From Brussels, Belgium to Philadelphia, PA
By Jeanne Conn
I will try to tell you the story of my life in American. For the past 52 years I have lived I Philadelphia, Pa. I never thought of myself as an immigrant from Belgium, it is more “an affair of the heart”.
My name is Jeanne Culvelier. I was born in Adinkerke-DePanne on February 23, 1927, in my maternal grandmother’s home. My father was Jerome Cuvelier and my mother was Pelagie Masscheleyn. My mother was born in Sint Niklass and grew up in Ieper. During World War I her family fled to Adinkerke because of the devastation in Ieper. My father was born and raised in Adinkerke. So I am truly a “Wesvlaming” or as they say “van bachten de kuppe”. After a couple of weeks we all returned to Brussels where my parents and my 18 months old brother Jean had their home (in Anderlecht).
In 1914, when my father was thirteen, he went to Fribourg, Switzerland. He was taken in by a loving family of farmers and remained there for the duration of the war. When he returned home, he spoke perfect French and vowed to remain bilingual. Right about the time he met my mother, he had to enter the military service. He told her that, should their relationship develop. She would have to be willing to move to Brussels with him
because that’s where he wanted to live.
On August 25th, 1923, they married and immediately moved to Brussels. My father had started to work for the Belgian Railroad and was lucky to get a transfer to Brussels. He became a train conductor. He remained there until his retirement at age 55. He always loved his work and often said he was the happiest man in the world. We lived a very happy life, my parents, my brother and I. We spent a lot of time visiting our grandparents and other relatives in Adinkerke. We spent every school vacation at the seaside with our grandparents. Grand-mom would take all of her grandchildren and her dog to the dunes where we played in the sand all afternoon.
May 10th, 1940… World War II… I was thirteen and my brother was fifteen.
Lots of bridges and train stations were destroyed early on. Life became progressively harder. We were not allowed to travel by train any further then Gent. So we did not see our grandparents. My parents bought a ‘tandem’ bicycle to ride out to see their folks every few months. It is during that awful time that my grandfather died of a heart attack, on the street, carrying a heavy bag of coal he bought on the ‘black-market’. We were not allowed to go to his funeral. My parents rode their bike.
The occupation was very long and discouraging. We were under strict rules from the Germans. There was a curfew. Adults needed special passed to be outdoors late at night. There was a complete ‘black-out’ and we could be arrested if any light was seen through windows or doors. In the beginning there was no music allowed and dancing was forbidden in the ‘Cafes’. It was a serious and dull time for young people. We were heavily rationed and there was little food available. We would have to stay in line for hours in front of a fish store to be able to buy a couple of smoked herrings for a family of four. At the end of the month we could throw away our food stamps, because the stores did not have enough merchandise to supply everyone. Clothes and shoes were unavailable. People knitted sweaters and skirts if they were able to buy the yarn somewhere. There was also great fear about the V-1 and V-2s that landed in the area. Many people were killed or injured and there was much destruction. I had elected to go to a French speaking high school. Since we spoke Flemish at home all the time, we thought I could perfect my French. However, shortly thereafter, the Gestapo arrived to check the school records. Any student with Flemish roots was made to go to a Flemish school. The school administration had to abide by the rules and promptly hired a couple of young Flemish teachers and made a classroom out of a large supply room. The Flemish department was formed; “L’ecole professionelle Marius Renard” was now bilingual. Attempts were made to pronounce my name with a Flemish pronunciation rather than a French one (as in Maurice Chevalier). In any event, there were only five girls in our class. It was almost private tutoring, and we received a fabulous high school education.
June 6th, 1944; D-Day
With the Invasion of Normandy, a more intense warfare began for the Belgians. The Battle of the Bulge, in southern Belgium, was one of the deadliest battles of the war. So many brave Americans offered up their lives to liberate the allied countries.
previous story next story