It was 1941. We had gathered in a field somewhere with a group of young guys. We were all furious with the Flemish people who sympathised with the enemy, and didn’t understand how so many young men had been persuaded to join the mobs propping up the German occupiers. We started talking about what we could do about it and decided to form an opposition group. We wrote pamphlets criticising the Germans, which we slipped under our neighbours’ doors in the evenings. And we wrote ‘Death to the collaborators!’ and ‘Occupiers out!’ in chalk on their houses. We headed to Brustem airfield to see if there were any planes heading to England. We counted them and relayed the information to Pietje, our group leader. We actually enjoyed it and, as the months went by, our ranks kept growing. Our actions made people wake up, become more aware, and start to resist the occupiers and collaborators. We were convinced that the Germans could never win the war and that everything was going well… until two of our leaders blabbed and passed on a list of our members to the collaborators.
On 25 May 1943, my brother Fernand and I were arrested by the German military police at our parents’ home in Sint-Truiden, in the Flemish province of Limburg, 40 miles east of Brussels. Fernand was 20 and I was 18. We were held on suspicion of being members of a prohibited resistance group working against the fascist occupiers. We were taken to the main market square along with around sixty other members of the group, where two buses were waiting to take us away. Later in the afternoon, we came to a halt at an old fortress that was used during the First World War. It was called Breendonk. Now there’s a name we’ll never forget.
We got off the bus and were met by two heavily-built SS officers. They were Flemish like us. But they wanted to divide up Belgium so they could rule over their own Flanders with the support of the fascists. They began taunting us and knocking our caps off our heads. We were surrounded by German soldiers who had their weapons pointed at us. The Flemish SS officers said we were a disgrace to Flanders. Then they were beating and kicking whoever they could get their hands on. We were forced to line up in rows of six and hurry inside the fortress, all while being beaten.
Early next morning, we had to go outside, where we were allowed to go to the toilet. I say toilet, but it was actually two bricks lying flat on the ground with a hole in the middle. We took turns to go and were allowed to sit above the hole for exactly two minutes each. Those of us who were young enough managed, but some of the older men, made feeble by hunger and hardship, fell over into their own waste.
Later, a number of spades were thrown onto the ground in front of us, which we carried to work on our shoulders. We were made to excavate the fortress, as it was covered in soil. We then had to load a wagon with the soil, push it along the tracks to the other side of the bridge and use the soil to build up the dykes. In front of the bridge was a round plate fixed to the track, which allowed us to rotate the wagon and direct it onto the other track. Sometimes the wagon would fall off the tracks because we lacked experience and our materials were pitiful. Then the SS officers would beat us until we picked the wagon up again.
We were always so hungry.
On our third day at Breendonk, three men were pushed into our room. One of them was allocated the bed above me. They spoke French and said they came from Charleroi in Wallonia, the southern part of Belgium. I didn’t really understand what the man above me was saying, but I made out that they had arrested him after he and his friend had sabotaged a railway. He was still shaking all over. He was a communist and a member of the resistance. I’d never heard anything good about communists at church back home, but this man asked me to pray with him. A Catholic and a communist praying together for peace – that went against everything I’d ever known. The man also told me about his life, but sadly I couldn’t understand everything. He spent the whole night sitting next to me on my bed, telling me his story and holding my hands in his.
Around four o’clock in the morning, the door to our room burst open and the lieutenant appeared. He called out the numbers of the three new inmates and read out their sentences in German, which they couldn’t understand. They had been sentenced to death. Half an hour later, we heard shots. That’s when we knew our friends from Charleroi were dead.
We were always so hungry. The only thing we thought about was food and we rarely talked about anything else. We ate anything we could get our hands on straight away. There were two barns at the edge of the fortress courtyard where they took roll call. The animals kept there had it far better than us – they were fattened up while we starved.
One day, my friend Herman and I managed to get into the barns. We didn’t find much to eat there, but we quickly hid some cauliflower leaves under our coats and hurried back out. The old farmer who tended to the animals was furious when he found out some of the animal feed was missing and started threatening some of the boys with a pickaxe. One of the SS officers, De Bodt, caught us. ‘Empty your pockets, Schweine!’ he screamed at us. We didn’t have any pockets in our prison uniforms because they had been cut out. But when I pretended to put my hand in my pocket, a cauliflower leaf fell to the ground. He shouted at me in a blind rage, calling me a thief and accusing me of stealing from the Third Reich. Consumed by his fury, he struck me so hard that I fell down onto the ground. He shrieked at me to get up, but I couldn’t. Then he started kicking me wherever he could until I fell unconscious. Later, I found out that some of my friends had carried me inside. My side was in excruciating pain, and I constantly needed to go for a wee, which had turned red from the blood. Since no doctor would see me, I went on peeing blood for four more months.
