Receipt for a Dead Canary
These are extracts from the memoir of Elizabeth Harrison. The memoir is entitled 'Receipt for a Dead Canary' but you will have to read the whole story to find the reason for this. Many ELMS and ex-RAFES members may think they know Elizabeth but I doubt they really understand much of what she endured before, during and immediately after the war. I have chosen these particular extracts to try and give the reader a taste of her extraordinary experiences.
Update : as of September 2013, the whole of 'Receipt for a Dead Canary' is available
on Kindle from Elizabeth's new website at
Memories are told. Memoirs are written. It might help reading them if you are able to imagine the voice. Therefore, before I start, I may as well tell you that I have a rather throaty voice and a foreign accent. To put you in the picture. Funny thing is, I can't hear the accent myself. Everyone else can. Some people say it's attractive. As I can't hear it, I can't tell you whether it is or not.
It took me a long time to get going because I felt that to write memoirs in English, it is imperative to prove that you have, or at least, that you have acquired, an English sense of humour. Not so in French, nor in German and definitely not in Russian. I had convinced myself that, in English, unrelenting drama would be considered embarrassing. Until a friend said, with great authority, "Rubbish!" and I had lift-off.
By the time I was thirty, my life had been neatly compartmentalized into three languages. I have been regretfully German, gratefully stateless, illegally Belgian, falsely French and finally, wonderfully, permanently British. Also, temporarily, Rhodesian - I almost forgot.
And so this is the story of someone deeply British without the drawback of neither in-bred nor drummed-in xenophobia. Someone with the disadvantage (but is it?) of belonging to a minority. In a way, in the United Kingdom, classless. Somewhere between the Establishment and its opposite, whatever that may be. A loyal British outsider. Born in Germany in the early 1920s. Schooled in Belgium in the 1930s. Evaded arrest in France in the 40s. Survived childbirth, but not marriage, in Africa in the 50s and 60s. Broke but not beaten in England in the 70s and finally, extraordinarily, as a "Senior Citizen", of all things, intimately and proudly involved with the Royal Air Force in the 1980s and up to the new millennium.
Dusseldorf, December 1932. The Nativity. The first and only school play in which I would ever be chosen to perform. Unforgettable for two reasons. Cast as one of the angels admiring the celluloid doll in the manger, I had been adorned with a home made, diaphanous silver lamé dress, heavily weighed down by outsize goose feather wings strapped to my shoulders, keeping my back straight as a rod when I should have been bending over the crib with electrifying fascination. At the end of the performance the headmistress had picked me up and, with outstretched arms rotating slowly in a three times repeated semi-circle, had displayed me and my goose feather wings to the rapturous applause of the parents-only audience. That alone had been a memorable occasion. What made it doubly so was that, on our way home, my father impressed upon me that this was probably the first and surely the last time in Germany that a Jewish angel had been the toast of a full house.
A British newspaper reported that one of the hits of the year was "Love is the sweetest thing". Less than six weeks later, on February 2nd, 1933, the same paper as well as the German press reported, Herr Hitler's words at his latest rally "No one wants peace more than I do!" and my father started making plans to leave Germany. He knew that he would be unable to find a position in banking in a country of which he did not even speak the language. At the age of 35 he had to start from scratch to support his family.
Among many others, there was at least one item for which he would have no further use: his riding boots. One day when my brother and I returned from school in the early afternoon, he called us into the Rauchzimmer (smoking room) where a tall stranger his own age stood up politely to be introduced to us. He had just paid for the boots and my father - no doubt with a twitching tongue in his dead pan cheek - asked him to shown us how boots were removed in the army. The man obliged with a laugh. In turn, we were made to sit down and don a boot reaching more than half way up our thighs. Then, standing astride our outstretched leg, his back to us, the man asked us to kick him. At first we were too shy. Then, encouraged by our father, we kicked him as hard as we could and the boot came off in the stranger's hands. When he had left, our father laughed out loud and said, unforgettably "You two are the only Jewish children ever to have kicked the backside of a cousin of Dr. Goebbels!"
There was great excitement when it was learnt that the Fuehrer would be visiting Dusseldorf. His swastika flag was still only an alternative to the banner of the Weimar Republic, black, white and red "Schwarz-Weiss-Rot" : there was a marching song named after it. Schoolchildren were to line the route along which Hitler would be passing and each class was asked to contribute to the cost of its own full size flag. My class "voted" to purchase the old flag and I overheard a remark by Frau Klette, the Nazi headmistress, to one of the teachers, expressing surprise that the majority of children had preferred the original banner.
When Erna Lohe, a fellow pupil, told her father of our choice, he was incensed enough to pay personally for an additional Nazi flag. As a result, my class was the only one in the entire Goethe Lyzeum to carry two flags on its way to meet the Fuehrer. Needless to say, it was Erna who had the honour of carrying her swastika flag.
Herr Lohe must have been a father greatly to be feared. I had begged to be allowed to accompany the class on this outing and, against his better judgement, my father had finally relented. The procession had been delayed and we stood waiting in line for hours on the Derendorf bridge. As a result we were over two hours late when we finally marched back to school to disband. Erna, panicking at the thought of her father's fury, handed ME the swastika flag to be carried back to the Goethe Lyzeum . . . and ran off home. I didn't refuse. As I staggered under its weight, simultaneously proud and deeply ashamed, thinking "What if the Rabbi saw me now?" Not that he would have been anywhere near the scene or recognised little-ten-year-old-me who attended synagogue so very spasmodically. Needless to add that the exploit remained my secret until now - sixty-four years later.
