Deedee's story - domestic slavery, and the Secret Army

I would like to be able to report that all citizens of my town were supportive of each other, and worked together to benefit us all. However, I suppose it is human nature for some to take advantage of the misfortunes of others to improve their own circumstances, especially in times of war. We had our share of collaborators and snitches who betrayed their neighbors to the Germans, but perhaps more painful for us to accept were our seemingly upstanding citizens who used the times to their advantage. Adolescents who were not in school or employed could be picked up by Germans and sent to work camps in munitions factories. Young girls were sometimes sent to special recreation facilities to be abused by German soldiers. With paying jobs scarce, and fears of being sent away imminent, the climate was ripe for exploitation of the young by their own neighbors. That is how at 14 I became a scullery maid in conditions of near slavery.

After the attack of the German soldier on our household, Maman found homes for us 3 girls. Laura went to a rural village to live with our elderly great aunt and uncle. She cooked and kept house for them and looked after their needs until the end of the war. My next older sister, Albine and I were harder to place. With food very scarce, few had provisions enough for extra mouths to feed, especially for young girls below the legal age for work. Maman looked throughout Jodoigne to find families willing to take us in. One of the town's doctors agreed to allow me to live with his family in exchange for domestic work. Albine found a situation as a lady's maid with the mayor's family who lived a few doors away. The doctor's wife, Madame, ran the household and set forth the rules of my employment: I would carry out all domestic chores assigned, I would eat only the food allotted to me, I would be allowed to visit my home once a month for 1 hour, and if I saw my mother or sisters on the streets I was not to speak to or acknowledge them. Nothing was to distract me from work.

My room was in the unheated attic. I arose every morning by 6AM and my first duty of the day, before getting a mouthful of food, was to scrub the floors of the doctor's waiting room, examining rooms and his private office. Floors in old Belgian houses were marble slabs and were incredibly hard and cold. We did not use mops - on my hands and knees I soaped, rinsed and dried the floors with rags. When I had finished with the floors I prepared breakfast for the family. Only when they were finished eating and the dining room was cleared could I finally have my breakfast. The doctor was affluent enough to afford to buy black market coffee, butter and meat, but I was not allowed to eat or drink any of it. I subsisted on thin slices of bread and spoonfuls of whatever scant leftovers the family did not eat.

I cleaned the rest of the house after breakfast and washed the family's clothing as well as the dirty linen from the doctor's surgery. I was frequently called to assist the doctor with his patients' treatments. Disease was rampant during the war, and I lived in fear of becoming ill and losing my position with the doctor's family. If sent home, I could infect Maman and my sisters. Many townsmen and villagers had died of fever, pneumonia and tuberculosis. Medicines had long since been confiscated by the German army, and there was not enough food to nourish a sick or recovering patient. Several times weekly I was sent to a local farm to pick up a can of raw milk for the family. After I carried it home it had to be boiled before it was safe for the doctor's family to drink. I would sometimes slip into the kitchen as it cooled and dip my bread into the cream that had risen to the top of the pan; I would have been sent home for stealing if caught by Madame.

I endured these conditions for nearly 3 years. One day Maman sent a message to Madame asking if I could have my hourly home visit early as my aunt was visiting from out of town and would like to see me before she returned home. Madame would not allow me to leave my duties, but I was desperate to see my family and set out for home anyway. I do not know how Madame found out so quickly that I had left, but just after I arrived home a boy came to our door with a message from Madame: Either I returned to the doctor's house immediately or I was sacked. Maman told the boy to inform Madame that I would not be coming back. Rumors had been flying throughout the countryside that the American and British armies were on the way, and that the Germans were preparing to leave. Liberation, we hoped, was at hand.

Winters were hard during the war years. We were rationed 10 kilos of coal per month which was not nearly enough to keep our house warm. The last winter of the war was bitterly cold. Our stove could burn coal or wood, so we were not limited to one source of fuel. Trees, bushes, old sheds and extra lumber had long since been burned by the townspeople for heating or cooking. Maman got off work at an hour in the afternoon when trains arrived at the station. She always carried a sack with her when she went out in case she came across any items worth bringing home. Coal cars would occasionally drop some of their cargo onto the sides of the track which Maman collected in her sack. On days when there was no coal to be gleaned Maman would reach into hedgerow and break off thorny branches and twigs to bring home to burn. Her arms and fingers would be cut to ribbons by the thorns, but we could warm ourselves by the fire that night and cook if there was any food in the house.

