Paula Member of the Belgian Underground
Paula Mihalko’s underground war by Brian O’Neill
When Paula Schroyens Mihalko was a teenager, the Nazis defeated her country. She wasn’t.
On her living room table in Port Vue, she lays out the black and white photos, documents and diary entries that tell the story of one woman’s World War II.
Last month, Mihalko went back to Belgium for the 50th anniversary of the liberation of her hometown, the port of Antwerp.
For nearly a half-century, “I didn’t want to talk about it. I didn’t want to hear about it.” But after her husband, Michael Mihalko the Slovak-American soldier who made her his war brides, died at 80 last Veterans Day, she went to the attic where her previous life was boxed.
She shows me a black and white Mass card for a handsome soldier, a Belgian killed at 30 in a street battle with German soldiers in 1944.
“He died in my arms”, she says.
In an accent that sounds ironically German to my American ears, she recounts a five years period of her youth so cataclysmic the story jumps around in time.
It begins late in 1940, about six months after Belgium fell to Germany. Paula Schroyens; her 4 years old sister and father were walking not far from home when they saw the Gestapo dragging people out of a synagogue and beating them.
Her father, a career soldier in the Belgian Army, was an escaped prisoner of war. Many fellow soldiers had been released, but without documents it was risky for him even to be on the street.
But he told his family, “We have to do something.” Through his old military contacts, he joined “the secret army.”
“We were always looking for trouble.”
The refugees would come to the Schroyens’ coal-cellar for a few days, just enough time to get them clothing and forged passports. Sometimes, she recalled, Orthodox Jewish men would argue with her father about shaving their beards. But he’d insist.
She was not yet 16 and her brother was a year younger, but both became bicycle couriers for the underground. Their work ended one winter day in 1943 when the Gestapo came to the Schroyens home, beat her brother and father and took them away. She would be taken herself a month later and spend 202 days in a small cell with five other women, living on turnips and an occasional crust of bread.
One day they just let her go. Her father and brother returned home about six weeks later.
She had been in nursing school, and once back in Antwerp, she became a nurse for the underground. She also resumed stealing supplies.
“You’d be surprised how easy it is once you start stealing.”
The Germans were becoming increasingly desperate in 1944 and the underground increasingly bold. In September, she was one of the only three women among 190 members of the resistance attached to the Canadian Army in the successful Allied fight to liberate Antwerp. She was on the running board of a Canadian army truck when it hit a mine. She was one of two survivors.
Before me were the photos, the lines of thanks from Canadian soldiers, the bronze medal from the resistance, the Red Cross medal and the post-war document with the photo of a young Paula, former political prisoner.
Paula and her family’s heroic efforts to help Jewish and gentile refugees evade the Gestapo and the Nazi labor camps seem to come full circle. She suffered from colon problems possibly brought on by poor diet. After seeing several doctors to no avail, she went to Mercy Hospital, where a young Jewish surgeon “saved my life,” she said. Act of heroism need not wait until heaven to earn their reward.
Remember the ‘Resistance’
It’s been 50 years since the Allies chased the Nazis out of Belgium, but details of the occupation and liberation still are fresh in the mind on one Belgian natived who now makes her home in Port Vue/
by John Cindrich (October 5, 1994)
Paula Mihalko, of Washington Boulevard, fought through the travails of the German invasion, first as a member of the Belgian resistance movement known as the “Secret Army” or White Brigade,” and later as a member of the Canadian Army’s Nursing Corps.
Mihalko, whose maiden name is Schroyens, recently traveled to her native land to celebrate the 50th anniversary of its liberation. She said she couldn’t afford the trip, but her children insisted on sending her and foot the bill.
She received many honors she was not expecting and enjoyed revisiting Belgium. However, a recent Associated Press story run by the Daily News regarding Belgian liberation and the events that have occurred since struck a dissonant chord with Mihalko. She challenged one assertion of the story in particular.
“The article said the Dutch-speaking Belgians (Flemishs) were those who collaborated with the Nazis, while the French-speaking southerners (Walloons) were members of the Resistance. That just isn’t true,” she said. “I knew just as many of the French (Belgians) who collaborated as resisted.”
Mihalko recounted some of her own adventures in the Belgian underground, about which she is writing a book.
Asked how many persecuted Belgians her family sequestered, Mihalko said she didn't know, but it may have been more than a hundred.
"We didn't know everyone in the chain," she said, "only the people who hid the others before us and those we delivered them to."
She said they wouldn't house more than two or three at a time because large groups of people make too much noise and are impossible to keep hidden.
"We had a three-story house and from the first floor, you could hear someone whirpering on the third."
Milhalko said she has a hard time believing some televised accounts where Resistance members claim to have been hiding a dozen people in their attics at a time.
"If you have two or three people, they make a lot of noise. But 12? That's ridiculous.
Mihalko also told of her 202 days as a political prisoner. She said she was interred March 14, 1943, for her work with the Resistance. At first she was in a camp and later she was put in prison.
She said her father and brother were beaten by the Nazis. After Mihalko was released from prison, her family was closely watched and could no longer harbor fugitives. The Germans put her in a labor camp, but she got an excuse from her doctor, Piere Amy.
Although her excuse was genuine because she was suffering from malnutrition after her internment, it allowed her to do other work with the Resistance movement, such as carrying information to the Allies and serving as a nurse for the White Brigade.
After the Allies swept through Mihalko's home city of Antwerp in September of 1944, she and two of her friends joined with Canada's Royal Hamilton Light Infantry Division as nurses.
It was near the end of the war that she met American soldier Michael Mihalko, who would become her husband. He sent her back to America, where she lived with his relatives until her returned. She said the relatives all spoke Slovak, so she began speaking that language even before she learned English.
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