I joined the "louveteaux" (the Cubs - in Belgium Cubs were both boys and girls) in 1934 and the Girl Guides a year later. My group leader visited me at home before I was promoted to Guide at the age of 12. It was my first "interview". What was its purpose? The only thing I recall of the occasion was that she talked about the crime of masturbation to be resisted at all costs. I had no idea what she was talking about. The word "sex" had not yet entered my vocabulary. In Germany, when my brother and I were eight and nine years old, it was not our mother, but our father who had explained where babies came from, in a most elementary way: they were the result of a man and a woman who had got married in synagogue or church because they loved each other. At no other time. And that was that. My brother had asked: "But daddy, how does a woman's tummy know it has been in front of the altar?" I don't know how my father got out of that one. He must have smiled before producing an unsatisfactory answer. The "s" word was never mentioned.
As a new Girl Guide I was endowed with the name of Rikki Tikki Tavi from Kipling's Jungle books - it had been discussed and agreed that there was a physical resemblance between me and a mongoose. The name was scratched on a sliver of silver birch bark (my troop was "La Troupe du Bouleau" - the Silver Birch troop) - a precious possession for many years. I learned my knots, I got my badges, I followed signs on trees to some ultimate destination in the beautiful Foret de Soignes - one of the glories of the Belgian capital. I camped in the Ardennes, intoned well-known scouting songs around camp fires, loved Lord and Lady Baden-Powell and became as pro-British as most of my companions. And yet it always unsettled me that we shattered the peace and scared the wildlife with our noisy behaviour: it seemed a desecration. I would rather have lain alone, on my back, under the trees and looked and listened and imagined the line of a future poem. Group activities were not, and never have been, my forté, but ultimately, it was the Girl Guide movement that made it relatively easy to establish contact with like minded "activists" (before the word "resistance" started to be spelt with a capital "R"), with little fear of denunciation if one intended to do one's bit to speed the Nazis towards their doom.
And so, on Sunday mornings, I "belonged" and that is supposed to endow a child with a sense of security. But I was an immigrant child and, for ever, belonged without belonging.
Every day after school, I lay flat - this time on my tummy - in Brussels in the living room, with the spread out pages of 'Le Soir', the Belgian daily broadsheet, as always a political animal, perhaps due to the upheaval of emigration at the age of ten. Also I became interested in the kidnapping of the Lindbergh baby, the subsequent trial and execution of Hauptmann, the kidnapper, a German illegal immigrant to the USA. The illegality of his immigration fascinated me as much as my horror at the abduction and murder of a small child.
In class, we discussed the looming invasion of Abyssinia (Ethiopia) by Mussolini's Italy, and the Spanish Civil War, in which we took sides, argued and even transferred friendships. It was the time when Air Marshal Hermann Goering decided that an army of 400,000 was insufficient, when Hitler ordered 28 submarines and 16 destroyers to be built, when Britain and France lamely united against German rearmament and when all non-Aryans were expelled from the German Writers Union and banned from publishing their work. Jews were beaten up by Nazi thugs in broad daylight on the Kurfürstendamm in Berlin, Pope Pius XI condemned the Nazi sterilization of 56,244 "inferior" German citizens and when 29,000 young men applied to join the Royal Air Force which was expanding at the rate of one squadron per week. The swastika became Germany's only national flag, replacing the tri-colour which did not make its reappearance until after the country's defeat. It was the time when black jazz was banned on German radio and when non-belief in Nazism became legal grounds for divorce.
Belgian identity cards. They had to be carried. They were green, and permanent, for citizens. Long residing aliens had been issued with yellow cards that only needed renewing every two years. We arrived in Brussels in 1933 and were issued with white cards which had to - and could or could not - be renewed every six months. In our case they always were - but one didn't know that in advance. What would have happened if permission to stay had been refused? And so one passionately envied the yellow card holders and went twice a year - year after worrying year - in fear and trembling to the Maison Communale - the Belgian "Mairie", for an extension stamp lasting twenty-six threatening weeks. In France, identity cards for foreigners were grey, orange or blue: the blue ones lasted a wonderful ten years - the grey ones just three months.
In 1936, my curriculum at the Lycée included Latin, followed in 1937 by Greek. I was a lazy student. My knowledge of French was now more than just adequate. Composition was the only subject in which I excelled. History and geography were further down the line. In maths, physics, science, PT and sports I was pathetic. In any kind of ball game, I was always the last to be picked by the team leader who had the misfortune of being left with only me to choose. When, at the end of the year, each teacher's evaluation of my work was added up, I always just managed to scrape through to the next grade.
This was the sole reason why, in 1938, given the option between German or English, compulsory additions to the curriculum, I chose German: it would enhance my end-of-year report and ensure I squeezed through the educational net.  
Our teacher of German has remained on my conscience. She was a middle-aged, single, Belgian afflicted with a large goitre, and she totally lacked authority. We gave her a terrible time, only because she was endeavouring to teach us the language of the "Boche". I was the main culprit, openly helping everyone with their spelling and vocabulary. On more than one occasion, we had the poor woman in tears at the front of the class. Our fathers had fought in World War One, mine on the wrong side, but that was never mentioned: the girls knew why I was there.
