Cul-des-Sarts – February 1943 to September 1944
Another few weeks at home facing the big map on the kitchen wall with its colorful pins and it was time for me to pack my brown suitcase again. I found myself at the train station with my big suitcase and a lunch bag. A lady in a beige coat was waiting on the platform together with four other children. I hugged my parents goodbye, another one of our casual goodbyes, and faced my next adventure with a heavy heart, but I was also excited at the prospect of a train trip. I had no idea where we were going or for how long but I was convinced that nothing could be as bad as the Couvent St. Joseph I had left a few weeks earlier. I knew only that things had become more difficult in Brussels, that the Nazis were narrowing their noose around the Jews and that my parents wanted to make sure that I was safe out in the countryside.
In the train compartment I had plenty of time to study my travel companions. The three girls who knew each other kept joking together whereas the boy, blond with curly hair, sat by himself quiet and shy.
He looked somewhat Jewish to me but no matter how hard I scrutinized the girls, I could not come to a conclusion. The girls came from a convent in Flanders. One girl, Rosinne, had jet black hair and an accent when she spoke that I could not place. Later I found out that she grew up in Antwerp where they speak Flemish. Her younger sister, Alice, had light brown hair. While Rosinne’s nose had a certain hook, Paulette Dubois,32 the third girl, had an upturned nose and eyes of the deepest blue. I studied the girls so carefully because I desperately wanted to find a fellow Jew.
I sat next to Paulette, who related stories from the convent they had just left behind. We compared convent stories, I being careful not to give myself away as a pensionnaire with special privileges. We chatted all through the long crowded train ride which I barely remember. Many years later, when I finally met Alice again in San Francisco where she was visiting from Calgary, she told me that all she remembers of that train trip – she was nine years old – was that somebody gave her a hard-boiled egg for lunch. She had not seen an egg in any form in the four months that she stayed in the convent in Flanders. That rang a bell with me because my mother would never have sent me alone into the world without hard boiled eggs, which I must have shared. The shy boy, Jacques, told us with pride that his father, a tailor, had made the pants he was wearing, a very special cut. Later, when we knew him better, we would make fun of his outlandish “jodpurs” (a city in India where they still make such pants).
I took with me my “nom de guerre,” Sylvie Beekman. To correspond with my parents, I was to address my letters to M. Lambert in Woluwé-St-Pierre who would forward them to my parents. It was better for me and safer for my parents if I did not know their address. Apparently the Résistance team in charge of hiding children, in order to keep the operation as secret as possible, had several books each held by a different person. One book contained a list of the hiding places and their code numbers, another book listed the name of the children, their code number and their home address. The third book showed the code number of the child and the code number of the hiding place. Luckily these books never fell into Nazi hands.
I don’t remember our arrival in Cul-des-Sarts. We girls shared a dormitory with other girls our age. Pretty soon I found out that another girl my age, Paulette Larmant,33 was also Jewish. She had arrived a month earlier with four Jewish boys, among them Jacques with the auburn hair. A few months after my arrival in Cul-des-Sarts, on a warm summer night, we girls heard loud songs, a lot of noise and commotion. It wasn’t until the next morning that we met the big bunch of boys who had arrived late at night from Jamoignes where they had been in hiding. Things would never be the same in Cul-des-Sarts. These newly arrived boisterous and undisciplined boys were there to stay, to make things livelier for the staff and for us children.
We went to school right on the premises. Mademoiselle Michelet, who rode her bicycle to school every day from Chimay, was the teacher of a combination class of sixth, seventh and eighth grade. The subjects taught in a country school were different from the ones taught in the city; the children also were different, very different from my previous all-girls’ school in Brussels. Here girls and boys shared a class. At first we were just a few Jewish kids among the local kids who came from le Borinage, near Charleroi in the coal mining area, mostly from underprivileged backgrounds during the war. We all got along except for Sylvain who was either hyper or manic-depressive. He could be absolutely charming and then he would jump on the teacher’s back to make her jump and run. She was powerless and did not know how to handle him. Nobody could control him when he was in such a mood. After school, we stayed in a big empty hangar-like garage “to play” except that there was nothing to play with. We spent most of that winter and spring in that garage, cold, uncomfortable and miserable. Generally we just stood around in small groups, and talked and talked away our loneliness.
Château Philippe wasn’t much of a château at all for me who had slept in a round tower room in the Château de Beloeil. Rumors had it that it once belonged to the owner of the village cigarette factory before he fell on hard times. We took our meals in a big dining room, le réfectoire, located next to the kitchen. I remember the big entrance hall which, during the holidays, was converted into a dance hall after much scrubbing of the wooden floor. A central stairway led to the upstairs girls’ dormitories. Another flight up led to the dormitories of the younger children who started at age six, les pisses-en-lit, a word play meaning bed-wetters. About six little boys or little girls would share one room. Every morning there was a stench emanating from the wet sheets drying on the stairway railings. Sheets were only changed occasionally as there was no soap anyhow. Everything was rationed, all food, soap, shoes and clothing. The big boys from age ten to eighteen or so occupied a separate building. I visited their huge dormitory only once for a very brief time when I saw Mrs. Van Hauwaerts’ sleeping alcove with the double bed some of the boys dreaded so much.
