The “Delights” of German Occupation,
Memories of Louis Van den Brand of Brussels
Since you are interested in stories that took place during the Second World War, I will tell you the story of a character. He was never a resistant, but he hated Hitler because his life’s journey would have been totally different. I am that character! My mother was Koto Nyota (“Thousand Stars”) Elisabeth Singa, one of 70 children of the village chief of Ilambi village located about 300 km. from Kisangani (then known as Stanleyville) in what is now the Democratic Republic of Congo. My father was a Flemish Belgian working as a coffee grower in the Congo. I was born in the Congo between March and May 1928, but officially on May 16. I racked my brains to know the reason for that date. One day I said “EUREKA,” as did Archimedes, because my father was born on November 16, 1899. The civil servant probably wondered when I was born. Since my father was gone for a few months to manage another business, he wouldn’t have responded when the officer probably asked for my date of birth. The civil servant must have decided arbitrarily to list it as May 16. So I was born six months before my father but not the same year!
I came to Belgium on December 6, 1931 when I was a little over three-years old and lived with my father’s parents (born in 1875 and 1872). My father would transfer a sum of money to them for my care. But with the beginning of the war, there was no longer any way to send money.
Below is a photo taken by a professional photographer on Sep. 14, 1938 on my grandmother’s 66th birthday. I am standing on a stool to reach the height of my grandparents. My grandfather, also in the photo, was 63. He later was nearly killed by a V-1 but lived until 1947.
When the Germans entered Belgium on May 10, 1940, I was 12 years old. We had to leave in an exodus on the evening of May 14th, having learned that all the bridges around Brussels would be blown up after 11 p.m. We fled, arriving on a hill 2 km. beyond the city. The bridges were blown up the next day. We spent the night under the stars and on May 15 saw British troops fleeing to Ninove. While fetching bread, we saw an English soldier who had committed suicide at the corner of Puccini Street! I remember our being flown over by a German reconnaissance aircraft.
A chronology might help readers. On May 10, 1940 the German Army invaded Belgium. On May 28, 1940, the day of surrender, my cousin, Albert Crucifix, a soldier machine gunner, was killed in Meulebeke, West Flanders. August 10, 1940 saw mass arrests and deportations of Jews. Twenty-eight thousand would be exterminated. On October 6, 1942, the occupying forces decreed forced labor in Germany for all men ages 18 to 50. Sept. 7, 1943, a U.S. bombing unintentionally destroyed 1,200 houses in Brussels. April 11, 1944 there was the bombing of Schaerbeek, Haren, Evere, Melsbroeck, Charleroi, Namur, and Hasselt. Eight days later there came the bombing of Leuven and Mechelen. On May 21, 1944 the bombing of the Marloie station killed 39 civilians. On Aug. 18, 1944, twenty-seven members of the judiciary, legal profession, and police were executed.
May 16, 1940 was my birthday, but we never celebrated it! It was on this day that I saw my first German soldiers, two of them riding a Zundapp motorcycle with a machine gun, their equipment colored apple green. If I had had the opportunity, I would have telephoned Hitler to say that he should not have deployed the whole German army for my birthday!
We lived with little means of support until December 6, 1943. My grandparents were day laborers and their jobs might end overnight. Horse drawn tranport was expensive in those days, so they would move to stay close to their next job. During her lifetime, my grandmother moved 42 times to be close to her next job. Until her death at age 96, she would walk two km. each day.
To help our family, I would steal coal from time to time at the train station. I had had to leave my brilliant studies to work for a vendor of auto parts. In April 1944 the owners asked me to carry a 6-volt car battery to the garage De Boeck in Opwijk (about 17 miles from Anderlecht, a suburb of Brussels), which was needed urgently. I left Anderlecht at 9 a.m. from about 1 km. from where I worked, Chaussée de Mons, in Anderlecht. By tram I landed at the Gare du Nord (North Station). There I waited for a train to Opwijk, northwest of Brussels, but had to wait a long time because most trains were reserved for the German Army. Even then I had to change trains twice. From the train station I walked to the garage where the boss tested the battery to see whether it was fully charged. For my return journey, another walk, another long wait to get a train, and, finally, a train ride that put me in the North Station by 7 p.m. From the station I walked along the “place Rogier” to the tram stop. At the tram stop I did not realize how many trams there were stopped ahead by the Germans. Once again, I waited about twenty minutes before I could board one. It had gone no more than 20 meters when it was suddenly stopped by German soldiers in their grey-green (field gray) uniforms. We faced a raid. German soldiers boarded through all the exits so that no one could escape. They shouted “Heraus!” (“Get out!”). Other soldiers pushed the exiting passengers up against the wall of a restaurant where they had to raise their arms with their hands pressed against the wall. The Germans examined their identity cards and everything in their pockets, looking for Jews, members of the Resistance, and escaping Allied military personnel. As I had been traveling for 11 hours, I was in a hurry to eat. I had the presence of mind to go along with the orders but, instead of going around the tram, I continued on at my own risk, like a tourist in my own home, in order to reach the sidewalk on the other side of the street. From there I could see the long queue of trams, delayed by the raid. I then decided to walk until I could get the first no. 64 or no. 76 tram to Anderlecht. I walked about two kilometers to reach the first tram heading where I wanted to go and arrived home, unscathed, around 9 o’clock that night.