I was also regularly interrogated by the Gestapo, who wanted to prove that I was part of the armed resistance. I refused, and they beat me over the head with a truncheon until I couldn’t stay upright. This happened again and again.
Anyone who was released from Breendonk had to
sign a document before leaving the fortress.
During the nights at Breendonk, we would often sit by the window in our room, looking out through the bars. From time to time we would see an SS officer on patrol. Sometimes they would sit and chat to us. One of them talked to us about the boxing match between the Belgian Karel Sijs and the German Max Schmeling. Little by little, we got to know him and we even dared to tease him and tell him that the Germans could never win the war. He wasn’t very bright, and he told us about how some of the other boys had secured their release.
Some were friends with collaborators, who they asked to put in a good word for them. Others secured their release with bribes. Anyone who was released from Breendonk had to sign a document before leaving the fortress, promising not to tell anyone what they had seen or heard there. They also had to promise never to resist the Nazis again, or they would be immediately arrested. The parents of the boys held at Breendonk only learnt what went on there after the Liberation.
One night, after three months at Breendonk, the SS officer told us that our group would be sent to Germany a few days later. We didn’t really think it was bad news, because we hoped we’d be better off there. And just as he said, two days later we were ordered to wash and given our clothes back. We were stick-thin and walking around in a daze, but we still felt excited. Finally, we were leaving the hellhole that was Breendonk. We were free from those barbaric guards who had ‘Gott mit uns’ emblazoned on their belts. If God was with them, who was with us? Night and day we had prayed to be set free, but it was only three long months later that our prayers were answered.
When the day finally came, it felt like another eternity walking down those long corridors of Breendonk to reach the gates, where a German truck was waiting for us. There were thirty of us and we helped each other climb in – we could have jumped for joy! But only because we didn’t know what was still to come.
After a while in the truck, we came to a stop outside Sint-Gillis prison in Brussels. Compared to Breendonk, Sint-Gillis was like paradise. But we didn’t stay there long. We embarked on a long odyssey through Germany. First we were brought to Essen, where we stayed for fourteen days. I was still peeing blood and often had to vomit, but I still had no access to a doctor. The prison in Essen was constantly bombed by planes at night. Soon after we left, so we were told, the prison was burned to the ground after a particularly heavy bombardment.
Afterwards, we were taken further eastwards to Papenburg by train, then on to the concentration camp in Esterwegen by truck. This was one of the first camps where political opponents of National Socialism were imprisoned. One side of the camp housed the German prisoners, while the other side was for the Belgians and the French, many of whom came from the upper classes: members of parliament, counts, barons, engineers and professors.
At Esterwegen I met Jean de Coster, one of those who would not return home after the war. He was the officer in our barracks and I told him that I had been peeing blood for three months. He knew everyone and had access to everything, so he managed to get me some pills for my kidneys. At first, they made me pee blue instead of red but finally, fourteen days later, the bleeding stopped. I often thought about Jean de Coster: he saved my life but was unable to save his own.
After five months at Esterwegen, we were transferred to Borgermoor, which had been a camp for German political prisoners since 1933. After only five days, we went on to Strelitz at the Polish border. Finally, we ended up in the worst camp yet, where the guards beat us into the barracks with their batons. It was called Gross-Rosen.
We were reduced to animals.
There were 20,000 men and women all in a small area, maybe the size of two football field, separated by barbed wire. Our dormitory was no bigger than two and a half metres across. We weren’t allowed to open the windows at night, and we would routinely find friends dead on the floor in the morning, suffocated from the lack of oxygen. During the day we had drill. Caps off, caps on, march, on the floor, up again, march, on the floor… until we couldn’t take it any more. A lot of the old men didn’t last very long and were left lying on the ground until they were bludgeoned to death. In the evenings, we were finally allowed to go back to the barracks, where we were given a cup of soup and a piece of bread. We were meant to save the bread for the next morning, but of course no-one lasted out that long.
We were reduced to animals. There was only one rule: every man for himself. Our plight was worthy of tears. But how could we muster the strength to cry? That’s how the days passed. As more and more prisoners died, the survivors had more room to sleep. In just a short time, all my fellow countrymen who had been brought to Gross-Rosen with me had been murdered. I can’t think of any other way to express it.
A few weeks later, we had to leave again. First back west towards Nordhausen, then to the village of Ilfeld close by. Soon we were put on another train and deprived of food and water just like before. When we left, we saw the people and officers in Ilfeld fleeing because the town of Nordhausen was being bombed.
The train crawled slowly through the mountains until we came to a stop at a small station in a field in Mieste. We had run out of coal. There were three tracks at the station and a little house where a man operated the switches. As I was dragging the body of one of my fellow prisoners who had died during the journey to the final carriage, the switch operator – a German – called me over and gave me a bit of bread. That had never happened to me before!