The Belgian Resistance, or Secret Army, as it was called was active in Jodoigne throughout the Occupation. The last months of 1944 saw a flurry of activity from its members in preparation for the coming of the Allies. Most of the townspeople knew which of our citizens were members of the Secret Army, and who among us might be collaborating with the Germans. Whenever possible the adults would protect those working with the resistance. I had found a part time job scrubbing floors at a local pub in exchange for a meager lunchtime meal. A man we all knew to be a leader of the Secret Army came into the pub and noticed me working. He asked if I would like to help with the cause. "Yes!" I replied, without fully considering the ramifications if I were caught. The man explained that many of the resistance workers were already suspected by the Germans, and that they needed new faces to deliver their messages undetected. He gave me a bag of leaflets and told me to meet the 15:00 train from Brussels; a man would introduce himself on the platform and would take the parcel. It was to be a quick, easy exchange. I hopped on a borrowed bicycle and went on my way to meet the train. When I arrived outside the station I could see that it was crawling with German soldiers and not a few Gestapo. We had been betrayed! I got off the bicycle and slowly pushed it past the station, trying not to attract any attention to myself. When I was out of sight of the station I jumped back on the bicycle and pedaled through the streets like mad. I could not go home yet because if I were being followed I would lead the Gestapo back to Maman and my sisters. And I was still carrying the leaflets. I rode the bicycle through town until curfew, always mindful of who else was on the streets. When I thought it was safe, I slipped into the back garden of our house. I took a shovel from the tool shed and buried the parcel deep in the our vegetable garden where the earth was soft and moist. The leaflets were instructions, in English, for British and American airmen on how to contact the Secret Army if they were shot down over the Belgian countryside. I hoped that some of the leaflets would find their way to the Allies soon, but there would be no repeat attempt at espionage from me. I did not tell Maman until years later of my brief association with the Secret Army. We were cold, hungry and in constant fear for our lives. I would not add to her misery by having her worry that I could be picked up by the Gestapo.

The Battle of the Bulge was a victory for the Allies, but for those of us living between the warring armies it was a continuing nightmare. Bombing was a particular terror for us, living so close to the German fuel depot. A direct hit on their camp would take out our house as well, and would roast us alive if we happened to be inside. When the air raid sirens sounded, we all ran for cover in the underground shelters, which were little more than holes in the ground. At times I wondered if being bombed in my house aboveground would have been better than waiting in the dark earth for a direct hit to bury me alive. Usually neighbors would wait with us; sometimes we were joined by friends who helped pass the time and took our minds off the hellish sounds above us. There was usually a bucket of drinking water in the shelters, but each family had to bring their own food, as there was no way to know how long the raids would last, and how long we would have to stay belowground. Another bucket close by was our toilet. For young teenagers the indignity of having to use those crude facilities within sight and sound of everyone was almost as great as the fear of the bombs.

A particularly heavy shelling killed a neighbor's horse as he stood in a field. He was old and bony, but we were all too hungry to let the meat go to waste. The neighbor cut up the carcass and divided the meat amongst us. All that was left for our family was a section of fatty gristle. Maman took this prize home and rendered it into a cooking oil. We had two potatoes put by and began to make pommes-frites, a treat we had not tasted in years. We heated the oil, cut the potatoes and dropped them into the fryer. Before they even began to brown, the air raid siren sounded and we had to leave our feast uneaten. We stayed in the shelter for two days, and when we finally returned, our pommes-frites were a sorry, grease-laden sight. Undaunted, Maman relit the stove and we ate them for our dinner.

By Andree Leroi
(As told to Tamara Talbott)
Virginia USA, 2010

Andree (Deedee) has written more about those
terrible years and there are three more stories

Years of poverty and hunger

Danger from a drunk soldier

Food at last, and the Liberation Ball

Stories Map Food ELDERS