Michael Brown

The Paradise Wars and Clark Ransom Thrillers

The Hidden Scars of War

As a teenager in Brussels, my mom endured World War II. She suffered the day-by-day anxiety of not knowing moment-by-moment if she or those she loved were safe. Few of us have lived through such horror.

One Photo Brought War HomeThe Hidden Scars of War

I was mid-twenties when I went through a box of photographs and found one of my mom looking out a train window, beautiful with a shoulder-length pageboy, padded shoulders, looking like Ingrid Bergman in Casablanca. This was the first time I was aware, at a gut level, of what my mother had faced.

My grandmother had taken the photo of her daughter from the platform. Tears were streaming down my mom’s face because she was saying goodbye to her mother; only her mother, because her father had died the day Hitler invaded Belgium.

My mom was going to meet her new husband, my dad, in Denver. She was 19. The year was 1945.

Choice, or Migration Forced by War?

My mother took the train from Brussels to a port, I don’t know which, and sailed to New York. She got herself from New York to Denver, eager and scared to meet my father’s family, in particular the matriarch, my Grandma.

Whenever my grandmother was part of the conversation, my parents would argue. It probably started that day November’45 after my father drove my mother from the Denver Grayhound Depot to his mother’s house in Englewood. Everyone would have been waiting for my father and his new Belgian bride.

There would have been my Uncle Clark, my grandmother’s oldest son, and Jean, his new wife. Jean was from Kentucky and I’m sure she had been pushed through that same gauntlet. They all would have greeted my mother, this exotic girl from Europe, greeted her with politeness, hugs, and hope. All except Grandma, whom my mom would face last. I have always envisioned, given the arguments generated by the mention of my grandmother’s name, my Grandma ignored her, had turned to my father and said, “Jakie, how can you understand a word she says?” Grandma would have gotten up and moved into the kitchen, proving she wouldn’t be going all out for any foreigner.

I think that day my mother withdrew. Became aloof. She had left her own mother standing, crying on the Brussels platform and entered some other dimension where a kind of crudeness, lack of knowledge about the world — even about the world to which they were most closely allied: Europe, had replaced my mom’s life of private schools and working skill in three languages.

The war had made her migrant to a country, which for the most part had no idea where Belgium was. It was common for Americans to assume she was from the Congo, since that was the only association they had of Belgium.

Eighty Years Of Not Forgetting How War Had Her Shaped Life.

She never lost her accent, and it was an accent people found difficult to place. Most often they’d ask, “Are you German?”

Only nine years after her departure from Brussels, we lived in Germany, and one of the other army wives asked my mom, “Are you German?”

I went rigid, fearful of being embarrassed by what my mother would say and knowing the hurt she felt. She was a French-speaking Wallon, with an accent different from the Parisian of Maurice Chevalier or Pepe Le Pew familiar to Americans, but in her mind, how could she possibly, possibly be mistaken as Bosch, as German?

Staring at that sepia-toned photograph of her in the train window, leaving Brussels and her mother — she had certainly thought forever — and only months earlier seeing Nazis patroling that same train depot, her life uprooted, shredded by those German troops, can you imagine, less than a decade later the effect on her, the effect of being asked if she were German?

The year she left her home was 1945. Five years earlier, at age fourteen, on the eve Hitler invaded Brussels, her father, yet a young man, died. My mother, an only child, was his princess; he, her guarantee she would always be safe.

The Nazis invaded. My mom and her mom were unable to get my grandfather out of the house for a week. And she fourteen was supposed to cope?

My mom’s memory of that kitchen table, which for a week held her dead father, fed an anger that only the fatigue of her dying could diminish.

When asked, “Are you German?” how did she not scream? Not rage? Not see the hatred she held was only fodder for more horror to come?

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6 Replies

  1. Toby Baruch

    Wonderfully written. Brings back a memory for me also. I think I mentioned that my mother also fled Nazi Germany at the age of 19. Some of our relatives were not so lucky and perished in the death camps.

  2. Michael Brown

    Thanks Toby for sharing.

  3. Bernie

    Nicely done, Michael. Puts you there

  4. Tracy

    Yes, “puts you there” sums it up for me, as well. (and I’m just teaching WWI, through the 20s and 30s into WWII now!)

  5. carol walk

    I was very touched by the story of your mother. You made it so emotionally clear how difficult it is to be an immigrant, let alone a survivor of war.

  6. Lesley Smith

    Wow, what an amazing story! I cannot imagine how difficult that must have been for your Mom, but your description so good that I came very close, I think! Very touching.

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