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

We have begun learning about Dorothy (Bossuyt) Swedzinski’s family, a farm girl from rural Milroy whose parents emigrated from Belgium as youngsters in the early 1900s. Her mother, Irma (Cooreman) Bossuyt, grew up near the Belgian community of Aalter with her mother, Elodie, and siblings Mary, Selma, and Cyriel. Her father, Camiel, was living and working in the U.S. to save money and bring them over.

Irma (Cooreman) Bossuyt left a handwritten account of those years in Belgium. The outbreak of World War I in 1914 and occupation of Belgium by the German Army disrupted her father’s plan to return for the family and ushered in years of hardship for her family. Her father, Camiel, was unable to assist them as they could not leave Belgium and he could not travel to Belgium. The letters Camiel sent during the war did not even get delivered until after war’s end. Irma, her mother, Elodie, and her siblings were very much on their own.

Irma described some of the changes brought on by the German occupation.

“We all had to have passports from ten years on and we could not leave our towns. We had school in a castle in the woods for a while as the people that owned the property left for England before the Germans came. Later the German soldiers (who had taken over the original schoolhouse) all got rooms in people’s homes. Our landlady had her upstairs full of soldiers and an officer in her best bedroom.”

Irma wrote how the occupying German Army also requisitioned much of what the Belgians produced and even some of the goods they owned.

“[T]hey (farmers) were not allowed to butcher their own pigs or even rabbits. They could only keep a certain percent of the rye, wheat, and potatoes they raised. One time everyone was ordered to take in all their woolens. My mother had a wool mattress, so her and a neighbor buried it underground. It rotted. Another time [German soldiers] came to search for copper. We had a copper hanging lamp. I was home alone. The soldier that came in didn’t search much. He did go upstairs where it was hanging, but he didn’t even look up. He came right down again.”

Irma wrote about how the German wartime occupation led to other hardships.

“Food really became scarce as none came into the country. We were real hungry in 1916. [It was] a really hard winter with no fuel, or very little. We were so cold, we all slept together in mother’s bed. For light in the evening we had a little dish with oil and a little wick in there that gave a light smaller than a candle.”

She wrote about food assistance from abroad.

“[F]ood started coming in from America. A committee was formed and the food that was coming in from America was rationed. (Families had a designated day to pick up their food ration.) At school we got soup or a bun and cup of cocoa at noon.”

Irma wrote how Elodie Cooreman and her children had to pitch in to pull the family through the terrible, four-year occupation.

“Instead of going to school in 1917 and 1918, I stayed with our landlady to babysit. Then later I herded the 4 cows and helped around the house and barn. I liked it there. We had enough to eat there. My mother worked there in the summer. I helped work in the field the last summer we were there: crawling on our knees to weed the rye field; cleaning the potato field; helping shock the rye; and pulling the flax out by the roots and putting it in piles. I also ran a lot of [errands] for the neighbors and went to the creamery with 2 farmers’ milk with a dog cart to get it separated. [S]ome of the skim milk was brought back. Cy (her brother) herded cows too for another farmer and drove that same dog cart that I did, although he was only 9 years old.”

But the war weighed heavily on Irma. She wrote, “So the war went on. It seemed like it was never going to end. In the summer we went to a little chapel at noon and prayed the rosary for peace.”

Then they began seeing changes.

“In the summer of 1918 the war was coming to an end. We saw fires to the west where they were fighting and heard the rumble of the cannons and artillery. Now and then we saw a plane fight — 2 little planes shooting at each other. We ran to our house when that happened.”

She described the end of the German occupation in detail.

“We were all in a neighbors’ basement at night the last time we saw German soldiers. 2 came and talked to us and said in the morning you will have English soldiers here. We couldn’t believe it, but it was true. Only they were French soldiers. The neighbor farmer’s barn was full of horses. They fed them such good food. It was sweet. We helped ourselves to the feed as they had big sacks standing around and we were so hungry. It was something like the dogfood they have nowadays, except it was moist and good.”

The Germans had left Irma’s community, but the war was not yet over, nor had they joined her father in the U.S.

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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