In April 1937, Hitler's Luftwaffe had destroyed the Spanish town of Guernica. In the Parc Duden, one of Brussels' open spaces, a temporary camp was established for Spanish children to be fostered for the duration of the Civil War. As a Girl Guide, although not wearing my uniform, I was delegated to help in the "camp" after school. One day, when a Belgian couple visited the site to choose a young refugee to share their home, their choice fell on me. I have never had a high opinion of myself. I wasn't particularly pretty and so felt terribly flattered, firstly to be chosen, and then to witness their obvious disappointment when told I wasn't available.
It was also the year the infamous Buchenwald concentration camp came into existence, the year the Duke of Windsor visited Germany and was taken around the Krupps Steelworks, unaware that their arms manufacture was not on show to him that day. It was the year of the "Degenerate Art Exhibition" in Munich, assembled for the sole purpose of ridiculing the works of Germany's best known contemporary artists, many of whom had, by then, left the country. It was, ironically, the year Hitler guaranteed the neutrality of Belgium and the Netherlands (!), the year when, in England, air raid shelters started to be built, when, in Germany, Aryan children were forbidden to speak to non-Aryan ones, when "pacifist" German parents were deprived of their offspring for not drilling Nazism into them and when, in the British Press, Hitler was quoted as saying: "There is no room for independence in the rearing of children."
It was also the year when a family in Cologne was refused entry to the United States because their thirteen year old son was a paraplegic. The Immigration Department required a doctor's certificate attesting perfect health before admission was granted. The boy, aware of the situation, managed somehow to hang himself. His parents sailed to New York. His suicide most probably saved their lives. Just another unrecorded "anecdote" that should not be forgotten.
It was the start of the "Drole de Guerre" (the Funny War). General mobilisation everywhere. The BBC broadcast patriotic tunes, such as "We'll hang our washing on the Siegfried Line". At first, we all expected to be bombed within 24 hours. Air Raid sirens blared at empty skies but nothing much happened in the west. The world watched as Poland was assassinated and dismembered by two unlikely allies - Hitler and Stalin.
The big upheaval in my own life happened on that same Sunday September 3rd, 1939. Without hesitation, within an hour of Mr Chamberlain's declaration of war, my father decreed that I would not return to the Lycée, but was to register the following morning for a one year secretarial course: if any of us thought that I might be unable to finish the course before the invasion of Belgium and our immediate, unknown fate, it was not mentioned. I would have to be self-supporting as soon as possible - the only certainty. I was given no choice in the matter. There was none.
On the surface, life in Brussels went as usual. The grim universal expectation of impending disaster didn't show. There was a lot of talk about the Dutch. Holland had remained neutral during the four years of World War One. Their language - even their physical appearance - were "Germanic": therefore they could not to be trusted. It was firmly believed that when (not if) Belgium was attacked, they might join forces with the enemy. How wrong we all were!
Thursday, May 16th - another day for ever engraved in my memory - one of the most humiliating of my whole life. The weather was splendid. Not a cloud in the sky. The roads were packed with people and vehicles of all kinds. Nowadays, everybody has since seen pictures of the general exodus. Hitler's Generals must have been delighted: all roads ahead of their advancing troops were impassable in the opposite direction to that of a fleeing population.
We were not machine gunned. But, in the middle of the afternoon, we watched the bombardment of Tournai. In the distance, the cathedral stood out in a flaming red sky. It is a very distinctive building, a steeple at each of its four corners and a shorter one in the centre. Today, one can just see it on the horizon, when travelling from London to Brussels via the Channel Tunnel. I always make a point of looking out for it.
For the last two kilometres to the frontier, the traffic had come to a complete standstill. On France's eastern borders, the impregnable Maginot Line, built to prevent another German invasion after the First World War, had already been breached. But we didn't know that. Nobody knew: it was a time before "in-car entertainment". So we, the foot sloggers, had the advantage over the motor cars. We were actually still advancing towards "safety". Having reached the frontier post, we queued with a sense of relief: once past it, we were bound to feel safe.
Oh yes, when we produced our Belgian - our white-six-months-only identity cards (nationality: German) - the Belgians let us OUT but their French colleagues didn't let us IN. We were turned back. No point in arguing. The crowd behind us was impatient. We got a lot of dirty looks.
The feeling of utter humiliation I shall never be able to express. Turned back, only us three, my stunned mother accompanied by her two grim and silent teenagers, walking in the opposite direction. Repeat: only us three, among thousands. No traffic movement. None whatsoever. For an entire kilometre and probably for more than that - the occupants of every single car we walked by asked the exact same two questions: "La frontiere est fermée?" (Is the border shut?) "Non." "Pourquoi. vous revenez alors?" (Why are you coming back then?) There was no answer to that: we were enemy aliens except that, had these very recent refugees but known, we had been victims of the Nazis for over seven years.
The husband of our concierge was a prisoner of war. One day in late December 1940, when I came home, the entrance hall reeked of perfume. Madame was a pert little thing, in her late twenties, with short, curly brown hair, two appealing dimples, and a lovely smile. She was standing in front of her lodge, obviously waiting for returning residents to tell them with much glee that the officer billeted on the 4th floor (in the flat of the woman who had "denounced" us to Belgian police seven months earlier) had shown her the perfume he had bought for his wife: he was going home for Christmas. She had held it in both hands, admiringly - and dropped it accidentally, managing to produce crocodile tears of remorse while he told her consolingly that it was nothing - he would buy a new bottle. Just another story that did the rounds.
