1940 --- British soldiers on the way home after their Dunkirk ordeal
1940 — British soldiers on the way home after their Dunkirk ordeal

Cannons, loud explosions and anti-aircraft guns had lulled me to sleep on the front parlor couch in this elegant house. Fate had brought us to its door. After a night in Furnes, practically a border town but still on the Belgian side, a cart took us south with thousands and thousands of other refugees until the driver dropped us off on the side of the road somewhere in Northern France. A French Army Officer wearing a black round képi, a stiff round hat with a black visor worn by military officers as well as some kind of policemen, directed traffic, stopping every vehicle to force the driver to take on a few people. The reason for this traffic control was that the roads were so clogged with fleeing people that the French Army trucks could not get through to go fight the Germans.

My father made sure that our family stayed together. Finally the open bed of a truck had enough room for the four of us. We traveled for a while until we reached the outskirts of Dunkerque. In front of the first house, our driver got out of the truck and rang the bell Then he proceeded to tell the people who came to the door that it was their duty as Frenchmen to take in war refugees and our family in particular. We climbed down from the truck with our suitcases. My parents looked uncertainly into the eyes of the middle-aged couple and their mother who hesitantly bade us in. My brother, knowing our parents’ reluctance to speak French with their very obvious German accent, tried to explain where we came from, that we were on our way to Paris where our uncles resided. We only wanted to spend the night with them. Tomorrow we would move on. A cold supper was served to all of us in the dining room, a meal eaten in a profound silence, a silence nobody wanted to break. Afterwards our hosts showed us where we could bed down for the night. There was a constant background roar of bombardments. Despite the heavy drawn drapes, I could see the sky illuminated time and time again by flares and fires. I was not at all keen on sleeping by myself in the parlor, but finally I fell asleep on the couch. It seemed to me that I had barely gone to sleep when my mother woke me up, telling me that it was better and safer if all of us went into the basement and to please hurry.

“Mon enfant dit ta dernière prière” – “child say your last prayer.” It was the middle of the night and all of us were sitting in the dark basement. The old lady who said this to me was a total stranger. The only prayer I knew was the Shema which I silently repeated over and over again. I could not really believe that our last hour had come and yet I prayed fervently. Dawn broke and all of us moved back upstairs into the living room. Our reluctant hosts suggested that we try to get to Cappelle-Ten-Bosch, a camp for refugees some three kilometers outside the city; the man of the house would find a truck to get us there. While he spoke to my father I saw him wink to his wife. When I reported this fact discreetly to my parents, asking them not to trust these people who obviously were very anxious to get rid of us, my father would not listen to me since I was just a child, not quite ten years old and worse yet, a girl.

Very soon thereafter, a small truck appeared which dropped us and our luggage at the entrance to what looked like a military camp. My father had barely shown his I.D., his Polish passport, when the officer in charge confiscated it immediately. Now we were stuck in this camp like prisoners and I knew what the wink had been for.

1940—Escape of troops from Dunkirk to England
1940—Escape of troops from Dunkirk to England

We entered a hall full of confusion, lots and lots of people, crying children, luggage and everything and everybody lying on the cold cement floor. The hall was like a huge hangar filled with humanity. We found a place to park ourselves, delineating our little plot with our several small suitcases. Then my parents started to get acquainted with the people around us, to learn the ropes. We ate in a huge dining hall. The rest of the time, people milled around, idle, wondering what would happen next. We could still hear the constant heavy artillery and the flak (antiaircraft guns). We spent three days in that camp, three days of utter confusion all day long, days filled with rumors, the worst one being that all Polish citizens under 45 years old would be mobilized into the French armed forces as allies. My parents were beside themselves with fear: my father who felt ill prepared to become a soldier in this war and my mother who did not know how she could possibly manage without him.

Quite suddenly on the third day, the camp commander summoned all heads of household to his office, returned all the passports or identity cards and told everybody that they were free to leave. The camp was to be abandoned immediately due to the rapid advance of the German army. In a bustle of activity, all the military personnel guarding the camp left. We dragged our luggage to the road and waited for transportation while all the other people started to walk south. We sat on our suitcases and waited and waited. Finally a milkman came by in a slow two-wheeled carriage drawn by one skinny horse. My father saw the opportunity, stopped the driver and haggled for transportation. When the milkman saw our suitcases he became very upset. Finally it was settled that he would take us to the next town for five francs. After we loaded our luggage on the back of the carriage, our whole family and the driver piled into a seat meant for two passengers. We proudly passed all the other camp inmates struggling on the road on foot, feeling like kings in our carriage. A hill stopped us. The horse could not make it up with this heavy load. At first we all got out of the carriage and tried to help push it up the hill. When that didn’t work, we unloaded our luggage.

The signpost on the side of the road indicated 15 Km to Bourbourg, the next town. Our parents each carried a small leather suitcase. The big gray suitcase (Schrankkoffer) was entrusted to us children as it could be carried horizontally with a handle at each end. The sun grew warmer and warmer on this beautiful day in May. Every few steps I would beg my brother to please stop for a short rest because the big suitcase was so heavy and because I, being the shorter one, carried the heavier load. Henry would open the valise, grab a handful of clothes and throw them into the ditch at the side of the road to join an incredible assortment of personal belongings like clothes, shoes, and even bicycles previously discarded by the streams of refugees heading south toward safety. We made it to Bourbourg, stopping at a café for refreshments. My father, realizing that we could not burden ourselves with the big gray suitcase any further, entrusted it to the café owner, who even gave him a written receipt. For many years after the end of the war my father would try to get in touch with the café owner and later yet try to get restitution for the loss of the suitcase, all to no avail.

My memory is not clear about exactly what followed. After Bourbourg, I see myself in a convent where I share a cell and a bed with my mother and where we are fed a bowl of delicious hot chocolate the next morning. Finally we board a freight train, I believe in Watten.

Next: Audruicq and Polincove, France