from the ramparts or high parts of our “castle.” Sometimes we were knights and sometimes we were Indians. At mealtime we returned to reality around the table allocated to us at that particular time of day. Our games kept us in our children’s world far removed from the adults with their arguments over everything, like who could use the stove to cook when, with their worries how to provide the next meal, and with their impatience with each other.
To take a bath, we had to clear the ground floor “bedroom” of its occupants and bring a huge pot filled with hot water to wash ourselves. One day I saw that one of the sons of the old man who brought us here was asleep in his bunk but I did not say anything to my mother while she washed me. When it was her turn to undress I pointed out to her that the man had just woken up. Embarrassed, he left but not before joking that he would have enjoyed a little entertainment in this boring place.
One day my father asked me what day it was. I knew that it was June 7th, my birthday, but did not dare mention it. Deep in my heart was the fleeting expectation of a birthday present. “Wouldn’t it be your birthday today?” he asked. “Here,” he said as he reached into his jacket pocket, drew a small package and asked me to open it. Both my mother and brother were looking on. From the small paper bag I drew a tiny baby doll bottle filled with colorful sugar candy. I was so overjoyed that my parents had not forgotten my birthday. “Where did you find this present?” I asked them. “We just took a walk to the village,” my father replied.
I overheard adult conversations about some of the downstairs people, that they broke into abandoned farms to steal food. That is how the downstairs people were able to cook better food than our clan, but they were too selfish to share with any of us, and least of all with little Dailike whose hungry dark eyes could just reach the level of their table. Our clan did not steal!
While I played mostly with our gang of five led by Henry, sometimes I had arguments with a girl my age whose name I don’t remember. While arguing back and forth and boasting about our big brothers, I threatened her with my big brother, knowing perfectly well that Henry never came to my rescue, and that I would have to take matters into my own hands to win this quarrel. Soon we were facing each other, the girl with her big brother and I with Henry. I don’t know what prompted me to pick up a big stick and to ram it into the brother, who fell over from the shock. I was convinced immediately that I had killed him. Henry and I looked at each other and without a word started to run, first out of the farm property, then along the road until we were out of breath. We sat down in the grass and talked about what to do next. We had no money, no food and no identification papers. We sat for a while enjoying our freedom, noticing how pretty and peaceful the countryside looked, but then coming to the conclusion that there was but one thing for us to do: return to the farm and face the music. Slowly we walked back. We learned with relief that the boy was not dead, that he just had a mark on his forehead. I believe that both sets of parents had some arguments over this fight. However, my parents never said a word about that incident to Henry and me. They probably were happy that we came back after a few hours. For many years thereafter, they did make fun of my feisty spirit.
After about two weeks I overheard discussions between my parents and the X’s about where to go next. My mother and Mrs. X did not want to go back to Belgium as it was occupied by the Germans. They wanted to continue our way to the Unoccupied Zone of Southern France once it was known that France had signed an armistice with the Germans. My father kept saying that he was running out of cash, so we had to return home to Brussels. There were many arguments and I cannot even remember if Dailike’s family was among the long column of people who one day started the long march home towards Belgium.
We stretched out on the road for as far as I could see, two by two, walking in the hot sun without much rest. Early in the morning when we had started out, I was dizzy with excitement and danced in circles. We walked 35 kilometers, young and old alike, that first day. At night we stopped in a village and slept in several barns. The next day I was sick. My parents, who were afraid to be left behind, decided to buy a baby carriage from a farmer so that my mother could push me the rest of the way. The only carriage that my father could find and afford was a deep baby carriage with one wheel missing. I practically disappeared in its depth when I crouched, not wanting to be seen by the people who came out of their houses to see our column go by. I was ten years old, ashamed to be wheeled by my mother, who had to prop the carriage up on the remaining three wheels.
We stopped more often on the second day. There were not many cars on the road except German military trucks. Following a lunch rest, my father, the only one who spoke perfect German, was delegated to negotiate with the passing Germans. A military truck was stopped, my father asking in German whether all of us could be taken back to Belgium on the truck. The German soldier was quite friendly and helped everybody onto the rear bed of the truck. When it was our family’s turn, the truck was too full to take us, so we were left behind. Dejected, we waited at the side of the road until a military ambulance came by. The crew took the four of us with our luggage and baby carriage all the way to Brussels. The driver dropped us off at Square Ambiorix, a small park that I had to cross on my way to and from school every day. It was noon, the time when my friends would come through on their way home for lunch. My father had left with my brother to investigate if our apartment was still standing. I spent some very anxious moments hoping that no friend would recognize me and my mother next to the dilapidated three-wheeled baby carriage loaded with our bundles. We looked homeless.