Tuesday, November 02, 2004

Jacqueline et Roger; History made Personal

Personal History

Since my most recent investigations have taken me into deep, deep Belgium, I’m spending the night at my great-aunt Jacqueline and great-uncle Roger’s country house in Chassepierre, because if Amélie’s car has to drive one kilometer more than it has to its wheels will fall off.

Roger and Jacqueline’s house is an old farm on the border with France, near where Voltaire’s revolution-era tracts were published (to avoid royal scrutiny he had to be close to a border). They’re here right now with a three of their six grandkids because it’s La Toussaint, or All Saints’, a weeklong holiday in Belgium (every November 1st, families meet at the cemetery to clean and flower their ancestors’ graves, with lunch and drinking afterwards). We had raclette and then sat by the fire, talking about the past. I thought it was fascinating, so I’ve transcribed what I remember. Warning: it’s late as hell and I had too much wine with dinner. But if oral history interests you like it does me, read on.

Jacqueline recalls that when they first moved in there was no plumbing, electricity, water, or telephone. To take showers we had to stand on the toilet and pull a chain, she says. The walls had three layers: brick, then hay, and inside a wood lining. Our neighbor was an old local, had never been to Brussels (pretty common), and didn’t even know what a museum was. Anyway, the old man was always a perfect gentleman, with cufflinks and clean shirts and perfect French. But he had no gas, electricity, and his water came from the storm gutter. One day he said to me, “I hear that the housewives of today have gas stoves and that they find it quite agreeable, is that so?” This was in 1980.
When he fell sick at the end of his life the pharmacist would give the postman his medicine, and the postman would give it to the farmwife next door. And the pastor always brought him covers to keep him warm. Real solidarity between these people.

We’re right on the Franco-Belgian border, and the little building you see right there used to be a border café, you can still make out faint lettering on the façade. During the war it was a hotspot for the black-market trade: rations of beef, butter, everything. Actually, one of the people in the house we’re in now killed one of the people at the café, but it was back in 1913. Then during the second war there was a group of thirty Resistance fighters hiding in the woods behind the house. Eventually they were betrayed and the Germans killed them all, horrible deaths they died, people found them hanging from meat hooks in the trees. But they’re still remembered—yesterday, on the Day of the Dead, we saw people going into the wood with flowers. One of them is buried right by where you left the car.

When I ask about what they lived during the war, Aunt Jacqueline, who was in Brussels, says she remembers her schoolmates disappearing. But we just thought they’d transferred, we never thought about it too hard, she says wistfully.

My father was a doctor, says Uncle Roger, so he was mobilized immediately. When the Germans invaded, he pulled strings from afar and obtained a hearse we could escape in. His lab assistant, a Polish Jew, drove and we—Jew, my nine brothers and sisters (!), and my mother—took off, taking the family silver with us.
A while after the French border the bombings got too intense and people started abandoning their vehicles and running into the forest, which we did too. We saw the mayor of Lille a hundred meters away huddling against a bush with his driver, and then boom! The driver’s leg was gone. We hid out in a farm with a bunch of other people for a few days, all eleven of us in one room (the Jew ran off, but survived the war), and a few days later, when things had calmed down, my brother Pierre went to recuperate the vehicle. It was gone, and so was the silver. So he drove off with a Molière-Avenue taxi he found that still had the keys in the ignition. The Armistice had just been signed and the Germans were feeling benevolent, so they filled his tank for him. In town we ran into our dad, who had coincidentally been transferred there. But one night a German officer was killed, so all the Belgian soldiers in town were taken prisoner and marched off. When we finally made it back to Brussels a few weeks later Dad was there. He’d walked the ten days home. And Pierre brought the taxi we’d borrowed back to the Avenue Molière. They were really happy to see it again.

I’m going crazy here, though. No television, no Internet, and at this very minute the polls on the east coast are starting to close. Who’s it going to be???


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