“I did not understand why they were so afraid”

On 10 May 1940, war broke out in Belgium. The men had to go to the army and the women and children had to stay at home and flee if necessary. Lea Adams was born in 1929 and can still tell a lot about those five years of war.

“I was 10 years old when it all started. I made my solemn communion and had to go to mass every week. On 10 May 1940, I also had to go to mass. I left at 7 a.m. and when I stepped out of the door, the gendarme came to me and said: ‘The war has started.’ I didn’t know what to do, I stood there perplexed.

At that time I lived in Olsene along the Leie. At the beginning of the war, there was a lot of fighting to get across the Leie. But in Olsene, the waters had been canalised, and the Germans did not know that then. They thought that once they had crossed the first section, they could continue, but that was not the case. That made them fight in front of our house for three days.

In May the grain growth was very high, which allowed the Belgian army to hide in the fields. They shot the Germans in the back and many died. But the Germans thought that it was the civilians who were shooting at them. So they chased some local men out of their houses and they had to stand against the wall. Then the Germans said: ‘Die Zivilisten haben gefeuert.’ And then they shot those men in the back. That is how my opposite neighbours died during the war: mum, dad and the two sons.

We had to flee to Kruishoutem because it wasn’t safe in Oslene anymore. We ended up on a farm there. They put the animals out, cleaned the stables and put fresh hay in and we slept there with all the refugees. There was also a shelter room and every time there was a bombing, we had to take shelter there. We had to stay there for a few days until the Germans had crossed the Leie and we could return to our home. I was not afraid at the time, I did not yet know a great danger.

Later in the early war, when the Germans moved towards Antwerp, all the Jews who lived there had to flee. We lived along that route and saw the long queues of people going to France. But in the evening those people looked for a place to sleep and we had big hangars and they slept there.

After a while, those Jews all came back, because Antwerp was safe again. There was a father and a son, both Jews from Antwerp, who slept with us again. But the father was very ill and he couldn’t leave. We were there with those men, but the Germans were already there. We then went to the convent to ask whether they could stay there. The nuns agreed and took care of both men. And when they were better, they could return to Antwerp.

I myself did not understand all this and I did not understand why the Jews were so afraid. I didn’t know at all that there was the persecution of Jews, I was too young to understand that. I had an uncle who was a wholesaler in butter and he was allowed to drive his car around during the occupation. So my uncle brought those two men to Antwerp by car. Because they were too afraid to go by train. I have no idea what happened to those two men afterwards.

At the end of the war, the British were flying over. They were shooting and we had to jump into the canals when we came home from school. But the whole war was a normal thing, it is just like now living in the pandemic. It was just our lives back then.”