Amazing Stories

Ray van Hilst Avatar

You sometimes don't realize what amazing stories your family has to tell. You think of your parents or grandparents in their current state or a fond cuddly memory and don't think of them as a person living a story that could just as well be part of a movie plot.

And so, I need to share this story. My mom wrote it in an e-mail to my uncle with her recollection of how my grandparents got out of Germany and Belgium at the beginning of World War II (my grandfather was Jewish which I'm sure was the primary reason for leaving). As I read it, I tried to imagine my grandmother as the central character in this enthralling plot and realized it's a story that must be shared.

Hope it prompts you to ask your parents for an amazing story to share as well.


I am going to start on May 10, 1940 when the Germans invaded Belgium, Dad was in the last semester of medical school and had already been awarded a fellowship to come to the US at NYU hospital from the Belgium American Foundation (set up after World War 1 by Herbert Hoover). They closed the medical school that morning and told the students to go and join the Belgian army. Dad didn’t go right away. Instead he went home, asked Ama for a ring, found Mom and gave her an engagement ring. I'm not sure if he proposed or had previously, anyway now it was official.

Anyway off goes dad to the army ending up first in England (I'm pretty sure he was evacuated with remnants of the Belgian army at Dunkirk, but he never said anything and neither did Mom) and then sent to the south of France to Toulouse where Belgians who had ended up in England were being sent to since they couldn’t go back to Belgium, now in German hands.

Meanwhile Mom leaves Liege because Grandpere was worried that she would be shot by the Germans (her mother had gotten bullets in the leg during World War I), so she goes to Brussels to meet Tantine & Micheline. In a taxi that night (first night of black out), she's in a car crash and breaks her arm. So with a broken arm the three of them head into France (her brother Parrain is also with the army). I know that Parrain gets caught with the army, is paroled back to his home in Belgium and Tantine & Micheline who are in Brittany go back to Belgium for the duration of the war.

Meanwhile Mom, all 22 years of age, travels through France. Sometimes in front of the Germans, sometimes behind, traveling both by train and by foot (don’t ask me what she did for money). But her intent is to find Dad. She hears there are Belgians in Toulouse, so she heads there and his looking all over for him and turns around and there he is.

They head to Marseille which is where Dad's parents have ended up. I assume that it must be June by now or possibly July. Anyway once in Marseille, they want to get married. It takes a while, paper work etc. but on August 3, 1940 they are married in a civil ceremony (Mom in a white tennis dress and a blue straw hat which is still in this house). Mom always said they walked into a church to solemnize their vows, but there was no church wedding. They all had lunch at a restaurant in Marseille afterwards and then Mom & Dad went to Cassis for their honeymoon.

They ended up living there, in Cassis (I remember her talking about walking to Marseille). I got the impression that Cassis is in the hills above Marseille and I believe my godmother was also from Cassis (the only thing I have from her is a leather-bound copy of Les Malheur de Sophie which ended up being carted through north Africa and here to the states).

In the meanwhile, Ama & Apa get passage to the US, but Mom & Dad have a much harder time. He's of military age and I doubt that their papers etc were in order. I know there were several false starts. Eventually they decide to try to got to Portugal, but can't go through Spain which returns Belgian citizens to Belgium and Dad would most probably have ended up in a concentration camp (although great grandmother Rosalie managed to be left alone in Liege for the whole war). So they head for North Africa and by then I'm a known quantity because they take a suitcase with baby clothes. They travel through North Africa, get to Portugal and there with the help of Oncle Edgar's third wife. They arrange for passage to the US and I'm almost born on a Portuguese boat.

They arrive I think May 1941 in the US and I guess the rest is history.

It is quite a story. I wish I knew more of it. She was quite a woman and being our mother we tend to forget. Now my version is just my remembering so I give it to you with that caveat. Enjoy!

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