Growing up in the wake of World War II: Childhood recollection by Professor Benoit Roisin [Copyright, 2000]
“But, when we were growing up, it was the war and we had to do without it!” is a phrase that was often on my parents’ lips when I was a small boy growing up in rural Belgium. We were then in the late fifties and early sixties, decades of plenty, when people were getting better off every year and thinking that it couldn’t go another way. Yet, memories of the second world war were still vivid to those who had been unfortunate to live through it, including my parents who were teenagers during 1940-45. My mother would recount how she and her family had been deported to the south of France in May 1940, in a futile attempt to stay ahead of the Germans, and walked nearly 600 miles by foot carrying suitcases and pushing her younger brother half asleep on his small scooter, how she returned some months later again by foot only to find the family house ransacked, and how she lived through the rest of the war in fear of the Germans. My father, who spent the war years in Brussels, had tales of rationing and having to ride his bicycle to a distant farm where a cousin would be kind enough to give him bread, eggs and butter in return for a whole day of helping around the farm. And, as if the day of physical labor on the farm had not been enough, the bicycle ride followed cobbled backroads on which the bumps often snapped the weak strings – the only strings that one could then find – that held the precious cargo on the back rack of the bicycle, eggs, butter and all, falling without mercy on the cobblestones.
For me and my siblings in our plush family house surrounded by friendly neighbors and enjoying all kinds of commodities, those stories would have seemed to come from another world, a world with nothing in common with the one in which I was growing up, if it had not been for all those physical traces of the great conflict around nearly every corner: the bombed building that had not yet been levelled, the temporary river bridge paralleling the old stone bridge with the missing middle arch, the armored tank in the middle of the town square, and, saddest of all, those acres of white crosses in so-called “American cemeteries”. So, when my parents recounted their stories, I knew it had been for real and in my evening prayers I would ask God to save me from having to live through a war.
And, so it went. The bombed building to which we had become indifferent would one day be demolished, reminding us that it had been bombed in the first place. My mother would then reminisce about bombing raids in her hometown, when all were warned by radios that “they” would come again at night and that windows had to be covered with black paper, lest lights would be seen from the outside and betray the location of the town. She would also describe how she and her siblings spent the night trembling at every noise and how terrifying were the explosions.
And, the old stone bridge of which the central arch had been purposefully dismantled to slow the Germans in their advance toward France, would gradually be rebuilt, until one day we could actually drive on it. I remember this well; we did not need to cross the river that day but my father drove the car across the bridge and back anyway, as a way to bring the bridge back to life. Naturally, we all started to think of the last time the bridge had been used and why it had been necessary to rupture it. I could vividly imagine frightening soldiers arriving at the bridge and not being able to pass on it.
And, that old tank on the town square would one day get a fresh coat of paint and look as if the battle had been yesterday. Stopping and scrutinizing it, I looked straight at it from the front and could imagine it crawling toward me and shooting from its big barrel.
And, during summer vacations, Dad would make a detour and have us visit American cemeteries. I must confess that initially I found them boring. With all those identical crosses! After all, “so what”, I thought “the war is over, and this only serves to rehash the ugly past and to delay us in reaching our holiday destination”, until one day, in one of those cemeteries – this one in Luxemburg, I recall – my father impressed on all of us children that below every cross lay a young man who had left his beloved family in America to fight in foreign soil and deliver from a wicked enemy my Belgian family who could not defend itself. “You can’t go by on the road and not come in to say thank you”, he added and then fell in a deep silence. Gratitude! Gratitude! This is what he was teaching me.
On another trip, we stopped at a certain fork in the road. Nothing was peculiar about it and I wondered why Dad stopped the car. Then, he would tell us all how the Americans were pushing the Germans back after the Battle of the Bulge but through some cicumstances a group was pursued by the Germans, arrived at this intersection and went one way, and when the pursuing Germans arrived an hour later they asked an old lady which way the Americans had gone and she pointed to the other way. Her quick thinking and her courage had saved precious lives. Such things, my father concluded, should never be forgotten.
Once during a winter, when all of us were assembled in the family room, my mother told us about the time when, before D-day, some Germans officers had commandeered half of her family house. Each morning, the soldiers would go to the battle and return in the evening, saluting the family with arm stretched à la Hitler and snapping their boots, until one day they left not to return. Barely a few days later, American officers took their turn in the house, and all had suddenly become alot safer. Like the previous tenants, those men would leave in the morning and return in the evening, but they were extremely friendly and their presence meant safety. Occasionally, one did not return and the companions would simply say that “Jeff got hit and fell”. The next day, someone else took Jeff’s place… A life had been sacrificied and, for my mother, that was the life of someone with a name and with pictures of his wife and children and homeland in his pocket, the life of a cheerful fellow who had drawn funny little creatures in her diary book, the life of someone who had taken her on his lap, looked into her face and said that she reminded him of his own daughter. Real people, with families just like my mother’s and mine, have shed their blood on my native soil…
If they had not done so, my country would have been prey to nazism and later to communism. How could I go through life and not do something in return? What could I do to preserve the memory of those heros? Although I was not there during the war and all my information is second hand, I vowed I would never forget what I saw and what I heard. I vowed that I would always carry a debt of gratitude that I could never repay. I vowed that I would say from the bottom of my heart to those who fought and survived: “Well done!” and “Thank you!”.
A Belgian family remembers with solemn gratitude the ultimate sacrifice paid by American soldiers, sailors and airmen. Can we do any less? We can honor our dead without honoring war. Observe the day as it was originally meant to be observed, and support the efforts to restore the traditional day of observance of Memorial Day back to May 30th (instead of “the last Monday in May”)