Deedee's story - food at last, and the Liberation Ball

Thank God, the Germans were retreating! We were afraid that rather than let the fuel in the depot fall to the Allies they would blow up their supplies, and our house with it. Amazingly, that did not happen. The German army left with little drama before the advancing Allied armies. We were all jubilant - liberation had finally come! The townspeople dug deep into their cellars and found bottles of wine and champagne to uncork for the mass celebrations. The town officials wanted to show appreciation to the British and American soldiers camped nearby. The U.S Army located their headquarters in the manor house where Maman worked, and her employer was in charge of hosting a Liberation Party for each army. It was not a good idea to invite the Tommies and the Yanks to the same affair, as they had a tendency to fight each other when there were no Germans to engage. The party for the British army was to be held one night, and the party for the Americans the following night. The lady of the manor made it plain that only girls from good families, and with reputations above reproach would be invited. That is how Albine and I were included on the guest list for the parties.

When the war had begun I was only 13; at the liberation I was a young woman of nearly 18. I had not owned a new dress since I was a child. Although malnourished, throughout the war years I continued to grow taller. As my knees began to show below my hemline, Maman sewed a ruffle on the bottom of my dress. At first the ruffles would be of a corresponding color to the original fabric of the dress, but as the war progressed and materials became scarce Maman had to use whatever she could find to lengthen the garment. Having an invitation to a fancy Liberation Party presented a horrifying prospect - I had nothing to wear except a 5 year-old dress with six ruffles sewn to its bottom hem. During her years as a lady's maid Albine had become very proficient with a needle and thread. We had two days to try to fashion rags into party dresses. A box of my late father's suits and shirts had been in the attic since his death in 1937. Albine pulled out two of his white shirts, and an army jacket he had worn in the Great War in 1918. We also found a trunk of old clothes left in the attic by the previous owners of our house which yielded garments even older than my father's. Inside the trunk was a wool, pleated skirt that had been severely moth-eaten. Although it was decades old, I desperately wanted to wear that skirt. Albine cut several centimeters off above the original hem, and refashioned the skirt to a modern length. Then she got to work on the moth holes, weaving original threads from the scraps into a near seamless repair. With a few alterations to side seams and shortening of sleeves, we sewed our father's shirts into feminine-style blouses and you can see the result above. Albine finished remaking the army jacket for herself in time for us to attend the party for the Americans.

Maman looked us over before we set out for the party. We passed inspection, but she had words of caution for us. "We may be hungry, but you girls are not to go to that party and eat like pigs. You may have ONE plate of food and no more. You will act like ladies!" And with that admonition stinging our ears, we set off. The ballroom was alive with more lights and music than we had seen in many years. And there were so many smiling young men in clean, neat uniforms clamoring for our attention. The Americans were so well-groomed and well-fed, a stark contrast to the Germans at the depot and our own soldiers. More than a few Belgian girls had their heads turned by those god-like creatures that night. Some girls who had attended the party the night before for the British soldiers remarked that the food brought by the Tommies was not as plentiful, but that they were more respectful and not as forward as the Yanks.

Hotdogs! They served us hotdogs at the Liberation Party. We had never heard of such fare, but Albine and I rarely had meat AND bread together at the same meal so we ate our hotdogs with gusto. There were some under-seasoned side dishes and a cake for dessert, of which Albine and I were careful to eat only one serving. Maman could have been watching from anywhere in the room. We danced with the soldiers and had a wonderful time. One G.I. kept asking me to dance, and wanted to walk me home. Instead, I agreed to meet him outside the pub where I worked the next evening. Language was a huge problem. I spoke no English and none of the Americans spoke Wallon. Occasionally a soldier would know some French which we spoke as well, so that was our only line of communication. With much pointing at wrist watches and gestures we made a date.

The G.I. was waiting for me outside the pub on time. We walked toward my house, trying to understand what the other was saying. When we got to the front door, I motioned for him to come inside. Maman came forward to greet my guest. He smiled and shook her hand. She had been preparing our dinner. She set another plate on the table for my new friend, went to the stove and removed 3 blackened potatoes from the flue where they had been cooking all day. There was no bread that day, nor vegetables. Four of us were sharing the 3 charred potatoes. My friend took one look at the plates, shook our hands, and left. Maman, Albine and I ate our potatoes and discussed what had just happened. We concluded that the G.I. had been so disgusted by our pitiful circumstances that he would never come back.

But he did come back. The next afternoon he stood at our door. He came in and after greeting us began to remove eggs from his pockets. He had smuggled a dozen boiled eggs from the soldiers' mess and brought them to us. We had half the eggs for dinner, and the other half for breakfast. I could not remember how good it felt to have enough to eat at one meal. My friend did not come every day, nor was he able to bring us food at each visit. The penalty for smuggling army food for civilians could be severe but it was a widespread practice. As long as the soldier was not smuggling goods to sell on the black market, he got off with having to pull extra duty or having his pass cancelled. On his next visit my friend brought us a turkey, something we had never seen and which Maman had no idea how to prepare. Another time he brought a gallon tin of peanut butter which we had never tasted before and did not care for at all. We gave the peanut butter to a neighbor who found it palatable. We feasted on tins of fruit and a pound of margarine. Once, my friend brought a block of frozen beef concealed in his knapsack. That was more meat than we had seen since the war began, including our share of the dead horse. Maman was of the opinion that we should carve it up and share it with our neighbors. I persuaded her that since all this bounty was given to us by my boyfriend, that I should have a steak all to myself before we began parceling it out. Maman agreed and cut a thick steak from the block of meat. She pan-fried it for me rare, the way I remembered liking beef. It was so delicious I ate the whole steak at one sitting. Later that night, my body rebelled. Not used to that much grease and protein, I vomited throughout the night. Perhaps that was my punishment for being selfish and greedy. I was content to let Maman divide the beef the next day.

Gradually foodstuffs began to reappear in shops around town. Without our produce going to feed the German Army we Belgians were slowly able to feed ourselves. Imported and luxury items were still scarce, however, even on the black markets. One day my American boyfriend came to call, but he was not smiling. He told us his unit was leaving Jodoigne the next day heading to the front in Germany. He had a going-away gift for us, and presented Maman with a 2-pound tin of coffee. Coffee! Maman made a pot right then and nearly swooned from the pleasure of it. While she was in a good mood, the G.I. asked her for my hand in marriage. With our language differences this conversation lasted a long time.

In the end, Maman consented and I was allowed to marry my American when the war was finally over. I left Belgium in 1946 for Virginia, and have lived here for nearly 65 years.

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

Domestic slavery, and the Secret Army

Stories Map Food ELDERS