It was the same officer with whom I got in the lift one day. He would get off on the fourth floor, I on the eighth. As was my wont, I totally ignored him. At the time, I was looking after the dog of a friend. As the lift ascended, he bent down, picked up the animal's front paws and, looking him in the eyes, said in reasonable French: "You look like an intelligent little dog. Why don't you tell your mistress that, when she listens to the BBC at a quarter past one, she should turn the volume down." He then straightened up and left the lift without another word. For a moment, I thought that I might faint! He could not possibly have heard our radio - there were three floors between us and one didn't exactly listen to London at full blast. It was just that he knew every one listened to the BBC. He most probably did so himself.
Sometime in 1941, the sister of a fellow student was expecting a baby. Its future aunt had copied a knitting pattern for bootees onto a slip of paper. It was in her pocket when the tram she was travelling on was stopped by the Feldpolizei who proceeded to search one and all. They found the pattern. If you have ever tried to decipher a knitting pattern for a pair of babies' bootees without knowing what it is, you would be fully justified in believing it to be a coded message. My friend was taken to the Gestapo. As she wasn't Jewish, she did not have to worry on that account. In cold blood she decided to discover how far they would go in their interrogation. She stuck it out until the first blow. Then she told them what the message actually was. They produced a German woman in uniform, bearing a ball of wool and two knitting needles and, unbelievably, my friend sat at the Gestapo, knitting - until the bootee started to take its obvious shape. After having been suitably shouted at for wasting police time, (ie. for having made fools of them), she was ordered to peel mountains of potatoes in the Gestapo kitchens, before being allowed home - to tell a story that would be repeated to many. Laughter: such a necessity - such a nice tasting medicine.
One day I risked having some fun. At ten past two, the platform was empty except for one German in civilian clothes. I had noticed him before. He was in his thirties and always wore a Tyrolean hat. He may have been an Austrian. On this occasion, instead of opening the sliding door to the compartment, I remained alone with him on the platform. It must have seemed like an invitation and it didn't take more than a minute for him to say: "Il fait beau. aujourd hui", obviously pleased with his knowledge of French. I looked up and said: "Vorsicht: Judin!", opened the glass door, closed it behind me and sat down. He did not follow and got off ahead of me at our common stop.
In those years, at least on the Continent, some people believed that Charlie Chaplin was a Jew. His films were verboten. A few days after my lone encounter, once again at noon, I had no option but to squeeze onto the crowded platform, holding on to the rail and facing a crowd of at least twenty Nazis. The could-be Austrian was the only one who knew "what" I was. He was standing, facing me, right at the back. He wasn't very tall and I could just see his face and the distinctive hat. They were discussing their favourite actresses, most of them naming Marika Rock and Zarah Leander. At one point, a voice shouted across the platform, asking the "Austrian" for his choice. He looked straight at me without the ghost of a smile and replied: "Charlie Chaplin!". All the others roared with laughter at the joke. Surprisingly, I did not fall backwards off the moving tram. What had he wanted to convey, danger, sympathy - anything?
A year or so earlier, on a Brussels tram, a German had offered his seat to a lady. She had ignored him and the seat had remained vacant, to the subdued amusement of the passengers. The embarrassed officer had got off at the next stop.
In Paris, I witnessed an almost, but not quite, repeat performance: on the metro, a German offered his seat to a woman. She said: "Merci." and sat down. When the man had gone, a passenger said: "Dites donc, madame: vous etes en bons termes avec les boches?" (So, madame: you are on good terms with the boches?), to which she replied haughtily: "Pas du tout. Monsieur, mais pourquoi resterais-je debout quand il est assis?" (Not at all. Monsieur, but why should I stand while he sits?) Two shows of defiance, the second more practical than the first.
Finally, yet another Marcel, Marcel III (could it have been a coincidence?) accompanied us, soon after dark, to a shed at the Gare de Bercy, the Paris marshalling yard. We were made to wear dirty denim overalls and told to keep quiet. There was an unseen electric light outside the cabin and the extraordinary thing that has stayed in my mind is the reflection of a tree, in full leaf, for it was the first week of August, trembling on the walls of the shed. A TREE, in the middle of the Gare de Bercy? The truth - however unbelievable, both then and now.
My mother's eyes, huge with fear and my brother's and my own repressed laughter, seeing her in baggy railway men's trousers, too long, her high heeled shoes just peeping out from underneath. We were handed a bottle of water, one apple each and a large slab of chocolate between us. (Yes: chocolate - we hadn't seen any for over a year!) The goods wagon in which we were to travel - "Quarante hommes - huit chevaux", (forty men - eight horses) - stenciled in white on brick red wooden carriages - would reach Marseilles in less than twelve hours. It didn't.
We had to crawl under two stationary goods trains to reach our own. Michel and I helped our parents up into the carriage. Marcel III loosely shut the noisy sliding doors, whispered "Bonne chance!" (good luck!) and disappeared for ever.
We sat, huddled close together in pitch darkness, not making a sound, perched on uneven heights of boxes, until the train started, thankfully quite soon. Now, it was safe to sigh - even to talk and move around - and inspect our surroundings. The coach was loaded with empty, slatted peach trays, thrown in pell-mell, to be refilled in Marseilles before their return to the markets of Paris. We stacked some of them neatly up to the ceiling, making a "cosy" corner for ourselves near a high-up, slatted window, really more of an air vent. My father had acquired a train timetable (how could one not admire him?) and, as we rolled along, one of us often stood flat against the window wall not to be noticed outside, calling out the names of stations we passed.
