The Collectors

For the children of the Couvent St. Joseph life was about to get more interesting, illustrating the old adage, “When things are bad, they can always get a bit worse.”  In truth while things became considerably more dangerous, it must also be admitted that at the time they were also more exciting.  What changed was that American and British airplanes began daylight bombing raids on Brussels.  Bombing in those days was an imprecise art, and for people in the vicinity of the targets. . .  it could be quite unhealthy.

Each raid began in the same manner, with the long and loud ululation of the warning sirens, after which we children would be herded to the garden (the one with the pear trees), and told to huddle into the trench which had been previously prepared.  The trench was not particularly deep, and it was easy to step into it, and just as easy to jump out of it.  After some time, the sirens would stop, and the wait would begin.  Then there came a steady and distant rumble which gradually grew louder and both adults and children would search the sky for the airplanes.

The planes only came on sunny days, the better to see their targets I guess.  Actually the planes flew so high we never actually saw them.  All we saw was small, bright lights as sunlight was reflected against the bodies of the planes.  And then we counted the number of those little reflections, and there were many, thirty, forty, I don’t really remember how many of these planes came almost every sunny day.  Then the bombs began to fall, but we didn’t see them either because they were quite small.  We heard them, particularly when they exploded, hitting their targets or not.  We, of course, were not the target of those raids, but there were German military installations and factories all around us, and because we were at the center of the target area, and bombing being imprecise, anything could happen.

The Germans were not idle while the bombers were overhead.  They defended their installations with all they had.  We heard the ack-ack guns firing, and we saw the small white puffs they produced as their shells exploded in the vicinity of the planes.  I don’t think I ever saw a plane being hit, or at least I don’t remember it.  What I do remember was the rain of shrapnel, sharp shards of steel, landing in our garden.  Don’t know if it was shrapnel from the bombs or shrapnel from the ack-ack guns.  For the children, it was a bonanza.  No sooner had the shrapnel landed than we would rush out of our trench to start collecting the still hot shrapnel for “souvenirs.”  This was stupid behavior, as other pieces of shrapnel were still falling.  The adults did what they could to restrain us, but it didn’t work.  We kept on dashing out of our trench to add more pieces to our “collections.”  The collections were almost immediately lost.  None of us ever got hit, illustrating the old adage, “better lucky than smart.”  Then the “all clear” would sound, and life went back to normal. What is strange about all this is that I recently read  that the children of Berlin did exactly the same thing when they were being bombed.  They also became shrapnel “collectors.”

About AlexLevy

Dr. Alex Levy is a retired English teacher who survived World War II and the "Final Solution" by hiding in a Catholic orphanage for girls in Belgium for several years.
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