MY JOURNEY BEGINS
By Mary Rostad
After weeks and maybe months on the road from Brussels, Belgium, to what I hoped would eventually mean joining the Free Belgium Army in England, I was more than ready to rest. I was passed from contact to contact in the Belgian Resistance and later the French Underground during World War II.
If lucky, I slept at night in a church or railroad sidecar. If I was not so lucky, I camped in a barn. I always hated that because I am deathly afraid of mice. My only clothes were the ones I wore when I left home.
I had little to eat those weeks, mainly just a few carrots or apples I found along the road. A rare piece of bread was a feast if I was lucky enough to find a family willing to give me this treat. Eating one apple is a good thing, but when it is your steady diet with little else it does nasty things to your insides, something so hard to deal with on the road.
Being nearly eighteen with my hair in pigtails, I looked young and innocent. That made it easier—but no safer—to pass messages, small arms, and sometimes ammunition to freedom fighters.
Looking back, I can’t believe what I put my parents through during the two years I lived under the Nazis in Belgium and my two years on the road. I did not even say goodbye to my parents that morning I left, other than to pretend I was off to work for the hated Nazis in a factory.
I started walking with little money, no food, and no change of clothes. All I had was a summer coat, certainly not one that would get me through the winter, but then I didn’t expect to be on the road for so long.
I chose not to carry the all-important identification papers, even though I knew I would have to produce them at the whim of any German demanding them. In Europe during those awful days, papers were everything, especially to the Germans who kept meticulous records of every person in every country they occupied.
Why did I not carry these papers? I knew being found with them would put my parents back home at greater risk as the Germans believed in “collective responsibility.” I had heard too many stories of the Nazis torturing and killing an entire family when a loved one was captured while helping the underground. Without the papers identifying me, only I was at risk of being imprisoned, tortured, and shot—not my parents, brother, and sisters.
So I left home and kept on walking one March morning in 1942. I had just a vague notion of where I would meet my first contact in Waterloo, that place in Belgium where Napoleon suffered his final military loss nearly 130 years earlier. I was to meet this unnamed person at La Butte du Lion, “Statue of a Lion.” That statue of a lion was located on a hill that looked toward France as a reminder to the French of their loss to the nations aligned against Napoleon in that long-ago battle.
As instructed, I sat at the bottom of the hill and waited—but not too long. Soon a man came and planted himself next to me. I knew he was my connection when he said, “I come every day to feed the squirrels.”
My code name, Squirrel, came from my nickname in Girl Scouts. We used code names for each other in the resistance because it was too dangerous to know each other’s real identities.
This man stopped only long enough to tell me where I was to go next. And so it went, day after day, week after week, and month after month.
It was all so foolish and yet so important; it was an adventure and youthful silliness and very serious business. I felt I had to do this. I was not the only teenager to be so bold in those days. I was among hundreds and maybe thousands of young people who left home to fight back against the German invasion of our country in any way we could.
I was exhausted, hungry, and cold much of the time as I weaved back and forth between contacts across France. After so much time without rest, I looked forward to being in what was called a safe house—a place where resistance workers on the run could stay without fear and (we hoped) without detection. When one such place was described to me, I imagined the opportunity to take a bath and wash my clothes. I dreamed of a good meal for once. Yes, I would connect with people who felt the same way I did about the Nazi invasion and occupation of Belgium and France.
But just as I turned the corner into the block where the safe house was located in Lyon, France, I heard a sound that was as terrifying as it got in those days—the wails of a siren. With heart-pounding fear, I quietly turned back and quickly—but calmly—walked away.
Had I arrived five minutes earlier at the safe house I would have been in the hands of the Gestapo. You would not be reading this book.