Of course, when the train stopped, we resumed our frozen attitudes. Sometimes, we heard the voices of French workmen passing by, but nothing frightening happened until the marshalling yards of VIERZON, on the dreaded Demarcation Line, a town whose name I would never forget. Once beyond it, we would be in Vichy France in relative safety, at least for the moment.
This time, the stop lasted for hours. In broad daylight and again, in total, nerve racking silence. A false move could have brought the trays tumbling down. And then voices. GERMAN VOICES and carriage doors being opened and banged shut. And DOGS, barking. Was this to be the end? It wasn't. Perhaps the dogs' sense of smell was anaesthetized by the odour of timber, wood shavings and the juice of recently damaged peaches. Another mystery.
I was staring straight ahead. Probably all four us were, not daring to watch our fear reflected in the eyes of the others. It is impossible to describe the relief when the train moved again, after twenty-four hours. It lasted about as long as it takes to read about it, for it wasn't going anywhere: the carriage was being shunted. Within seconds, it hit a stationary wagon with a gigantic bang - and stopped, while the entire edifice of peach trays collapsed around us and onto our backs. This time, we were facing one another, only centimetres apart, in an agony of indecision. Also, again, in an agony of total silence.
Almost at once, my brother whispered, and I nodded in agreement, that we should count up to three and straighten up, in unison, raising our outstretched arms at the same time: frail structures are sometimes known to collapse not during, but immediately after a collision. Our parents objected, shaking their heads. To no avail. Michel and I counted up to three and threw ourselves backwards and upright. The racket, at least to us, seemed far greater than it probably was, but we were "free" - totally free of wooden trays - and soon to be free of Nazis. In the silence that followed, to us more deafening than all the silences that had preceded it, nothing happened. Nobody came to check and, after at least another hour, the train moved on, the whole train, while we rebuilt our corner with cries of exaggerated joy.
By the time we reached Lyons - hardly more than half way to Marseilles - the apples had been consumed, as well as the carefully rationed chocolate and the water. Late afternoon, the train pulled out and, half an hour later, came to a stop at the marshalling yard of Grigny-Badan. We saw the dozens of intersecting rails and decided we had had enough of shunting in marshalling yards. It was then that we realised that we would not reach Marseilles. At half past ten, when it was dark, Michel, despite my father's whispered disagreement, opened the heavy wagon door, jumped down and disappeared into the night, after sliding the door shut behind him. The half hour during which he was gone seemed like an eternity. I think we were almost convinced we would never set eyes on him again.
And then, miraculously, he reappeared, together with three friendly railway workers who helped us off the train and shook us by the hand like long lost friends. It had taken so much time for them to come because, with many of their colleagues, they had collected a generous supply of food ration coupons for us. They directed us towards the small industrial town of Givers, two kilometres down the road, advising us to ask for rooms at the Hotel de Provence, Place Carnot.
Little by little I met young people of my own age. Some were refugees like myself, from Spain, the Middle-East and North Africa; some from Alsace and Lorraine, recently annexed by the Reich. It was to one of these, the son of a watchmaker, that I first confided my love and admiration of Great Britain. What troubled me most was that I was living a lie: I was not the Belgian I was believed to be. Local members of burgeoning Resistance movements, the "Mouvements Unis de la Resistance" (M.U.R.) (United Movements of the Resistance) the "Armee Secrete", (A.S.) (Secret Army) and others were soon to be amalgamated under the banner of the F.F.I, the "Forces Francaises de L'Interieur" (French Forces of the Interior). But I didn't know that. As a matter of fact, I never did know which "movement" I belonged to until almost the last day of the occupation, when all who had been active in one way or another, were handed an armband with the red letters "FFI" printed on it. (The old, faded strip of white ribbon hangs, artistically framed, in my daughter's home in Johannesburg.)
When eventually, my new found friends realised that I was trustworthy, I was charged, from time to time, with the delivery of messages to the other end of town or to Lyons and, on one occasion, to a village in the mountains of the Cevennes where, at the same time, I collected ten kilos of chestnuts, by now replacing potatoes in our diet.
I did not want my parents to know what I was up to and was always provided with French identity cards of girls whose names began with the same initials as mine, but living in different localities. Should I be stopped and the papers checked by telephone, it could be confirmed they were "authentic". Only the photographs were of me. I made a point of wearing a shirt style blouse embroidered with my initials and my handbag was fashionably adorned with the same letters. The names, dates of birth and addresses I had to learn by heart, always worried in case I memorised the details of papers I was not carrying that day. Until the end of the occupation, sheer luck prevented my arrest. I have no idea whether these subterfuges would have fooled the Gestapo but they gave me a sense of security. When you are engaged in fooling others, you may as well fool yourself.
Among the hospital staff, apart from myself, nobody spoke German. During my two years in Givors, no one ever knew that we weren't genuine Belgian refugee and spoke the enemy's tongue. There had been no need. Now, suddenly, there was. My mother had been born in Switzerland and now this turned out to be a blessing in disguise because, for once, I was able to be at least partly truthful: At the hospital I mentioned that I spoke German because my mother "was Swiss". And so I was delegated to look after the German patients as well as acting as interpreter. I hated speaking their language and so, to hide my fluency, I spoke it haltingly, sometimes pretending to search for words which I knew perfectly well: my ego was in need of an alibi.
