Friday, November 11, 2011

November 11, 2011 Armistice Day and Veterans Day

November 11th is a solemn day, celebrating the armistice ending World War 1 in Europe, and in the US it is a day remembering and honoring its veterans.
A while ago I wrote a post mentioning my great-grandmother and briefly touched some of her exploits during WW II. (See post here) This a good day to give a more full account of this extraordinary woman. But to make this post come full circle with this commemorative day, first a word about my great-grandfather, Edmond De Ridder. As a young man, not even 20, he was conscripted in the Belgian army in 1914 at the outbreak of the first World War. His experience as a soldier met a quick end, and he spent the next years in a German POW camp, an experience he never really talked about. My mother only recalls him talking about having to eat nettle soup. The young girl she was when she heard this story, she was shocked at the cruelty of having to eat nettle soup, imagining the experience of drinking a soup stinging her grandfather on the inside.

It did spare him the horrors of trench warfare. After the war he returned home again, and married Maria Maes. At the birth of their son, he had to go to the town hall to declare that at the office of civil registry. But he 'celebrated' too much on the way there, and forgot the name that he and my great-granny had settled upon. So Carolus De Ridder was officially registered instead of Albert De Ridder. One can only imagine the talkdown my great-grandfather had to endure when he had to tell my great-granny what happened... Solution was simple: no one knew him by that name, and he was called Albert by everyone. Fast forward to 1942. Belgium suffered under the German occupation, with a military 'Kommandantur' installed in the Town Hall. Young men were forced to do labor in Germany, and both Albert and his brother Leon were called up. Neither went, with Leon hiding for a few months by nearby farmers, and Albert just stayed home. The Germans kept demanding my great-grandparents to send in their two sons. At one time, an officer and some soldiers came to their house, questioning the neighbors, in an attempt to find Carolus De Ridder and send him to Germany. The neighbors looked puzzled when asked where Carolus was, and could not have betrayed him if  they wanted to. 'Carolus who?'
 Meanwhile, he was sitting right there at his home, under the noses of the Germans!

To get the heath of her other son, my great-granny went to the Kommandantur to speak with the officer in charge, after she had heard that the Allies had bombed Wilhelmshaven, where her son was supposed to have been sent to. The conversation when something like this:
German Officer: 'Come in, Mrs De Ridder. Where is your son, Leon? We've sent repeated notices to report for labor!'
Great-Granny: 'Excuse me?!' (angrily, with rising voice) 'I have put my son on the train, and from that point he is YOUR responsibility!!'
German Officer: 'Eh...'
Great-Granny: 'So, where is my son?! I gave him to you, and you have to give him back to me!'
            Followed by a series of strong language we better censor.
Great Granny, thinking: 'They wont imprison a woman now, would they?'
German Officer: 'Well, eh, perhaps we can pay you the pay we give each laborer?'

In that tumultuous time right after the Germans left and before the Allied troops entered the town, resistance groups started to round up 'collaborators and traitors', beating them, shaving their heads, burning their homes, in an outburst of rage after 4 years of German oppression. Great-grannies neighbors had a daughter who had studied, and was fluent in German as well. So the Germans forced her to work for them in the town's administration, which in turn gave her access to a lot of privileges, such as extra food rations. Hearing a lot of yelling and crying on the street, my great-grannie came out as well, only to see a gang of 'resistance fighters' dragging out the daughter of the neighbors, guns at the ready, and beating her.
immediately she started to yell at those guys, in utter rage. 'You there, and you! How dare you!', she shouted at them, ignoring the circle of armed men around her 'Last week I saw you here with your hands held up, asking for bread and food and butter! She's always been helping all of you, and this is how you repay her?! Does your mother know you're here playing hero?'. They left, tails between their legs, and left this poor girl alone again.

Polish and Canadian troops liberated Sint-Niklaas
Definitely not a woman to mess with! She lived to be 89, and until her last days, she would enjoy her trappist beer. Which, looking back, was probably the source of her courage and strength. She never served officially, but I think that today is a great day to remember her, together with all the others who served to protect their country and loved ones. Cheers!

2 comments:

  1. Maria Maes was a really great woman ! Respect !

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