© Emma Thomson
Louise Wijnant has lived in Liedekerke all her life. Situated just south of Aalst, the small village invited more interest from the Germans that usual during World War II because of its radio station hidden in the nearby forest. The shack was the only facility in the area capable of receiving long-distance radio messages from the UK and US, and the Germans were keen to intercept any communication. One lunchtime, as we sat around her dining-room table eating pancakes, she told me, in her booming voice, what life had been like as a child during the war.
I was seven years old when the war started. I had one set of clothes and used to run around barefoot. We couldn’t afford electricity, so used petrol lamps instead. At first we weren’t really affected, but then food supplies began to run low and the rations tickets they issued were never enough to feed everyone. Instead of registering our goats and sheep, we began to hide them in the woods – that was our ‘black market’ for meat.
When I was nine, mum used to let me sneak up to the railway tracks at midnight with my brother, to collect coal that had fallen off the back of the wagons. One night, when we were just 100m from home, we heard voices. We threw ourselves to the ground, listening. After several minutes of hearing nothing, we decided to get up. But, as my brother wandered off into the darkness, two German police emerged from the shadows and caught me with my sack of coal. I thought they would confiscate it as usual, but instead they asked me where I lived. I silently pointed to my house a hundred yards away, fearing worse punishment, but to my surprise they let me go! I think they must have taken pity on me for dragging it all that way.
When the bombs started to fall, we were lucky to have connections with the white brigade, who warned us when the attacks might begin, so we could board up our windows. My mother owes her life to them. She was caught smuggling bread and threatened with deportation to the German work camps, so they hid the whole family. Luckily, Belgium was liberated 14 days later.
The world seemed to turn inside out after the war. There was so much of everything; everyone screamed with excitement the first time someone got a radio. We have come such a long way. I remember walking with my father, fantasising about the idea of space travel and yet, miraculously, he managed to see the first shuttle launch before he died.