Fire at the Palais de Justice

I was in too great a hurry to get out of the Couvent St. Joseph.  Actually the war had not ended when I left the orphanage, although for the liberated areas of Europe and for me, life was indeed considerably better.  Nevertheless, there were still some important crises to come, and although they only affected me marginally, each of them has somehow stayed with me.

The first of these was the V-1’s.  The V-1 was one of Hitler’s superweapons with which he hoped to turn the war around.  By the time they came on line, however, the war to all intent and purpose was over, although several battles still had to be fought.  Simply put, the V-1 was a flying, jet-propelled bomb.  It flew high and fast, and while anti-aircraft guns fired at it and propeller-driven planes tried to shoot it down, they didn’t succeed very often.  The bomb made a loud, horrible, and distinct noise, and when the noise stopped, either because the device had run out of fuel or had been shot down, you knew it was about to fall.  Wherever it fell, the area in which it would fall would be devastated.  A single bomb could destroy an entire block of buildings.  People would stand in the streets, myself included, and just watch what was happening up in the sky, the ack-ack puffs of smoke, and the fighter planes trying to catch up with the bomb.   We just hoped that the rocket wouldn’t get hit or that it wouldn’t run out of fuel, as the result would be the same.  We wished that it would just proceed on its way, and go down somewhere else, far away. When it did go down elsewhere you were grateful because you were still alive, although when the damage was visible you were horrified at what had been done when the bomb exploded. All of this started while I was still at the orphanage and right after I came out of it.  I also wondered about what had happened to the V-2’s if what we were seeing overhead were V-1’s.  I never saw a V-2, although I heard people talking about them.

The Palais de Justice, the court building, was the largest building in Belgium in those days, and its large brass dome could be seen from almost anywhere in Brussels.  On the evening I came home from the Catholic orphanage, after the V-2 had come, the brass dome of the huge building could be seen burning.    It was a tremendous and dramatic fire. We knew that one of the flying bombs had burst not far from the Palaix de Justice, and when we saw its cupola enveloped in flames, we all assumed that it had been hit.  However, while a neighborhood nearby was destroyed by a bomb, the fire had nothing to do with that.  It was simply a case of arson.  The Germans had set fire to the records they had kept in the building, and the fire had spread, and then resisted all efforts at extinguishing it.

The great dome burned for days, and eventually all that was left was a sort of little, black crown at where the base of the cupola had been.  Eventually, the V-2 stopped, and things returned to a more normal, more peaceful mode.  But there was still one great scare coming.

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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