Christmas Eve 1944: Gent, Belgium

Posted on December 21, 2012


By Jeannot Kensinger

I am 12, Mother is 34. She is recovering from a major surgery and a husband who has left her for another woman just a few months ago.

We are finally liberated; we in the north welcomed the allies in September.  In the Southern part, in the gorgeous mountains, hills and forest another battle is in full swing. It becomes to be known as the Battle of the Bulge.  Our gorgeous Ardennes are being mutilated. Worse, hundreds of lives, if not thousands, on all sides of this horrific war are falling in the fresh wet snow.

Mom and I are not aware of this battle; we hear very little of what is going on outside our newly freed Provinces.

We are alone in our very cold house,  broken windows covered with lumber, water rats moved in to what used to be our bedrooms.  The roof is shattered in many places from the bombing and air raids.  The wood/coal stove only produces so much heat as we huddle around it, covered in blankets.

Mother is lonely; she is sad, alone for this Christmas for the first time in her marriage of 16 years. She is still feeling ill. War had not made her skinny; she is a full fleshed Flemish woman like you see in Rubens renditions.  She lived on potatoes and onion gravy; we are yet to see some meat coming onto our tables but for the grace of the few Americans who are helping us.

So this brave lady who was together with her little family in grave danger all through the war is now struggling with a new reality. She had been the radio communicator with the Brits in her bedroom. She was fluent in the language, thanks to a good education and was my father’s right hand in the underground fight of what we called “the white brigade.”  She had welcomed the soldiers who parachuted in the night and gave them clothing and food for the next stop. She had sent her only child to school when she was wondering if a new air raid would come today, eliminating the factory and the village. She never knew what the day would bring.

That first Christmas Eve when all around us was changed and yet nothing had changed at all. We were still seeing planes come and go over our heads and we still saw the air battles, we did not know for sure how far away the Germans were, and would they return? In our hearts, however, we felt that all was going to be fine.  We had hope for the first time in what seemed eternity.

With this in mind, Mother decided we should spend Christmas Eve at her sister’s house in town. That was 9 km away (almost 6 miles). The excitement got a hold of both of us and with enormous energy and good cheer we left the old stove to warm up the rats and started our journey along the cold waters of the Canal of Terneuzen.

We had walked this foot path for years, I think we knew where there would be a dip in the dirt and mud under the fresh snow, we knew where a large stone would stick out and how to avoid falling in that narrow strip next to the canal.  Next to it was the bicycle path but that worse in need of filling the larger holes.  Even in the dark night we knew our way.  I can still see the cold fog over the water, piercing cold in our bones.  My shoes too tight. I was always growing too fast and my feet were the first to show the signs.

We started to sing.  She could sing; I could barely keep a tune.  But we sang with our vocal chords in full orchestra mode and in the silence we go from “The Yankees are coming” to “Belle Nuit de Noel” and “Petit Papa Noel.”

Along the canal there was only industry; we lived in a lonely little house about 100 yards from an electrical plant. Most plants at this point were not working; almost all had been bombed. The silence along the water was eerie, as the little bit of snow would fall intermittently. Now and then an army truck would drive by on the road and soldiers would yell “Merry Christmas.”

Some had other messages too.  The first time we both heard the “F-word,” mother honestly had never heard that one at the convent where she had studied. She was very puzzled, what did it all mean?

Very few Belgians had cars at that point, perhaps a few doctors.  Only the army was on the road, day in and day out.  We were used to that, but these camouflaged tanks were a much loved sight.

By the time we reached the blown-up bridge of Meulestede, we crossed the canal on a makeshift bridge and started to walk between the streets lined with houses.  Here and there one could see lights and the cozy interior of people celebrating.  Mother stopped and told me to look and listen with my heart at the sights and sounds.  “You know Jeannot,”she whispered, “this is what is called ‘freedom.’  You see, we are finally allowed on the street at night, we are finally allowed to have lights coming out from the houses, that means this is our first Christmas in many years of total freedom.  Freedom means we can now just walk to Tante while watching the stars and singing, we can peek in the windows and see people with bright lights shining on their faces.  Jeannot, never forget this moment.”

I didn’t.  I can still see it, I can still smell it, I can feel it in my heart.

Mother was disappointed that we could not get to a midnight mass on our way, but all the churches were still closed. Perhaps no one had wanted to come out or perhaps the new army had told them to cool it for awhile, I do not know, but we passed several churches and no service.

I started to slow down and she found a way of making me go a little faster.  Where she saw light in the houses she rang the doorbell and started to run away.  I had no choice but to run after her and hide around the next corner.  That way we got to my Tante in a jiffy.

I can see the gate at my Tante’s house and lights turning on for the night visitors. No phone to tell them we were coming but the welcome was heartwarming.

My cousins came out of bed to hug us and I could crawl in bed next to them, tell them about my adventure of the night. No rats here, no damage to their house, they were blessed. I was in heaven close to giggling bodies and it is Christmas.

I do not remember one present given that Christmas.  I doubt that we had any at all, but I am still feeling the joy of that night.  The songs come back to me.  Belle Nuit…..Petit enfant Jesus….. Au clair de la lune mon ami Pierot. …………………………..

Merry Christmas Mom, Tante, wherever you are.
Goeden nacht, zalige nacht.
A Belgian woman welcomes liberators, 1944.

A Belgian woman welcomes liberators, 1944.

Jeannot Kensinger, a native of Belgium, has written extensively of her 13 years of caregiving to her beloved husband of 42 years, who was struck with Alzheimer’s; of slowly emerging from those years; and of the joys of life before it all, and after.  You can read more of her work at her blog, Life After Alzheimer Caregiving.