Stories from the Warchest
Her name is Monique Raths-Leroy. Born in Liege, Belgium in 1933, she was an 11 year old girl when the German army pushed back into Belgium to begin the Battle of the Bulge in December 1944. From age 7 to 11, she was used to German occupation and having the soldiers around her. She knew that her parents and grandparents were against the Germans, though they tried not to say too much in front of her as information could be dangerous. What she didn’t know at the time, was that she had beome a message carrier in the Belgian resistance.
Her Father and Grandfather were active members of the resistance and under suspicion by the Germans. One day they had an important message to deliver and sewed the message into the coat of Monique. As the three of them were walking through the woods to make the delivery, they were arrested by the gestapo and taken to be interrogated. Seeing that Monique was just a young girl, they let her go and she was sent home—along with all of the evidence. As they searched and interrogated her Father and Grandfather, the gestapo came up empty and they were allowed to return home.
As the Germans were bombing the Liege area, she heard a ‘buzz-bomb’ overhead as she was out on the street. She saw an American soldier in his truck and ran over to him to warn him. He jump out and crawled under his truck for cover and Monique ran into a doorway. The bomb hit and she was blown up to the second floor of the house—shaken but not seriously hurt. The soldier’s truck was destroyed but he had been saved.
To escape the bombing in Liege, she was sent to her Grandparent’s farm in the Ardennes. The American’s were getting closer to liberating the area and were becoming increasingly ruthless. When the resistance destroyed a German truck, they randomly selected anyone in the village and took them to the woods. Monique followed her Grandfather as he watched the Germans. Two boys that were her age, and who were just in the wrong place at the wrong time, were lined up by a ditch. Monique watched in horror as they were shot and fell into the ditch – a scene that haunts her to this day. Before they were shot, Monique could hear the Germans tell the boys that their American liberators were only a couple of miles away and would be there soon—but they would never see them.
Her family moved to the destroyed village of Bastogne where she started dating a mechanic. The mechanic, Gilber Sabus, moved to San Diego and joined the U.S. army. After 60 years, they contacted each other and fell in love all over again. Gilbert moved back to Bastogne to be with Monique. The married 3 years ago when she was 78 years old. Gilbert passed away 1 ½ years later.2015.02.03.
While Americans wear t-shirts to protest, while they burn down businesses and march through the streets calling for the killing of the police, I was taking in the recent 70th anniversary celebrations of the Battle of the Bulge in the small town of Bastogne, Belgium. This was the largest land battle in U.S. history, involving 1 million soldiers over the course of 6+ weeks to turn back the desperate offensive by Hitler during World War Two. The Germans had surrounded the town of Bastogne and demanded the surrender of the U.S. troops.
The American General, Anthony McAuliffe, gave them a one word response, " NUTS! " Despite the lack of food, ammo, medicine and the freezing weather, the U.S. soldiers-- Black and White-- refused to give up and became legends as they hurled back everything the Germans could throw at them. The town of Bastogne has never forgotten.
Though the number of returning veterans to the annual celebrations grows smaller and smaller, the appreciation and gratefulness by the local townspeople has only grown stronger as the older generation shares the stories of American soldiers bravery, dedication, and sacrifice. Quite simply, it was an American lovefest for a weekend with every shop or business expressing their thanks and appreciation to what others did so that they could live in freedom. If there is ever any doubt in one's mind about what America represents, and can represent, look into the eyes of an elderly person abroad who lived under the occupation of a dictatorship and watched 18+ year old American boys fight for them and their freedom. Their love and emotion are contagious. They hang American flags from every balcony and window while the same flag is burned back home. These elderly write poems about their American liberators while people cheer as our police are assassinated. A contrast that is very difficult to explain to these thankful Belgians as well as to my three children.2014.12.25.
A special note of thanks to my good friend, Magda Brown of Skokie, IL and Miskolc, Hungary. Among the many times that I have talked to Magda about her experiences growing up in Hungary during the war and her life in America after it, one of my favorite times was when we travelled across the U.S. as part of the Wartime Witness speaking tour three years ago.While we were in NYC, we decided to take the Staten Island Ferry across NY harbor. We stood along the rail of the ferry as we crossed in front of the Statue of Liberty.
Normally, the flow of conversation is robust and it can be difficult to squeeze in a word or question as Magda holds court. But at this point, Magda drew silent. I watched as she stared quietly at Lady Liberty, taking a couple of deep breaths. Then she turned to me and said in an emotional tone that the first time she saw the statue was in 1946 as she came to America for the first time. During the previous 18 months she and her family had been taken from her home in Miskolc, put on a cattle car and sent to Auschwitz. She was able to survive Auschwitz and the war by being selected to work at the Allendorf labor camp and eventually found her way to NY harbor to look the image of freedom in the eye. It remains a constant reminder to me that many people who value freedom, who know it is more than a word, are the people who lost it at some point and were able to get it back. Magda has enjoyed such freedom living in Skokie for nearly 70 years and is a living inspiration to many.2014.09.17.