The doctor had decreed that walking wounded Germans were to be offered a choice: we saw to their injuries and sent them on their way to join the retreat towards Germany where they might never arrive - or we could apply dressings to their cuts and bruises in a way that would make it impossible to go on: for them the war would be over. They would be taken prisoner at the arrival of the Allies. A few chose the latter : there was a man with a cut to his knee who ended up with his leg in plaster from heel to groin. All those who chose to remain had only one request: we had to promise that they would be handed over to the Americans and not to the French: they were afraid of revenge, and for good reason.
We promised enthusiastically, without the slightest intention of keeping our word. In any case, it wasn't up to us. They would be handed over to the first troops to reach us, whatever their nationality. In war, ethics are often ignored. On this occasion with glee.
We cared for French men and women, some of them heroes, and for two little girls, one badly injured, the other born and delivered by my totally inexperienced self. We had diehard Nazis and Germans who obviously weren't, a major of the First World War, now a Resistance leader, a dying girl sadistically murdered by two officers: all of them victims of Adolf Hitler in one way or another - including the Nazis. All somehow arrived at this place without adequate facilities, without drugs and without properly trained staff except for one overworked doctor.
The American Red Cross Civilian War Relief was attached to the G5 Department of the American Army, with offices in the SHAEF building. In charge was Lieutenant Bob Ricklefs, a Californian schoolmaster. We met on business several times a week. One evening, having made an appointment several days earlier, as he would be away in Germany, I walked up to his desk: he was sitting with his head on his folded arms. At first I thought it was only weariness after his long journey by jeep. When he looked up, I was horrified to see that he had been crying.
He had just returned from Belsen. He told me that his grand-parents had emigrated from Germany during the nineteenth century. He had never thought of them as Germans. Pathetically, he asked for reassurance that, had they remained in the old country, they could not possibly have been associated with, perhaps even responsible for what he had witnessed that day. What was there to say, except, lamely: "Of course not!"
Within a week of VE-Day, Marjorie Bomberger arranged for me to travel to Holland with a GI driver on a US Army lorry to find my mother's parents, Ludwig and Claire Hirsch, in Driebergen, which had only been liberated on the 5th May.
We could not travel via Antwerp and Utrecht because of the blown up bridges over the rivers Maas and Rhine, and had to go the long way round, via Nijmegen and Arnhem. Horrified at the total devastation of both, the driver stopped so I could ask a passer-by whether Driebergen had been destroyed as well: I wanted to be prepared for the worst. The answer was negative and on we went, past the little town of Doom, where the old Kaiser, Wilhelm II, grandson of Queen Victoria, was still ensconced in splendid isolation. At the house where we believed my grandparents were living, we were informed that, two years earlier, they had secretly moved to the tiny house in the grounds of a mansion, just down the road.
As Holland was now occupied by the Canadians, when my grandparents saw the lorry clatter noisily towards them in the narrow lane, they assumed it was their son Maurice, who had left London for Toronto in 1940. They were amazed to see me, in uniform, rushing to embrace them.
Within less than a minute, it was back to telling lies. From the 25-word International Red Cross messages which had been forwarded to them throughout the war, they were aware that both their son's wife in Canada and Jacquie, their daughter in Paris, had been pregnant in 1944 and wanted to know the sex and name of both babies. It was a query I should have foreseen but for which I was unprepared. There was no problem with the Canadians: it was a boy and his name was Michael - to my grandfather's obvious satisfaction, as it had been that of his own grandfather. But Jacquie - I could not tell them, in the same breath, that she had been deported and that, had she survived, there should by now have been some news of her. On the spur of the moment I invented a baby girl with the first name that came into my head - Nicole - and my quick tempered grandfather at once expressed his displeasure with a name that had no family connotation. Neither he nor my grandmother noticed my pain and embarrassment, covered up by unloading the food I had brought from Belgium.
Both had lost several stone in weight and looked terrible. My grandfather had given English lessons to the Dutch friends who came every day with a precious egg, some milk and two or three potatoes. For 967 days they had not put a foot outside the ridiculously tiny cottage they shared with two middle-aged sisters, one of them my grandmother's dressmaker. My grandfather had given English lessons to one of their helpers, first for one real cigarette, later for three, rolled from a number of tulip bulbs. He had always been a larger than life character, a lovable show-off, generous to a fault. To have been hidden, alone with three elderly women, for the best part of three years had been an ordeal. He never realised that it had been a greater one for his wife - exhausted from trying to keep the peace between him and their poverty stricken hostesses. One of the ordeals-by-females from which he had suffered was that, after having lit a cigarette and discarded the match in an ashtray, it had been carefully retrieved, with instruction to add it to other used matches in a box kept specially - for firewood! The two staunch spinsters, both in their mid-sixties, who would have ended their days in concentration camps had my grandparents been discovered in their home, were the ladies LIPS, two deeply religious, unrecognised - forgotten - patriots, whose names are only to be found on their graves.
The creaking wood plank floor in the downstairs the living room was covered with a rug, a chaise-longue on castors across one corner. In the sandy soil beneath, a shallow grave had been dug, wide enough for two people lying side by side. In it, my grandparents had spent several hours on more than one occasion, while Jews were being hunted in the neighbourhood. My grandfather suggested that I lie in it, to get an idea of what it had been like. There I lay, for a few minutes, in the pitch dark, conscious of my Red Cross uniform, while he put back the planks, the carpet and rolled the rumbling settee back over my head.
