June 9, 2006
Sports of The Times
Cosmic Questions on a Journey of Discovery
By GEORGE VECSEY
I AM not the first member of my family to come to Essen.
I arrived yesterday morning to cover some World Cup games in this area, the first time I have ever been in this old coal-mining town, the city of the Krupps.
By sheer coincidence, I recently learned that exactly 63 years ago, on June 8, 1943, an aunt of mine was in Essen.
My mother often talked about her cousins Florrie and Leopold. She had met them when she visited Belgium, in the space between the world wars. They were the children of my grandmother's sister, an Irish woman who had moved to Belgium and married a coachman for the king.
We grew up knowing that our Belgian-Irish relatives had sheltered British fugitives during the war. Looking back now, I wish I had asked more questions of my grandmother and my mother, but children are rarely smart enough to ask the right questions while the old people are still alive.
This is not a subject I bring up lightly, to cast gloom on my coverage of the World Cup, my favorite event. Nor do I have any intent of slurring this compelling modern country I am at long last discovering. My wife and I have explored the emerging Mitte section of Berlin, wandered the parks and canals of Hamburg, and yesterday we strolled around Essen, and I talked about the World Cup with a helpful young salesman who sold me a telephone card.
"My team is not in it," he said, adding, "I root for Turkey" the surprise third-place team of 2002. Germany is becoming somewhat like my home country, a nation with many complicated loyalties. The anniversary of my aunt's trial here is very ancient history.
In 1941, British military prisoners jumped off a Nazi train taking them from Belgium to Germany, and sought shelter in Anglophone households in Brussels. It would have been easy for people to bar the door, respond in a different tongue, turn the men away, but many courageous Belgians sequestered these men in closets and attics or much more openly.
In July of 1941, my relatives, the Duchene family, harbored a member of the Glasgow Highlanders named John McCubbin. Sometimes he helped my aunt in her millinery shop; sometimes he and his Highlander mates posed for pictures in civilian clothes, looking almost relaxed. They were safe until Sept. 25, 1941, when the Gestapo knocked at the Duchenes' door, and shot McCubbin when he tried to escape. He survived, and ultimately he and Bobby Conville and Allan Cowan, two other Scottish soldiers who were hidden in Brussels, made it home.
My grandmother's sister, Anne Duchene, whom the soldiers called "Jeannie" or "Mum," was detained for a while and then released because she was 72 and she promptly resumed hiding British escapees, without being caught. My aunt Florence disappeared into the camps, and never came home. We have a photograph of Anne Duchene and her gaunt son Leopold shortly after the war ended. She has a large medal around her neck; he is wearing a military jacket and some medals. Soon afterward, Leopold died. This was the legacy of our family the European aunt and uncle we would never meet.
In 1954, the legendary Associated Press columnist Hal Boyle returned to Europe, which he had covered as a young war reporter. My father, who worked with Hal, referred him to our relative in Brussels, and, of course, Hal got a column out of the old lady. It was called "The Door of Madame Duchene," and was later reprinted in Hal's book, "Help, Help! Another Day! The World of Hal Boyle," published in 1969.
As journalists will do, Hal saved the cosmic question for the end: Did my great aunt ever regret taking the Scottish soldier into her home? "No," she told him. "I make out. I have no regrets except that I have lost my two children. That is the worst of all." Then she added, "It had to be so."
Only a few months ago, I was puttering around on the Internet and discovered photographs of my aunt and her mother, plus a photograph of the street in Brussels where my relatives had harbored the soldiers (Rue Sans-Souci French for "Street Without Care"). I also learned that my aunt's name is chiseled on a monument to the Belgian resisters, in Ixelles, near their old home.
The military trial was held "inside the Reich as was stipulated in the 1941 Night-and-Fog decree," Gert de Prins, a historian with the Belgian Department of War Victims, wrote me in an e-mail message. De Prins also said the trial lasted from June 8 through June 11, and that Florence Duchene was sent with 20 other Belgian and Polish women to Ravensbrück and then to Mauthausen and on to Bergen-Belsen, where she died in April of 1945, just short of her 39th birthday.
The Duchene family has always served me as a hopeful sign that somewhere inside me there are a few genes for bravery. I am sure that the vanished line of family has reinforced my strong feeling that I am part European, which perhaps is why I respond to old cities and cafés and trams and languages and, yes, the sport of Europe. I also know that when I visit Germany these days, I am home.
