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< Echoes of Memory

Dunkirk: May 1940


By Harry Markowicz

Following the German invasion of Poland on September 1, 1939, Britain and France declared war on Germany. The British Expeditionary Force was posted at the French-Belgian border to prevent Germany from invading France. Between the two world wars, France had built the Maginot Line—formidable fortifications along its border with Germany. On May 10, 1940, Germany invaded the neutral countries of Belgium, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands in order to bypass the Maginot Line and to invade France where its defenses were weakest. British troops then moved into Belgium to try to stop the German advance toward France.

On May 14—my sister’s and my brother’s birthday—four days after Germany started invading Belgium, my parents, my sister, Rosi, my brother, Mani, and I left Antwerp and joined the mass exodus of Belgian civilians who were trying to get into France to escape the rapidly advancing German army. My parents, together with four other families, engaged the owner of a truck to take us to the French border. When we reached Ostend, on the Belgian coast, the truck driver declared that was as far as he was going. He left us on the side of the main road crowded with refugees heading south toward France by various means of transportation: cars, trucks, motorcycles, horse carts, and bicycles, but mostly on foot.

From there, we continued by walking toward the French border along the Belgian coastline with one of the other families that had been on the truck with us. Years earlier in Berlin, Mr. Lefkowicz had been my father’s business partner, while Mrs. Lefkowicz was a distant relative on my mother’s side. My parents had met at their wedding, which took place in Danzig in the 1920s. The Lefkowiczes had two children— Felix was 12 years old, my sister’s age, and Liza was three years old, like me. Along the way, my father and Mr. Lefkowicz bought a three-wheel, pedal-powered surrey normally used by vacationers to ride on the boardwalks of coastal resort towns. All of the belongings that we had taken along, such as clothing, bedding, as well as the silverware, were loaded on the surrey. While Liza and I perched on top, the others pushed and pulled us along the road toward the Belgian-French border.

At the border, Belgian citizens were allowed into France but stateless people like us were turned back. Later, I learned from my sister, Rosi, that our mother had tried to convince a Polish-speaking French border guard to let us into France, but to no avail. We had no recourse but to turn back in the direction of the oncoming German army on its way to invade France. We moved back to La Panne, a seaside resort near the border, where my parents rented a villa near the beach. My parents were running out of money, so they rented out rooms to other refugees who also had been turned back at the French border.

By this time, the German army had encircled several hundred thousand British, French, and Belgian troops with their backs to the North Sea along the beaches between La Panne and the harbor town of Dunkirk located a few miles south on the other side of the Belgian-French border. The only way to prevent the Allied soldiers from being captured by the German forces was to evacuate them by boat. The German Luftwaffe had bombed the port of Dunkirk, preventing the British naval ships from picking up the Allied troops in the harbor and forcing the soldiers to wade into the sea. The loading process was progressing slowly until thousands of small crafts, boats with shallow drafts, came from England to help evacuate 385,000 soldiers, mostly British, but including 100,000 French and smaller numbers of Belgian and Dutch soldiers.

The German ground forces were ordered to stop their advance some distance from the beaches, possibly because they had outrun their supplies. However, the Luftwaffe continued to attack the Allied soldiers on the beaches and strafed civilians on the roads. In the sky above, the British Royal Air Force engaged the German fighter planes in air duels.

Many years later, I learned of the miraculous evacuation to Britain of Allied soldiers from the beaches from Dunkirk to La Panne during a period of eight to nine days. When I asked my brother, Mani, what he remembered about those events, he told me that all night British and Belgian soldiers were walking around the sides of the villa toward the sea. The next morning he walked down to the beach and discovered a makeshift pier consisting of a column of military trucks driven into the ocean. The stragglers were picked up by small boats, which ferried them to the naval ships out at sea.

Mani also told me that at some point, my father and Mr. Lefkowicz went to search for food, which was extremely scarce since we were in the middle of a war zone. When approaching German planes started strafing the roadway, my father and Mr. Lefkowicz, along with other civilians, ran into an empty factory for shelter. They didn’t realized that the roof was made of glass until they were inside. After the planes had passed my father got up and realized that a bullet had gone through his pants without harming him. Mr. Lefkowicz was not so lucky—a piece of shrapnel went into his buttock. An ambulance came along and loaded all the injured civilians, including Mr. Lefkowicz. Shortly before the ambulance was going to leave for the hospital, Mr. Lefkowicz jumped out of the ambulance telling my father that in all this chaos he would never be able to find his family. Fortunately for him, they found a doctor who removed the piece of shrapnel and tended to his wound.

My very first memory dates back to that period. I remember lying in a ditch beside my mother and other civilians. Standing tall next to me on the roadway, a British officer is calmly scanning the sky through binoculars. In my memory of the event I don’t see what the British officer is observing in the sky. His presence and his bearing are comforting. I continue to watch him but soon I fall asleep. When I wake up we are still in the ditch but the towering figure is no longer standing there. I ask my mother, “Where did he go?” She replies, “The soldiers are gone.” That’s all she says, but I sense fear, maybe in her voice, or in her body language. That was the last British soldier I saw until the liberation of Brussels by British troops four years later.

©2013, Harry Markowicz. The text, images, and audio and video clips on this website are available for limited non-commercial, educational, and personal use only, or for fair use as defined in the United States copyright laws.

Tags:   harry markowiczechoes of memory, volume 7

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