Resisting Holocaust in Belgium was ‘the moral thing’ to do
Michelle Culbertson is honored to be lighting a candle on
For Michelle Culbertson, there’s nothing remarkable about what she did as a teenager to help with the resistance in Belgium after troops from Nazi Germany invaded in May 1940.
“What’s important in life is that it’s the moral thing to do what you can to protect the innocent and persecuted. We are to do that if we are to call ourselves human beings,” she said.
“I do not tolerate discrimination, nor do my children. I did not know about discrimination until the troops rounded up Jews,” she said. “Whether it’s American Indians, Jews, or any race or faith, I taught my children not to discriminate.”
“I used to keep my background secret, but people were curious because of my accent and would ask,” she said. “In the 1950s, when I told about concentration camps in Germany, people did not want to believe it. They thought the reports were exaggerated. Now enough has been written that more people are aware.”
Because of misconceptions about Europe and Belgium, such as assumptions that Europeans were poor, she urges people to travel to Europe and elsewhere to see how people live.
“We embrace every culture,” she said, noting that her daughters have friends in Australia, Papua New Guinea, New Zealand, France, Belgium and other countries.
Michelle did not talk much about what she experienced and did, partly because those in the resistance could not safely tell anyone at the time and partly because after she married an American, moved Eastern Washington and settled in Spokane in 1959, few Americans wanted to believe there had been atrocities committed in concentration camps in Germany.
For countries west of Germany, World War II began in 1940. Michelle was in ninth grade, living in Courcelles, Belgium, where her ancestors had lived for centuries.
The densely populated country had 10.5 million people living in an area the size of Maryland. Contrary to assumptions that Europe was backward, she said her family had a big house with electricity, running water and a gas stove.
She took the streetcar to school in Charleroi, where she had some Jewish classmates.
“I remember watching them study Hebrew,” she said.
Belgium was 90 percent Catholic, plus Protestants, Jews and people like her family, who had no religious affiliation.
“When Germans came and rounded up Jews to send them to concentration camps, my mother’s sister brought in two Jewish families and hid them until they found a place in the country,” Michelle said.
One of them was a woman who gave birth in a hospital just after the invasion. Her husband had gone across the street to buy some food and was picked up.
“Someone sold out the family. He was sent to Germany to a concentration camp,” she said. “My aunt asked us to help feed the mother. We were on rations immediately and shared our own rations. We needed several families to help provide food.”
In 1939, after Germans invaded Poland, her family expected Belgium would be invaded. So they began buying 50-kilo sacks of flour, sugar and other basics to store in their basement.
“My parents and grandparents remembered the rationing in World War I,” she said.
In addition to their stock of food, they bought food on the black market. Those who could not do that were hungry, because after farmers turned in their quotas of food to the occupiers, they sold the rest on the black market, where there was no set price.
The rations were barely enough to survive.
Michelle said one girl at another school was sick because she was so hungry she had eaten boiled potato skins.
A man whose children were hungry had crawled into a farmer’s field to take potatoes. The farmer shot him.
During the invasion in May 1940, she and her family hid in their cellar for a week. They heard tanks rolling on the cobblestone streets. When they came out, the German Nazi troops were in control.
“Everyone had to turn in firearms, but my mother did not turn in hers. She hid it in the springs of an old chair,” Michelle said.
Her sister’s husband was in the resistance, so her mother gave him the gun.
The SS rounded up and sent Belgian men to Germany as forced labor to replace German men fighting on the Russian front.
Farmers hid Jews and men, including her mother’s nephew.
“My cousin was in a group of men ready to go to Germany. Standing on the platform, he saw a train behind him leaving. He jumped on it to escape and hid,” she said. “Then he stayed with us for a while.”
Michelle thinks neighbors hid some people, because she saw people come out at night for fresh air.
“Our home was declared a safe home. A Belgian colonel on the run hid in our house. We never knew the names of people who came, slept and were gone the next day, so we couldn’t tell about them,” she said.
“We never talked about what we did with our relatives or grandparents,” she said, “because anyone who was captured and tortured might tell who fed or hid people.”
Near the end of the war in 1944, unmarried women were sent to work in Germany.
Having completed school, Michelle, 17, was in danger, but a family friend who was an architect hired her as a secretary. She answered phones in his office.
He was a captain in the resistance, so there were hand grenades and military maps hidden behind stacks of paper.
One day, an inspector came to check the food stamp office downstairs, which created false identities for people. He found the papers.
“We were on the same phone line, so when he went to call to report what he found, I had the phone off the hook. Some employees bought his silence. If he had reported what was happening, we would have all been taken,” Michelle said.
“While many were in the resistance, some had no scruples and collaborated. It was good for them then, but not after war,” she said.
Belgians were angry, because three weeks before liberation, collaborators rounded up priests, the head of the Red Cross and doctors, and shot them near her home.
“These were the people we needed most at the time,” she said.
Later, collaborators were rounded up, their heads were shaven, they were marched down the streets and jeered, and they went to prison,” she said. “There were too many collaborators.”
Michelle was disappointed that her first grade teacher was a collaborator.
“Most people were afraid much of the time, never knowing what would happen next,” she said. “Sometimes one person in a family was a collaborator, and others were not.”
Michelle said there were many heroes among Jews and people in the resistance. The things they did required much courage and self-sacrifice.
“The resistance blew up enemy installations and railroad depots,” she said of efforts to destroy weapons and block transportation. “We had to destroy installations before D-Day.”
People in England told the resistance what to do. When the resistance acted, there were reprisals for everyone: curfews, cuts to rations and rounding up people.
Michelle met her husband, who he was in the U.S. Air Force, stationed near her home.
Five months after he was discharged late in 1945, she came to the United States in March 1946.
Over the years, Michelle went home to Belgium every other year to see her mother, sister, brother-in-law and nephew. Her nephew is the only one still living there now.
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