On the day after the liberation, my grandparents had finally walked down the road - warmly greeted by passers-by delighted they had survived - to call at a house where they had left some of their belongings before going to live with the Ladies Lips. In the basement, upright against a wall, stood two roughly finished coffins. Apparently, a lone elderly Jew had died of a sudden heart attack while in hiding. He could only be buried secretly, wrapped in a sheet. The owner of the house explained that he had decided that this was not to happen to Mr and Mrs Hirsch, should they expire before the liberation. As it was too dangerous to explain his reasons to a professional carpenter, he had knocked the boxes together himself. It can't be often that a married couple look at their own coffins before disposing of them altogether.
Euphoria. There can be no denying that it was present in the months that followed VE-Day, on the Continent as well as in the United Kingdom. But, as during the preceding five years, there was a difference. Prisoners of War of all nationalities were returning to their countries, in a reasonable condition. Not so the political prisoners and the surviving Jews. In Britain and the United States the pitiful condition of those fit enough to travel was seen only on film and in the papers.
My days were spent almost entirely at the British Red Cross in the rue de la Loi. Thousands of PoWs, unable to continue on their way to England on the day on which they passed through Brussels, queued at the long desks distributing towels, razor blades, biscuits and Woodbine cigarettes in tiny packets of ten. The noise and the banter were unending between personnel and the men on their way home.
Sometimes, Lady Knatchbull-Huguesson, wife of the British Ambassador, came across from the Embassy nearby and stood with us behind the long distribution counter. She was always serious, not joining in the general jubilation. Perhaps it was because Belgium was Sir Hugh's last posting before retirement, after the disaster when, while Ambassador to Turkey during the war, his valet, a spy in the pay of the Nazis, had photographed many secret documents for transmission to the enemy.
On some days, we were driven to Evere, then the Brussels airport, to bring comfort to returning civilian prisoners. The mood when the planes landed could not have been more different than at the Red Cross. Most of the passengers wore the blue and white striped pyjamas, now known the world over. Many were carried on stretchers. More than one, having considered himself (or herself) fit enough to proceed unaided, walked hesitantly down the steps of the aircraft. Then, staring at the distance to be traversed to the terminal building and having overestimated their strength, crawled on all fours towards us. History - for those who witness it in the making - is composed of such images.
Once again, Marjorie Bomberger organized an American Army lorry for me so I could try and find the Felsenthal's, on my way to Driebergen, and my second visit to my grandparents.
It was midday when I arrived. At the burgomaster's office, I was directed to a junior school, where the people had been accommodated. It was silent and empty and I was told to go to the catholic church nearby, where they were having lunch. I was met by a vision that has remained "engraved on my heart": On both sides of the aisle, the returned prisoners were seated at long tables, on benches facing the altar at the far end. The altar. A washing line had been stretched across it, full of drying clothes, some again the blue and white striped pyjamas. On the left stood a single chair with a wind-up gramophone, playing a foxtrot. And, under the huge crucifix supporting the dying Christ, pathetic, unsmiling couples were dancing. Few men with women. Mostly women together. An attempt at return to normality, civilisation. Broadminded Christianity at its very best.
By the summer of 1947, with the trials of the main culprits at an end, the minions were to be tried and the inmates of camp 2226 were to be transferred to a camp in Germany, under the command of a new British Officer. A week before the planned transfer, this officer phoned to request an unbiased report on conditions and possible improvements. Luther Harshbarger asked me to produce Carl-Edvard Yden's reports. I did. I was then asked for my opinion of them - and we had just smiled wordlessly at one another. He asked that I make a report for the new Commander. I said I was in no position to do so, never having been to the camp.
The conversation that followed sounds far-fetched but, in my presence, Luther phoned the Camp Commander of Camp 2226 to ask if he, accompanied by his secretary and Carl-Edvard Yden, could visit the camp before its transfer to Germany. At the other end of the line, the Officer agreed, whereupon Luther dutifully added that the said secretary was female, to which the unseen Officer had replied that "he had not heard that." It was the dawning of a fantastic day in my life.
We travelled in one of those open army jeeps whose roof consists of only a khaki tarpaulin. Luther sat next to the driver. Carl-Edvard Yden and I were in the back. At the gate of "Cage 1", Camp 2226, we were received by the British Commander, by Vice-Admiral Ruge, his German opposite, as well as by a British NCO, an Irish Setter and an English speaking naval commander who mentioned that he had been the first U-Boat Captain to have been taken prisoner by the Americans off the coast of the United States in 1942. God alone knows how he ever ended up in Camp 2226 in Belgium in 1947.
During the first five minutes in camp 2226 I did not open my mouth until, suddenly, Luther Harshbarger said: "You can speak German: my secretary came to Belgium in 1933". 1933 - the fateful year that needed no specification. If they were embarrassed, it didn't show. They had not set eyes on a woman for eighteen months and here I was, the first one, and a German Jewess at that, a survivor of the Holocaust. If I had been a cat, the irony would have made me purr. Later that day, I was to have the opportunity of doing just that, in private, when I had to use the campus lavatory. But I was there on business and intended to be fair in my evaluation of conditions. It wasn't difficult: the men we met were cultured, charming, delighted to welcome civilian visitors - and a WOMAN!
We were invited to the quarters of Vice-Admiral Ruge, an admirable man. He had been a close friend of Field Marshal Rommel. While researching his authoritative biography, the British author, Desmond Young, had met the Vice-Admiral in 1951 in the port of Cuxhaven, where he was teaching German to British naval officers. In the book, he writes extensively about him, "the type of officer we like to think peculiar to the British Navy". In the camp, it was Vice Admiral Ruge who told us that Rommel had not died in a car accident but had been made to take poison. This may have been unofficially known in the summer of 1947, but it was the first time that we heard the truth.
