Listening to the BBC radio was strictly illegal in Nazi-occupied Belgium. Still, within hours everyone in Brussels knew that the Allied Forces had finally debarked in Normandy on June 6th. We had been waiting for that day for more than four years.
I consider May 10, 1940 the most important date in my life. At dawn the Germans had invaded Belgium and the life of my nuclear German-Jewish refugee family was shattered. Because we were German nationals, the Belgian authorities had arrested us mid-morning. They released women and children at the end of the day, but kept my father, whom I was not to see for six years. My mom, my 10-year old sister and I tried to flee to France via the Belgian coast. The German army outpaced us and trapped us, as well as 340,000 British and Belgian soldiers, in a small enclave surrounding the English Channel port of Dunkirk. The British, assisted by an armada of small privately owned boats, rescued their army between May 27 and 31. Their departure both relieved and horrified me. (For more on this experience, see At the Mercy of Strangers.)
During the ensuing occupation, the BBC became one of the country’s lifelines. Even during World War II’s darkest hours, the radio station’s messages, heralded by the opening bars of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, were upbeat. One of its propaganda ploys was to make believe that rescue was imminent. It took four years!
In anticipation of the event the Germans had fortified the Atlantic coastline with bunkers, land mines and other paraphernalia. At immense cost the Allies established a beachhead in Normandy. On June 6th, about 160,000 Allied soldiers crossed the Channel, eventually numbering over two million.
During the next six weeks the fighting remained confined to Normandy and Brittany, then the Allied breached the German defenses, liberating Paris on August 25 and Brussels on September 3. I had survived in the Belgian capital during the entire occupation and welcomed the troops that I had seen depart Dunkirk in 1940. I had been a child when they left; now I was a young woman. My family had survived, but my joy was tempered by the immense cost humanity had paid for this victory.
The past April my husband and I visited the Normandy beaches. Evelyne and Jean-Pierre Grosfils were our hosts. His home had been my last “out-in-the-open” hiding place. I had been Jean-Pierre’s nanny and our current trip was a celebration of a long friendship. I expected to be terribly moved by visiting the beaches, but my reaction was more cerebral than emotional. Though there are museums, monuments, remnants of the makeshift Mulberry Harbor and remnants of the German defenses, nature has a way of erasing most scars. But the losses of this, the so-called Good War, are staggering and the rows upon rows of white crosses in the military cemeteries are heartbreaking.
After the carnage of World War I, people hoped that the world might come to its senses. This, of course, was not the case. The hopes engendered by WWII were more modest, and since then the world continues to be plagued by smaller slaughters. Personally, the older I get, and the more I watch my grandchildren grow, I continue to venerate June 6th as the day that insured my personal liberation from bondage.