Cul-des-Sarts – My Brother’s Visit and Other Events
Henry wrote to me that he was coming to visit me, but that he had to spend the night because the trains did not run that often and, in addition, he had to change trains. I approached Madame Van Hauwaert, the night counselor in the big boys’ dorm to ask for a bed for my brother for that one night. She winked and suggested a spare little room under the roof for the two of us, les amoureux. I had a hard time convincing her that it was really my brother visiting me and that he just needed a bed in the dormitory with the big boys.
The ground was covered with snow when Henry arrived. I was allowed to go for a walk with him outside the property. We went off into the woods where Henry was going to show me all the things he had learned in his senior scout-led home in Momignies. The first thing he was going to show me was how to build a fire with two matches and no paper. He tore little pieces of paper-thin bark from the birch trees around us and cleared a space on the ground on which he piled tiny twigs of dead wood and lit the match. The wood sizzled a bit, but no fire ever followed no matter how often he tried. We were pretty frozen by the time he gave up. It was a wonderful experience for me to be outdoors alone with Henry in the quiet of the forest. He told me about Hachy and the Trappist monks and also about Momignies where he was happy among senior scouts. I don’t remember him mentioning that there were Jews hidden with him. I introduced him to all my friends, including Rosalie of course. He came one more time to visit.
One day Rosalie had to return to Brussels, I believe to meet her parents to arrange for their coming to work and hide in Cul-des-Sarts. While she was sitting in a café at the Jeunesse Ouvrière Catholique (Catholic Youth Organization) waiting around, the Feldgendarmerie (German military police) came by and examined everybody’s papers. Since she was over fifteen, she also had a false identity card. Imagine her surprise when she saw the Feldgendarme giving a hard time to a young man who claimed that he was born in 1926 while the German asked whether he was born in 1926 or 1925 or possibly even in 1924, which would have made him eligible for forced labor in Germany, as the date was not quite clear on his papers. The young man who managed to talk himself out of this predicament was none other than my brother. I don’t know what he was doing in Brussels at that time.
One of the older boys developed a toothache. Since there was no dentist in Cul-des-Sarts – only a doctor – he was taken to Couvin by Monsieur Christian, one of the boys’ counselors, a hidden réfractaire, about twenty years old who had just graduated as a schoolteacher in his home town of Couvin nearby. The boy boasted of a marvelous time taking the train, stopping for refreshments in a café, then the short visit with the dentist followed by the trip home. Soon all of us developed toothaches. I required two fillings, which necessitated two trips per filling. We traveled five or six kids together. All of us stopped and waited for each other at a café with a pool table. That is where I really started to learn how to play pool. How lucky we were that no German ever stopped us during those trips. Today, I cannot remember ever seeing a German soldier in Cul-des-Sarts except the one guarding the downed American airplane described on the next page.
We saw very little of the war. During our walks outside the chateau grounds, we started to collect strips of foil about a foot long and half an inch wide. We picked them up furtively wherever we saw them and hid them in our pockets. They were dropped by the scores and scores of American airplanes flying over our area. At first we thought that it was a secret weapon which we did not understand. Only after the war did I learn that these foil strips had something to do with confusing the German radar. We relished the sight of these armadas of American airplanes droning very high above us heading south to drop their bombs on Germany.
Word came to the chateau that an American plane had crashed and that the pilot had parachuted safely. Members of the local Résistance found him and managed to hide him. Immediately we organized an outing to hike to the site of the downed airplane, which had already been looted extensively by the villagers. Pierre, Rosalie’s boyfriend, showed us his booty: the pilot’s plug-in felt boots to keep his feet warm. If the Germans came to look for the escaped plane crew, they did not intrude in our chateau. There is an interesting end to this story, written by my friend Marcel Frydman in his book “Le Traumatisme de l’Enfant caché” (The Hidden Child’s Traumatic Experience). I am translating his description of the event: “the last aviator to escape from the crashed airplane with his uniform in flames was hidden at the farm of the Lepines. Dr. André, the village doctor who was called, thought that the victim needed to be hospitalized. However, the Germans arrived promptly and took the aviator prisoner. This American had left his watch at the Lepines. In 1946, his address in the U.S. was found and a letter was sent notifying him where his watch was. There was no response. It wasn’t until 1997 that Jonathan Harris, the aviator’s grandson, made contact after having found the letter in his deceased grandfather’s papers. A few months later, he and his family came to Cul-des-Sarts to meet with the witnesses of the crash. Being a movie producer, he planned to devote a film to military history and to the rescue of his grandfather who had died some twelve years earlier.”
During the last winter of 1943-44, Rosalie developed so many sores on her legs that she could not walk anymore. I was elected to take her to the village doctor, Dr. André, on a sled. It was tough going pulling her uphill on the hard and sparse snow. I remember pulling very hard uphill and finding the going downhill so easy. I attributed this to the icy snow where the sled could slide better until I heard shouting behind me. Rosalie had fallen off the sled which I hadn’t noticed! I don’t remember what the doctor said or did, but on the return trip I turned around frequently to make sure Rosalie was still sitting on the sled.
In the spring of 1944 my mother wrote me that, if I found a seamstress to sew a dress for me, she would send me the tobralco cotton material for pajamas we had bought together with hard-saved clothes coupons before I had gone into hiding, together with the money for the labor. That would be my birthday present. After a few inquiries I discovered that Madame Rémy was ready to buy a pattern and sew the dress for me. I kept wondering how my mother could get ahold of the material while she was in hiding but shortly thereafter the material and a few franc bills arrived. As a surprise and because there was material left over, Madame Rémy even made a pair of matching shorts. The dress was finished for my birthday. I wore it all summer.
I don’t remember when the desperate Germans started to send V-1’s, their secret weapon to win the war, toward England. A few of them never made it to England but instead circled above the Cul-des-Sarts region, mainly at night when we couldn’t see them but just heard their constant low rumbling without having any idea about the possible cause.