Farm girl – Dorothy (Bossuyt) Swedzinski — life during the German Occupation of Belgium

We have been learning about the family of rural Milroy’s Dorothy (Bossuyt) Swedzinski. Her mother, Irma (Cooreman) Bossuyt, grew up near Aalter, Belgium in the years before and during World War I with her mother, Elodie, and siblings Mary, Selma, and Cyriel. Her father, Camiel, was already working in the U.S. to save money and bring them over.

Irma’s handwritten account of those years in Belgium explained how her family’s hardships did not end when the German army ended their occupation of her Belgian village.

“One day I had gone over to my Grandma’s place. Aunt Irma and (Cousin) Augusta were still there. Augusta and I went to the field after a wheelbarrow full of turnips for the cows. Then we picked some butternuts up. Augusta said she was going to sit down and eat them before she went home, but I said I had to go home. So we went back to the place. We just got into the barn when a (German) plane came over and dropped a bomb, but missed the yard which was full of troops. The bomb fell just where we had been pulling the turnips and Aunt Irma thought we were still there. She ran out of the house calling, ‘Oh, the girls! The girls must be hit!’ One soldier said, ‘No. They just went into the barn.’ So our guardian angel was with us.”

Irma, described another close call during the last weeks of the war.

“We slept in a neighbor’s basement. One day mother sent me home for something. Our house was across the street and as I was crossing [shrapnel] came whizzing over my head. I fell flat on the ground and the thing hit the telephone line and bounced off, so I wasn’t hit again. But there were quite a few people killed in town those last two weeks before the armistice.”

Once the armistice became official on Nov. 11, 1918, Irma’s father, Camiel, in Moline, Illinois sent money to bring his family over.

“He wanted us to come as soon as possible, but it took almost a year before we got our [visas]. He sent us packages with flannel, soap, shoes, and other material for dresses. We sure were proud of our shoes. That’s what we came to America with; wearing our high-button shoes our dad sent us (and) dresses made from the material he sent us. All we could take along was what we could carry.”

Irma’s family spent their last months in Belgium with her Aunt Marie and her three girls and one boy. The eight cousins enjoyed their time together until the day Irma’s family left for a new life in the U.S. Her Aunt Irma and cousins, Augusta and Maurice, joined them in their immigration adventure. The two families crossed the English Channel. Once in England they took a train to Liverpool, where they boarded the White Star Line’s R.M.S. Adriatic for the passage to New York. Irma recalled the families enjoying their ten days aboard the Adriatic, aside from everyone but her brother, Cy, being seasick the first day out.

“The food was real good. We all enjoyed it after the first day. We had eggs every morning, sunny side up, which we had never had in our lives. We had good times. Ma said they were the best ten days of her life”

Irma Cooreman was fourteen years old when their ship arrived in New York. The two families reported to Ellis Island where an Army doctor “examined” them from behind his desk. Her Aunt Irma and her cousins were held back, so Irma’s own family continued alone. A YMCA worker in New York put them on a train for Buffalo, where the YMCA put them up for a night; introduced them to a Belgian priest; and put them on the train for South Bend, Indiana the next morning where they stayed with relatives. Irma’s namesake aunt arrived with her children the following day. Irma’s dad soon arrived by train and brought them back to Moline, Illinois where he had rented a small house.

The family lived in Moline for six months before moving to an uncle’s farm northeast of Tracy, Minnesota. Irma started country school, but quit to help on the farm. She learned how to read, write, and speak English, though, and later wrote about life on the Tracy farm.

“Farming was hard work those days. Everything was by hand and with horses. We worked a ½ [section] and really were kept busy. We had lots of good times, too. Saturday night was town night. Everybody was in town – shop first, then take in a show.”

Irma Cooreman lived and worked on the farm with her family for ten years before meeting her future husband, Alphonse Bossuyt, during a visit with relatives near Minneota. Alphonse had emigrated with his family from Belgium when he was four years old. So the two, young adults, both Belgian immigrants, began dating and married on January 8, 1930.

Irma and Alphonse began their married life on a farm near Taunton. They welcomed baby Dorothy on November 18, 1930, born in Tracy because Irma wanted Tracy’s Dr. Valentine to help with her delivery. Their family life together lay ahead, as did the Great Depression and other matters beyond the control of a young farm couple. But their families had taught them how to farm; how to work hard; and how to love their family.

I welcome your participation in and ideas about our exploration of prairie lives. You may reach me at prairieview pressllc@gmail.com.


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