E/96: Fate Undecided
That night we bedded down on whatever was available and, being ten years old and tired, I just stretched out on the ground next to the truck and slept. We didn’t have much to eat, only the remnants of what we had managed to gather over the previous two days. The next morning, my parents woke me up at sunrise and we were on the move again. The driver had somehow managed to get some gasoline and bread from either the farmer or the hamlet down the road. It seemed that even in that chaos, you could still find the essentials – for a price.
We wanted to cross the River Somme, thinking that we would be safer on the other side, but we never reached it. The German army had gotten there before us and had been only temporarily stopped by a blown bridge. They were turning back refugees, urging people to go home, telling them that the war was finished for them. This was all done in a very nice way by the smiling young German soldiers exulting in their success in battle. They offered us bread, canned foods and Leberwurst, the famous liver sausage. When they heard that we were short of oil and gasoline, they climbed down from their armoured car, crawled under it and drew some oil from their engine and handed it to us. This was a particular relief because the old truck was badly leaking oil. Still with big smiles, they also gave us gasoline, all the while repeating that the war was over for us and we should go home. Unable to do otherwise, we turned around and headed back north, to Belgium, Antwerp and home.
The Jewish World War I veteran who had joined our group in De Panne didn’t hide his dislike of the Germans and, despite warnings from all the adults, persisted in declaring his status as a Belgian veteran and Jew. When we stopped for gasoline in the town of Amiens, we pulled up in front of the Kommandantur – the German military headquarters – to find the tall, grey-haired commandant standing out in front. Somebody may have alerted him to the presence of the Jewish veteran or perhaps the old man did so himself with his insistence on so proudly declaring his identity and his opinion of the Germans. Whichever it was, the officer ordered the man off the truck, threatening that unless he did, he would not give us gasoline. “Jew,” he said. “You walk.”
We continued on our way with heavy hearts. On our journey back to Antwerp, we saw much evidence of the rout of the Allied troops and the overwhelming power of the German army. Tanks and more tanks – small, medium and large – thundered down the road, pushing the column of refugees to the side. Everywhere we looked in the meadows beside the road we saw German soldiers cleaning their weapons and machines. Above all of this, the sun shone brilliantly and incongruously from a clear blue sky.