Wednesday, January 16, 2008

On The Airplane From Cleveland to Albuquerque

Wednesday, January 16, 2008 5:27 PM I made it to the airport just fine. I had time for a nice breakfast and a quick run to the bakery. I grabbed a few pastries for myself and a croissant for E. I spent a few minutes with her before I left. I hope she comes through the surgery, okay. She has a tough road in front of her. In many ways I am glad she does not quite realize how serious her condition is and that the surgery is risky. There is a real risk of stroke or major bleeding in the neck. She will have to have several lymph nodes removed. The fluid that was analyzed was yellow and most likely was lymph. The pathology report is not back yet. To make matters worse she is on high doses of blood thinners (heparin). When the phlebotomist took her blood she would not stop bleeding for a few minutes from her arm. I do not know if her grandchildren know how strong a woman E is. D and Do thanked me many times for looking in on her and taking care of her. It was, in many ways, quite selfish of me. Hey, I do not have to live with her ! E’s life, both before and after the war is quite fascinating. She told me a number of stories about herself and her parents. I am sure her children heard them but it is good for me to record them, if only for myself. E was young during the war. She mentioned growing up in Belgium how the Germans first came in with promises of fairness and liberation. After all, the Belgish and the Germans both came from the same Anglo-Saxon roots. Both were Aryan, of course the Belgish were mixed with French blood. Belgium was an economically limited country based upon trade and agricultural. There was little industrialization and virtually no major means to supply an army, either with men of fighting age and training or modern equipment. E talks about the Belgish troops on bicycles going out to meet the mechanized Panzers of the up and coming Third Reich. Resistance was made in small ways as open resistance would have meant ever increasing punishment. The German soldiers wore long, woolen grey overcoats which earned them the name “ghosts.” I have read many stories where during the early dawn or dusk hours, these ghosts were all but invisible as they blended in with the twilight sky and horizon. E’s father drove a street car (this sounded like a trolley running on set tracks). They had a home away from the station and after the last circle was made, he had to walk back 2 or 3 miles to home. After the occupation was established, naturally things started to change. Some we more subtle. E was made to remove a lapel pin with the Belgium flag by a German soldier. Others were drastic. People started to disappear. Officially Belgium did protest the treatment of their Jewish citizens but could not put up an ordered protest like Holland and Denmark (which both failed in the face of a ruthless occupying force). Friends and neighbors started to disappear. A classmate of E’s, a young Jewish girl, simply did not show up for school one day. As winter hit and more and more supplies and food were diverted to German troops, rationing set in. Able bodied men who were used to working in the fields were put to work in factories as forced labor to supply the German army. Many died in Allied air raids as the factories were not evacuated of these men and women. Less people tending crops also meant less food overall. Rationing was done via stamps. Even (especially!) during war time, the Germans were extremely organized and beurocratic. Ration cards were given out and stamps were issued based on the number of people in the household or family. It took 5 or 6 stamps to buy a loaf of bread, more for cheese or fruit. E did not mention meat (I suspect meat was a luxury, especially near the end of the war). The bread was rubbery and stale. E told me how she went into a shop for bread and had some money but not enough stamps. The shop keeper would not take the money. When the clerk turned her back, E made a break for it and ran. She looked me straight in the eye and said while she knew stealing was wrong, she was not ashamed and under the circumstances would do it again. She tells the story of going to an Aunt’s house to visit. She usually played up in the attic. Her aunt explained that a bomb had hit the house and the attic had a hole. E was not even allowed into the house. It turns out, her aunt was lying, and taking a huge risk. A downed English pilot was being hid in the attic. Her aunt was a member of the Resistance. If the secret got out, the pilot and everyone in the house would have been shot on the spot. I have no doubt that the aunt was scared to risk E finding out. If E would have slipped and told her secret it would have been the end. E’s father, as I mentioned, worked on the street car. He came face to face with Germans, both soldiers and officers, every day. I am sure he had to work hard to keep a good poker face as the occupation dragged on. E told me of one Christmas. The soldiers were getting care packages from home. While the Belgish people were slowly starving, the Germans were happily showing each other their boxes of bread, cheese, wine, chocolate, and other treats. One soldier was drunk and snoozing. A few circles through the town and all he would do is sleep. When E’s father and colleague tried to wake him to depart he would curse loudly, “Verdamte Schweinhunde!” (damned pig-dogs). Finally, they had enough. During the last circle they hung the drunk soldier by his belt on the cross-bar of a light post. Naturally, they took his Weinnachtenkoeffe (Christmas box). When they came into the depot, they were greeted by a patrol. Quickly they hid they box in a compartment used by the drivers to store lunches. Afterwards, the split the contents. E’s family had many treats for their Christmas meal that year. I know it is hard to believe now, in 2008, but the majority of the German soldiers, especially as the war went on and expansion was stopped in Russia and northern Africa, just wanted to go home. Like the forced laborers, many of them were also drafted into a cause they did not want to lose their lives over. Many, especially officers, became ruthless with absolute power and authority over their conquered people. Many just wanted to go home. I met many, many Germans during my time there who spoke of their time in the army. Yes, the country rose up to corrupt their civilized history. As a whole they accepted horrendous atrocities with cheers and complacency. Later, as an adult going back to Europe to visit, E would run into some older Germans who insisted Belgium attacked Germany first and instigated the occupation. Today, Japan uses similar arguments to justify their brutal occupations of China and the Philippines and their surprise (but strategically brilliant) attack on Pearl Harbor and the United States. War is unimaginably brutal, and often in a personal way. Rommel’s Fortress Europe did not hold. As he feared, too few forces and not enough armored secondary support lead to a complete breakdown of resistance during D-Day. Yes, it was huge and bloody, but once the Allies had a strong footing on the continent, the final days were beginning. The Battle of the Bulge, again slow and bloody, was a last attempt to stop the allies. After the finally broke through, Allies were on a steady course to Berlin. Naturally, Russia was ruthlessly pounding Germany from the East (where my father’s story takes place). Finally the day came where combined forces from the United States, Canada, and England liberated E’s home town (I am not sure where she lived. She said it was near Antwerp). Her father ran over and killed a soldier with his street car, broke and ran home. E saw German soldiers running in their underwear to get away. It was a day I know she will carry forever with her. E and her parents all survived the war. However, the celebration would soon change. It was only a few months later that her mother died of gastric illness, no doubt brought on by hunger and hardship. E’s story is typical and I have heard it many times before. I know that it is only a matter of time before E, my father, and countless others like them are gone. I found it my utmost duty to jot down what she told me, at the very least for myself and my children. Her grandchildren see a chatty, headstrong old woman. They are too young to see the frightened child hardened by war but also cradled with love that I saw. She was a breath of fresh air.