The surroundings were full of natural beauty. There were forests and meadows all around. The first leaves were already appearing on the trees and some green shoots were emerging from the ground. Suddenly, we were attacked by an American aeroplane. Everyone, including the German guards, evacuated the train to protect themselves. Once the attack was over, we had to line up again and begin the long walk. Some men were barefoot and their feet became bloodied, so they slowed down the convoy. The guards yelled ‘Schneller! Schneller!’ and, if anyone dared to point at his feet, he was killed by a shot to the neck.
At night, we heard heavy fighting outside. It seemed the Allied tanks were getting closer.
After walking for a few days, we came to a village. Suddenly, three men from the Volkssturm started approaching the convoy from the junction behind the village’s church. When the guards saw them, they began walking towards them. They were three older men on a sort of armed patrol of the village. They stopped to talk to the guards.
Completely worn out, we looked for somewhere quiet to stretch out across the ground. We wandered towards the rear of the convoy, and no-one followed us. It was pitch black, but I could see the eyes of a large bird on the churchyard wall shining, luring me towards it. The bird flew away across the yard, as if to say, ‘Follow me!’ My brother Ferd and my friend Roger came over and stood by me without saying a word. Around the corner of the churchyard wall there was a gap in the barbed wire. I clambered up onto the wall and Ferd and Roger followed suit. I jumped down to the other side, bending my knees and somersaulting to the ground. Luckily, it wasn’t as far down on that side. Roger and Ferd dropped down beside me like two bags of flour and we crawled on our stomachs between the crosses. Then we stopped dead. ‘Has it worked?’ we wondered. ‘Have we really escaped without anyone noticing?’
I was shivering with excitement, trembling from the cold and soaked through with sweat. I could hear my heart pounding heavily and I was breathing so quickly I thought I was going to die. I don’t know exactly how long we stayed there. Quite a long time. All of a sudden, we heard one of the guards on the other side of the wall snarl ‘Aufstehen! Schnell! Los! Los! Weitermachen!’ and the stamping of boots echoing on the paving stones. The sound of the convoy slowly faded away. We heard a shot in the distance – another poor lad who didn’t make it. We had escaped the screeching of the SS officers and the dreadful barking of the dogs. We didn’t have to march any more. We could move as fast or as slow as we wanted. We didn’t have to fear being killed any more.
Over the next few days, we roamed the area looking for food, avoiding streets and houses. We managed to run into four soldiers one time, but they let us go – just like that.
Finally, we found a factory where we could hide, and we saw there were chickens in the area. At night, we heard heavy fighting outside. It seemed the Allied tanks were getting closer. Would the fascists never give up? Suddenly, we heard the factory door slam shut. We saw a man filling a sack with all sorts of materials that were kept there. We didn’t dare show ourselves to him.
After a while, we decided that someone had to go out and find out what was going on. We chose Ferd.
When he had been out for a while, I whispered: ‘Maybe they got him.’
‘Shut up, Piet!’ muttered Roger. ‘Don’t be such a pessimist. We haven’t heard any shots for ages. The soldiers have probably all gone by now.’
The next few minutes were long and filled with dread.
‘Listen!’ whispered Roger abruptly. ‘Can you hear someone singing?’
‘Yes!’ I cried. ‘It’s Ferd! He must have caught one of those chickens!’
‘Not a chicken, lads,’ exclaimed Ferd. ‘An American! I tried to speak to him but he couldn’t understand me. But come on out! We’ve been liberated!
We danced around and embraced each other as if we’d gone mad. The Allied soldiers came to meet us. We waved and made the V-sign. It was 14 April 1945 and we had survived!
_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _
When we were detained in 1943, everyone told our parents that we were out to cause trouble by resisting the occupiers. When we got home, our ‘brave’ neighbours were the first to greet us and give us a heroes’ welcome. Many of them claimed to support the resistance too. We knew, though, that some of them were helping themselves to food or other goods that had been smuggled in during the war. But we didn’t worry about that then. We were too busy celebrating the end of our ordeal.
Afterwards, we all went our separate ways. How many lives did that horrific war take? There was peace in Europe at last, but for how long? Just a few years later, the two major powers who, together with their allies, had beaten the fascists now had their guns pointed at each other and were boasting about who had the biggest missiles. How many lives did it all cost? Now they were head to head rather than hand in hand. Thoughts of friendship and love were a million miles away.
Years and years went by. I dreamt about those atrocities hundreds of times. I’d wake up shaking from the memories of murder and destruction that were replayed before my very eyes, and my wife would have to calm me down again. I always asked myself whether it was real. Or was it all just one big nightmare?