I sat next to Vice Admiral Count von der Vorst, formerly captain of Hitler's ship "Die Grille". He spoke with amusement of its recent sale in Southampton and produced a magazine with a photograph of a small table, on which the Fuehrer was supposed to have put his signature to many a document. The joke was that the Vice-Admiral had never seen this table which, at auction, had fetched an undeserved price.
More than once that day, the officers repeated: "But I don't FEEL like a war criminal." The looming transfer to Germany, to be available for interrogation before the long drawn out Nuremberg trials, was the main subject of their conversation.
Count von der Vorst had three sons, all of them under ten years old. He came from the Rhineland and was even more pleased to be seated next to a woman when he heard that I was born in Dusseldorf. I mentioned that, although punishable by death, most people in the occupied countries had listened daily to BBC news broadcasts. His reply made good sense: on a small vessel this was impossible. For more than a decade, everyone, everywhere had been afraid of denunciation: you couldn't trust your own crew but, when on leave, his wife, who took the risk of listening to the British news bulletins in German, had told him: "Ihr Idioten auf der See, Ihr habt ja keine Ahnung warum's geht!" (You idiots at sea, you haven't got a clue what's going on!)
They had no refreshments to offer us - except, with much hilarity: dark, juicy plums. Next to Vice-Admiral Ruge's bed was a rough wooden box which had been fitted with a makeshift drawer. He joined in the fun, producing a paper napkin, saying: "Look what I've got!" It was his only one and had obviously been used before. He passed it across to the neighbour on my left - not von der Vorst - who unfolded it with much decorum and, carefully, using both hands, literally ironed it onto my lap.
Players cigarettes, supplied by NAAFI (army supply) came in 50s, tightly packed in round, grey tins. When empty, they were used as ashtrays, an inch on opposite sides bent back to serve as rests. At the time, I was still a smoker. Talking to von der Vorst on my right, I became aware of a hand holding one of these improvised ashtrays close under my left hand with its cigarette ash more than ready to drop. All I had to do was flick my finger. But the two highlights of the day were still to come. After a few hours, I mentioned to von der Vorst that he would have to excuse me.
"Aber das ist doch nicht moglich!" (but that's not possible!), his very words. "Es MUSS aber moglich sein" (but it MUST be possible!) - my own. He accompanied me outside. As this is the only Prisoner of War camp I have ever had the privilege to enter, I have no idea whether the lay-out in others is similar to this one. The building we left was one of many identical ones on both sides of an unpaved street; the one directly facing us was different: the "Latrine", roofed but with only shoulder high walls, and open at both ends. One bare head was visible as we stepped outside and von der Vorst shouted: "General von X, wollen Sie mal bitte austreten?" (General von X., would you mind coming out?) A voice came back, a single word: "Wieso?" (Why?). When the man appeared, he laughed and agreed to keep guard at one of the end while I went in and Vice-Admiral Count von der Vorst stood guard at the other.
The inside was divided into partitioned seating, without doors, on one side with standing room on the other. For the first time that day, I was alone. I sat down with a sigh of satisfaction and took longer than I need have done - as long as I dared: a 24 year old Jewess attending to the needs of nature, under the benevolent protection of two high ranking officers of Adolf Hitler's General Staff.
In the evening, on the way back to the camp entrance, I walked beside a certain General Phillips. In northern France, he had been in charge of one of the Fives-Lille iron works. He was clean-shaven, white-haired, short and fat. Conversationally, I pointed out that when non-Germans spoke of Hitler, they called him by his name, whereas most Germans still addressed him as "Der Fuhrer": was this habit or some form of lingering respect?
His reply is worth recording and I hope that he was one of those indicted at Nuremberg a few months later: "If YOU had placed your fortune in a bank which went bust, would YOU still be talking of the banker with respect?" - to which I am proud to have replied: "No. But if the banker had managed to save your fortune with the help of a few million gold teeth, would you THEN still be speaking of him with respect?" He walked away without another word. Two years earlier, he could have had me shot - or gassed. Maybe he felt sorry no longer to be in a position to do so.
It was pouring with rain as we left. We stood talking for a while, saying our good-byes and good-lucks in the ante-room by the main gate. One of the Officers came up and asked, with a smile, if I would accompany him to a corner where four others stood waiting: they wanted to ask me a very personal question. There was only one reply to be given, a superlatively cool "Of course not," as though this kind of thing happened to me every day.
They all had a hand in one pocket, from which each produced a DARNED SOCK for my inspection and verdict. They weren't DARNED, they were WOVEN works of art, the most perfectly patched woollen socks imaginable, repaired with bored necessity by some of the Fuhrer's General Staff. And here was I - CONGRATULATING them on their handiwork! The Captain of Hitler's ship lent me his waxed, camouflage cape - the canvas roof of the jeep offering little protection during the long drive back to Brussels. On my return home, my mother could not believe its origin.
Fifty years ago, it was suggested I send this story to "Life", a long since defunct American magazine. I was tempted but refused: after all I had been admitted to Camp 2226 under false pretences, a "sexless" secretary. Someone might have got into trouble.
These extracts are copyright and only published here with the permission of Elizabeth Lucas Harrison MBE
Our dear friend Elizabeth passed away on 10 July 2016