A month later, English or American aviators bombed the small “Island” railway station of Anderlecht built atop an island in the river Senne. The station was one where goods trains were loaded and routed to destinations. A bomber was cut in half and we heard the bombs falling only 300 meters away. I had the impression of being on railway tracks with an express train racing at me at full speed! We often heard V-1 bombs flying at night. One afternoon as I returned from work, a V-1 bomb ran out of fuel about 100 meters above me seemed to hover as it continued for another two kilometers before falling near the hospital next to Astrid Park garden. My grandfather, who suffered from diabetes, though he didn’t know it, was in that hospital for treatment of a gangrenous toe. He had just shaved and had returned to bed when the V-1 exploded, scattering shattered glass all over the bed cover. Later he learned that the glass fragments had killed a 15-year-old boy. My grandfather smoked like a Turk. Because cigarettes were so hard to come by during the war, he would collect cigarette butts that people discarded on the street, making cigarettes for his own use.
I will give you more information on how we lived under German occupation. We had ration stamps, but little money. There was a butcher of the German Army where we would go every three days to recover offal (meat leftovers) given to us by a sergeant (feldwebel). In addition, starting in 1941 in August I would go gleaning fields of wheat on Pique-au-vent near the town of Tournai with my uncle and cousin. Until I was able to get boots to protect my legs, the stubble would gash my ankles as we gleaned. My uncle would beat the ears with a sort of scourge, and then grind the grain with a machine made from the frame of a sewing machine. I would be housed and fed by him for one month and then return by train with 5 kilograms of white flour.
One day, as I was returning from a month of gleaning with my uncle, I saw smugglers throwing bales of flour out of a train window about five kilometers from the Gare du Midi train station. They were intent on avoiding the “controls” by the German Army at the station. The bales were packed in cartons for appearance, to make them easier to pass through the windows, and to absorb the shock when they hit the ground. The train approached the station very slowly and the smugglers knew when and where to throw them out the windows to their waiting accomplices. I knew one of the smugglers, the father of one of my classmates. I even helped throw the boxes. The next day he brought me a small parcel of about five kg. In that one day by helping the smugglers I made the equivalent of a month of toil gleaning.
Official flour was for sale and I don’t know how much my grandmother had to pay for it, but she would have to use her ration stamps. Towards the end of the German occupation, my grandmother once more made bread with it. It was difficult to raise and within a week its crumbs had grown green and sticky. Don’t ask me what was in that flour! Then we got the smuggled flour, much preferring to use it for our bread.
In 1943 there was a surplus of herring and we would wait in line for two hours to get five pieces.
I went to a grammar school where I was considered rickety. In three years, twice I got a can of tuna. For school lunches, in 1942 and 1943, we received soup from the “Winter Help (Secours d’Hiver)”, supposedly from charitable donations from Belgian companies but actually from the Militärverwaltung (German military administration). Some people would have refused the food if they knew it came from the Germans. Making it all the worse, it contained unshaved pigskin. The other boys did not want the pigskin and gave it to me, knowing I would always eat it. In spite of all this, I was often number one at the end of final school exams.
About every three months I would come down with fever from malaria acquired in Africa. My teacher was familiar with my medical condition and would allow me to go home. I would go to bed, shivering. My grandparents would cover me with all the blankets in the house plus all the overcoats. For half an hour I was still chilly. Then my body would warm up and I was sweating like an ox. After an hour of fever I was exhausted but once again clear of it for some time. However, one day in 1938 my body was tired and I got a fever of 41° Celsius (105.8 Fahrenheit). Either I or the parasite would die. I was virtually ad patres (deceased). I was, as usual, bedridden and on the verge of death because I could not see my surroundings. I was like in a cloud and was aware that my grandmother had called our neighbor. They chatted beside the bed, probably on my health, but I did not hear any more. I recovered as usual, but have never had a febrile seizure (been feverish) since. However, I have occasionally had hypoglycemia and need urgently to swallow sugar.
For heat, in addition to my forays to the station to steal coal, the father of a school friend was a janitor in the government bureau in charge of gas and electricity. Every week he gave us half-burnt coal and coal briquettes. When I went to the canal bridge to return home, the sentry asked, “What is in the bag?” My grandmother and I answered, “kohle,” and we were allowed to pass. Kohle (coal) usually was not subject to control by the Germans. With no coal to spare for unnecessary heating, as I had my bedroom in the attic, during the winter I would rush to undress and crawl under the covers.
A Hitler Europe would not have been the place for me. As I was not Aryan with blond hair and blue eyes but rather half Flemish and half African, I would have been gassed and, of course, a long time dead.