It is difficult for me to remember in sequence what I did for over a year and a half in Cul-des-Sarts. Right after my arrival, I was pretty depressed. I had just come from the convent where I had lived by myself, away from contact with people for at least two months. Eventually we older girls aged twelve to fourteen became a close knit group, but it took time for each of us to accept the others. Rosinne had her little sister in tow. We did not feel that Alice had a place in our dormitory, but Rosinne was adamant and so Alice stayed with us. She was a cute, very smart little girl who won our hearts in no time. Lili, although younger, lived with us for a while. Again, she could appeal to our maternal instinct even if she was just a year or two younger than we were. Stella was her friend. Rosalie and Isabelle, who arrived later in the year, had to work because they were sixteen years old already, the legal age to hold a job.
Rosalie carried on most of all because she was sixteen and still did not have her period. She worried all the time so that finally the directrice, Madame Van Hal, let her go see the village doctor who, after an examination, told her that everything was fine, just to be patient. This did not prevent her from having a beau in the village. Pierre worked at the cigarette factory and brought cigarettes to the older boys. He was a frequent visitor after work when he came to play soccer with the boys. At night he would jump the fence to rendezvous in the park with Rosalie, who took me along as a reluctant and ignorant chaperone. The boys smoked the cigarettes Pierre brought them. When these ran out, they made their own, as did many people during the war. Cigarette paper was readily available. However, tobacco was not. Therefore the boys rolled leaves from the chestnut trees into the cigarette papers. To close the cigarette, one had to lick the end of the paper. I became pretty good at rolling “cigarettes.” Eventually I dared to smoke one in our dormitory. Luckily, in my family nobody smoked at home so I didn’t find this an exciting occupation. Anyway, I smoked, was challenged to swallow the smoke and promptly broke out into a long coughing fit. After I caught my breath again I decided that I did not need that problem and quit right then and there. The boys continued to smoke.
We girls fell under the spell of the village culture. First a list made the rounds until each one of us had copied it by hand. It listed each day of the month with an appropriate oracle for that day. Each month, on the first day of our period, we would consult the list to see what our future would hold for that month. Maybe a trip was in store, or a visitor. Most of all, I wanted a visitor. How I longed for a visit of my parents. How I day-dreamed that they would ignore all the dangers, take a train to visit me and take me into their arms! If we had any money at all, we would purchase the gaudy black and white glossy postcards with a touch of pink which were for sale in the village. To me it was the very best gift I could purchase to mail to my parents for Mothers’ Day or for their birthdays as a sign of my deepest devotion.
When I first arrived in Cul-des-Sarts, my mother would include a franc or two in her letters to me. With that money, I went to the small farm across the road where the farmer’s wife sold delicious little round white cheeses for one franc apiece, a welcome addition and change to our monotonous diet. The consistency was soft yet a little crunchy to bite into. I never had liked cheese before. So this was a turning point for my love of any kind of cheese.
I learned to play cards, couillon (not a nice word and there probably was a better name for the game), hearts and whist. Couillon wasn’t much different from 66 which I played with Henry in Germany. I liked whist much better. It served as an introduction to bridge which my parents played. We learned songs, all the popular songs in vogue before and during the war from Charles Trenet to Maurice Chevalier. I collected a whole copybook full of handwritten lyrics and could sing any of those songs by heart. It became one of my most cherished possessions, together with the collection of my parents’ and Henry’s letters. Even today the songs still run through my head, especially the tunes. I also learned to dance the horah. On rare occasions the big boys would form a circle which I joined, hands on the shoulder of the boys next to me, and we would first sway and sing an introduction like “youlala” repeated many times to the beat. Then, turning to the right, we would sing and stomp our feet again and again and whirl around. While singing I would think: “I am Jewish, I am Jewish and I will remain Jewish.” We would stomp and turn until all of us were exhausted. I also kept a diary where I entered my silly girl thoughts and buried my loneliness. After liberation when it came time to pack my few belongings to go home, I threw out the copybook which doubled as my diary. I have always been very jealous of my privacy and didn’t want my parents to learn of my mischievous tricks nor of all my adolescent reflections. Today I am sorry, of course, that I didn’t keep it.
It is hard to conceive that one form of punishment at the colonie was the withholding of mail for a day or up to a whole week. Every day the mail distribution was an eagerly awaited event. For each letter a name was called out as we all gathered around in the réfectoire. Very soon I realized that my letters arrived every Tuesday. My mother did not tell me very much, but always managed to fill the four sides of the double page stationery. I also applied myself to write once a week, mostly about what we did in school and after school and about our Sunday outings: to the daffodils in a big meadow by a creek in spring or to the huge old tilleul (linden tree) across the French border, or the pond where we went swimming in summer. I read every book I could lay my hands on, mostly trash, stories written for villagers about incest or other family dramas. I did manage to read The Mother by Maxim Gorky, in French of course, a story of factories on strike, more than I could understand at the time.
