Of my youth during the terrible depression, the thing I mostly remembered, is that after each meal, lunch or dinner, my mother used to say:
“And today we still had food on the table!”
On the tenth of May 1940 the Germans invaded Belgium and with thousands of other refugees we left Brussels and it was a flight we did not know where, but far, and as fast as possible, away from the German tankers.
My father had a car and we put everything that was valuable in it and drove to the border of France.
But then there was no gasoline in the tank anymore, the stations were abandoned and empty, and we transferred everything to a cart drawn by two strong Belgian horses
The horses had nothing to eat and got tired, so we went on with packs on our back, always less heavy, because we gradually abandoned part of our belongings on the road. We finally landed on a farm in Normandy, where my father paid the food and lodging with small diamonds. At that time nobody trusted paper money.
We stayed on that farm for six days and my father realized that the German army was approaching, because so many Belgian , French and English soldiers were deserting , and at the farm they tried to get some food .
They were telling horrible tales of the blitzkrieg and the Stuka bombers and all the refugees running around like chickens, trying to dodge the dive bombers and dying on the sides of the road…
My father really had guts, and left the farm where we were safe, taking me along, because he knew that the Germans were approaching and it would be a massacre. We were afraid for our lives. It won’t be long before they kill us all. He wanted to save me at least…
We went to the road and he stopped a truck full of panicky soldiers asking them to please accept a seventeen year old child, he said child, and somehow fitted me inside the truck with a lot of desperate young men, soldiers that were tearing their uniforms so that they would not be shot in case they were caught. It was dramatic to see them with so much fear, not only of the enemy but also of their own officers who would shoot them because they were deserters.
What was really happening was that the officers and the commanders themselves were trying to escape. Just as fast as they could.
The truck still had gasoline and a very smart Belgian driver. After a few hours we arrived at a port. I did not know at the time that it was Calais. Fortunately, it was not Dunkirk.
I had some gold coins that my mother had sawn into my belt, but it was no good. Now nobody wanted money or gold or anything . All were completely desperate, it was such a mess that you could enter a hotel or a restaurant or a bar just like that, and eat or drink all you still could find. The only hotel I saw was impossible to get in. It was a fight just to get inside, let alone get a bed.
I found a bar and before anyone thought of it, I jumped on the billiard table, it was not a bed but I had enough room to try and sleep. Everybody was drunk, drinks were free for the taking, and everyone served himself while it lasted .
There was nobody to stop you. The owner of the bar had abandoned everything just to save himself. My intention was to spend the night in the bar, and then in the morning I will think of something.
It was a nightmare. The bar was packed full of people and the bombs were falling. Me on the billiard table, in the middle of the confusion, I could at least stretch a little.
But then the French soldiers, completely drunk, started accusing the Belgian soldiers that they had been traitors They were shouting insults at each other and then the revolvers came out. They threatened to kill
their allies. But the Belgian soldiers also were ready for a shoot-out.
That’s when I decided to get out.
The weather was nice and warm, it was a wonderful day of spring except that the bombs kept on falling all over , each time nearer , but it was no more dangerous to be in the street than in a bar .Then the machine guns could be heard in the distance and I kept on walking and running , I did not know where . But I suddenly arrived at the port itself.
It was empty, all the boats had disappeared, but on the embankment two small trawlers were still floating , with nobody inside and nobody around .
Why not, I descended to the water level and entered one of the trawlers. I remember it was the one on the left.
By that time it was morning, and English soldiers and a captain approached the boat. I hid behind the chimney which was not very wide, but they did not see me. They were very anxious to leave and very soon the chimney became hot and dark smoke came out of it.
We were leaving the port at the same time as the other trawler where I could read the name The Thames.
We were already at sea when they discovered me, but they were very nice about it and I they never considered to return to port or throw me out. They were really very decent and all they wanted is to get out of Calais as fast and as far as possible.
The crew was English and they even gave me something to eat. A kind of potato pie which was delicious.
The German Luftwaffe was present with their bombs and their guns, but they never not bothered us, they had bigger fish to take care of. The Thames which was the same size as our trawler navigated next to us and then it suddenly exploded.
It had hit a mine.
It was really sad, but the captain did not stop, as we had enough worries of our own, and our boat kept on sailing as fast as it could.
It was night when reached a port, it was Folkstone.
We disembarked and they were very friendly, asked for my identity papers, which proved that I was a Belgian citizen.
The next day everything was organized by the Belgian Embassy, and I was sent to London by train and to a bed and board that was paid by the Belgian Government in exile. It was one guinea or one pound and one shilling per week.
The landlady was very nice and this was the first time that I ate porridge, which looks like liquid concrete, but does not get hard like stone, when it enters the stomach.
I spent a wonderful week, everything was peaceful, food was good, when one night the German air force filled the sky and started to drop bombs all over. The searchlights were effective, and you could see the planes, but the antiaircraft guns never reached their targets. It was the Blitz and it lasted three very tragic months. The British are really tough, anyone else would have surrendered.
In September, Mister Isidor Wartsky , the mayor of Bangor North Wales , offered me a scholarship at Bangor University and a wonderful life in his castle by the sea , away from all the terror of the war .
There was food and fun with my new friends. It lasted for two years but then Mister Wartzki was dismissed as the mayor and sent to prison for hoarding food. A refugee that was also living with us had denounced him when he was kicked out for stealing. During the war hoarding food was a criminal offense
That is when I started to get hungry, but I finished college. Many nights, when I was hungry, I was nibbling on a bun, as slowly as possible, to last to the morning and dreaming of a nice slice of bread with lots of butter on it .
We live in Mexico now and have forgotten all about the war. But sometimes at night I get up and eat a tartine, a thick slice of bread with a lot of butter on it. I really enjoy it.
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