Looking for leads to my aunt's trial, I visited the Old Synagogue here, now operated by the state. The names and photographs of vanished members of the synagogue are preserved, for all of us to ponder. The city also suffered, horribly, and has come back.We came out into the sunlight and stopped off at Starbucks and bought a large Americano and chatted with the German kid behind the counter, who spoke English like a Yank. Tonight I'll watch on television as the resourceful contenders from the host country play the opening match. The World Cup is here, and summer is arriving in Essen. I am not the first member of my family to come here.
Mr Vecsey's article mention Hal Boyles's book "Help, Help! Another Day! The World of Hal Boyle," published in 1969 here is the story on Madame Duchene fronm the book.
The Door of Madame Duchene
The scar of a German Gestapo agent's bullet still can be seen in the neat green doorway of Madame Josef Duchene.
Every time she goes through the door the mark reminds Mrs.Duchene, an Irish-born widow of 85 who has become a symbol of Belgian civilian courage, of the terrible price she paid for sheltering two fugitive British soldiers during the last war.
"People used to come often to look at the bullet hole," said Mrs. Duchene, a sweet-faced, white-haired old lady with apple pink cheeks, who wears a black ribbon at her throat. "But no one has come now for a long time."
Born Anna Hodges in Waterford, Ireland, in 1869, she came here at 18 as a nursery governess. This is the story she told me as we sat in her small living room, hung with pictures of her late husband, her two dead children, King Albert, Belgium's First World War hero, and the present Queen Elizabeth of Britain.
"I felt so young and strange and homesick when I first came here," she said, "but people were nice to me and I felt better after I learned their language and their ways. Later I married Josef, coachman to the King. I forget the year, but I remember I was 30."
During the First World War her husband was sent to England with the King's horses. Mrs. Duchene remained here during the German occupation with her children, Leopold and Florrie. No funds reached them and they had a difficult time.
"Often we were hungry," recalled Mrs. Duchene. "But we made out."
During this period Leopold, although underage, ran away and joined the army, later was captured by the Germans.
Reunited, the Duchene family had a tough struggle in the years between the wars. Money was scarce, but Mrs. Duchene now looks back wistfully upon this as a happy time, because those she loved were at least together.
After the collapse of the Allied lines in the last war, two young Scottish soldiers, John McCubbin and Bobby Conville, leaped from a Nazi prisoner train near here and escaped.
"The woman who hid them became frightened," recalled Mrs. Duchene. "I couldn't let the Germans take those boys again, so I said they could hide with us. We had a bed but no mattress, so Florrie and I ripped open our sofa pillows and made them a mattress, so the poor lads would sleep easier.
"That Bobby-he was such a good little boy. Always laughing. My daughter ran a millinery shop, and Bobby used to help her make hats."
The two British soldiers hid out in the Duchene home at night for 14 months, sometimes moving to other places during the day. One day, while Bobby was out, three Gestapo agents knocked at the door. They searched the house and found McCubbin, shot and wounded him when he tried to escape.
"I told Florrie to run out the back, that it made no difference if the Germans took me as I wouldn't live long anyway," said Mrs. Duchene. "But she wouldn't leave me."
Mother and daughter were put in solitary confinement in prison here. Neither would give any information to their captors. After nine months, during which her husband had died, Mrs. Duchene was released.
"But they took Florrie to Ravensbruck, that awful place," she said, "and later to Belsen, the most terrible of all.
"When she fell ill, they took her away from the other prisoners one day. I have asked and asked what happened to her after that, and no one will tell me.
"She was so good and nice so kind to everybody."
Bobby Conville was smuggled back to Britain by the Belgian underground. John McCubbin, despite a bullet in his back, survived his wartime stay in a German prison camp.
Both men got in touch with Mrs. Duchene as soon as they could to thank her. Three grateful governments-Belgium, Britain, and the United States-have honored the gallant old widow with citations and medals for her valor.
Mrs, Duchene lives now on a small governnwnt pension which she says is all she needs. She does her own housework, reads and sews.
But her son, Leopold, has died since the war and she is now all alone.
Does she ever regret taking the two escaped British prisoners into her home, an act that changed her life?
"No, I make out," she said sturdily. "I have no regrets except that I have lost my two children. That is the worst of all."
There was a silence; then as if the words were dredged forcibly from her heart, Mrs Duchene said:
"It had to be so."
As she let me out , she looked quietly at the paint-covered bullet sear on her door.
"Time passes," she said. The door closed, leaving the old lady alone with her medals and her memories.
Click on www.belgiumww2.info to go to INTRODUCTION