Because I was under fourteen and also because I was a paying “guest,” I did not need to work but often volunteered to set or clear the tables in the réfectoire. To set the tables with plates, we carried a stack of heavy plates the whole length of our arm. I felt very proud the first time I was allowed to carry the load. Somehow nobody ever dropped the big pile. We ate on white plates and drank from bowls (a French custom) water or baptized (diluted with water to stretch it) milk. I was practically fully grown and therefore never felt as hungry as the ever-growing boys.
All our meals were the same. Breakfast consisted of four slices of dark bread spread with jam or jelly scraped as thin as possible and a bowl of baptized milk. Two hot meals were served every day, one at noon and the other in the evening. They consisted mostly of mashed potatoes with cooked greens or mashed pea flakes. I cannot remember the various menus except that the potatoes froze during the last winter of 1943-1944. They had been buried in specially dug silos covered with straw and earth to keep the frost out, but to no avail. We ate the frozen potatoes anyhow even if they tasted awful. “Le goûter” was the fourth meal, the four o’clock snack which consisted, like breakfast, of four slices of bread with scraped jam. The older boys got an extra slice of bread at each meal.
Another vivid memory is the arrival of many wooden cases filled with smoked herrings, provided somehow by the Red Cross, or so we were told. The older children, me included, were enlisted to clean the herrings. About six of us were seated around a table outside – it must have been on a warm spring day – to cut the herrings’ head off. Next we had to slice the bellies open to remove the insides. Because we were working without supervision, the idea came to one of us to have a contest to see who could eat the most herrings. I don’t remember who won but I do remember that I ate 27 cleaned herrings without any ill effects.
We watched counselors come and go. We were intensely interested in their lives outside the colonie, including their lives with their families. The young men who took care of the boys came to work to hide so as not to be caught by the Germans for forced labor in Germany.
One day, Madame Van Hal came into the dining room, looked carefully at each one of us, and pointed at some kids to stay and some of us to go outside. She had picked the ones who looked Jewish to her to go hide in the underbrush of the “park.” The Feld-Gendarmerie (German military police) was coming to inspect our school buildings and classrooms. We, the hidden children, considered the whole thing a lark to play hooky from school. We cracked jokes at each other about our Jewish noses and curly or jet black hair. I never saw any Germans at Château Philippe.
There was a whole cast of characters who lived, worked and hid at Chateau Philippe. Madame Van Hal was the directrice. Most of the “big” boys aged about twelve to sixteen who came from Jamoignes were a wild lot. Perhaps that is why they were transferred to Cul-des-Sarts.The boys boasted of the punishing gardening work they had to do there, like weeding large stretches, which they sometimes simply refused to do.
I heard from some of the boys how they feared Madame Van Hal’s ring. Une gifle – a slap in the face – was a very common punishment, and Madame Van Hal would turn her ring with a big stone toward the inside of her hand before administering une gifle to the undisciplined boys. That stung!
We all knew about Monsieur Degueldre, her live-in boyfriend whom we never saw without his shiny, black knee-high boots. Was he a member of the Rexiste mouvement (Leon Degrelle founded the fascist Party named Rexism which supported Nazi Germany. A few thousand Rexists fought in Russia on Germany’s side) or did he want to give that impression in order to better practice his black market business? He usually could be found loading his delivery van. After the war I learned from Rosalie that the Chateau’s basement was loaded with nourishing food items such as salamis and hams which should have been distributed to us but which instead were sold on the black market for profit.
Madame Elias was Madame Van Hal’s older daughter, a middle-aged woman with black dyed hair. She was married to Monsieur Elias. Dressed in blue overalls, he fiddled around in a tool shed most of the time, but never really did any work. Supposedly he was Jewish and in hiding. Their daughter Riri, aged ten, sometimes played with us.
Madame Dumont was a more interesting lady. She lived across the hallway from us in her own apartment together with Monique, her eleven year old daughter. Her husband, Monsieur Dumont, lived in the village with a local woman. Sometimes at night, while we were spying from our dormitory, Victor the customs officer (le douanier) tried to sneak up the stairs carrying a little suitcase. He quickly disappeared behind Madame Dumont’s door. Once we heard him whisper “I don’t know if anybody saw me.” We went back to our room giggling.
The paid staff consisted of many individuals. First there was Leontine, Madame Van Hal’s cook, and her husband Louis Devos, the accordionist at New Year’s parties. Their teenage daughter Jeanine joined us sometimes to gossip.
There was also Andrée, her husband Albert, and their twin girls a little younger than I, who took care of the baby that was born sometime after my arrival. Monsieur and Madame Rémy were not really part of the staff. Madame Rémy was our dance teacher when we girls prepared a show. Madame Van Hauwaert was originally from the Flemish part of the country. Her French wasn’t always correct. She was in charge of the boys’ dormitory where she had an alcove to sleep in. Her son Richard slept in the dormitory. Frankly I never knew what some of these people were doing there, nor did I ever enter their apartments, wherever they were on the large property.
For a while I made friends with Eva, the children’s cook, in order to get an extra something to eat in the kitchen, until I found out that she was wearing my underwear. She just took it out of the common laundry. There were other young women to clean and make beds.