“Heim Ins Reich” was the slogan for a brutal regime’s policy of repatriating the population of Luxembourg into the “German Reich”, based on presumed cultural and linguistic affinity. The year 1939 was truly eventful and tumultuous: Hitler would invade Poland; Luxembourg would celebrate its first hundred years of independence as a constitutional monarchy. I, Marcel, the youngest of three sons would be born that year to Pierre and Marie Didier in Belair, a suburb of Luxembourg City. For almost a thousand years, Luxembourg City, the capital of this tiny landlocked country between France, Belgium and Germany had occupied a preeminent and coveted geopolitical spot due to its “Gibraltar of the North” designation (the city on the rock traces its history back to the year 965). Every time the great powers of Europe settled an argument, Luxembourg would be reconfigured, losing in size, but gaining in title: from Duchy to Grand Duchy. Rumors of war abounded during that fateful year, but ominously shrouded in collective denial. Such weighty topics did not impact my two older brothers and I until the physical presence of foreign military with Nazi flags that punctuated our neighborhood.
Tragedy and hardship became the standard of living for four years following the May 10, 1940 invasion by Nazi troops crossing undefended national borders in vineyard country of the Moselle River valley. They came to “liberate” us and return us to a new thousand-year Reich. “Heim Ins Reich” was the German prescription that was to make Luxembourgers happy, as if we had been unjustly torn from a Greater Germany. While the Grand Duchess and her family hurriedly departed for Canada, America and England, as did major governmental figures, the general population would undergo Germanization. All uses of French language and terminology were outlawed; French-sounding names were changed to German names, including all personal and public names. Luxembourg youth was required to join the Hitler Youth, serving the Nazi regime. Luckily none of us boys was old enough to be conscripted for this perverted endeavor. Older men were, however, conscripted to serve in the German army. Many deserted and were hiding throughout the land for the duration, others were sent to fight Russians on the eastern front in German uniforms. Not being trusted with live ammunition, many were required to charge Russian positions with bayonets and shovels. German officers had bullets in their side-arms earmarked for those conscripts that would not shoot in the direction of Russia.
Luxembourgers suddenly took their own slogan to heart, declaring their determination to “remain what we are” (Mir wölle bleiwen wat mir sin). Small but proud and independent. Resistance started immediately and spontaneously. The new “governor” of Luxembourg, Gustav Simon, personally appointed as “Gauleiter” by Hitler undertook the fundamental transformation of the nation. Reward and punishment programs failed to enlist the spirit of change in the minds of Luxembourgers, though a handful of citizens joined the Nazi program either out of fear, out of a feeling of new-found power over others, or because of family or other connections to Germany. Sadly, some did believe in the Nazi program and willingly joined the Nazi machine.
Patriots, like my Dad, were often more gutsy than smart as members of various resistance groups. Dad would antagonize uniformed military, often pretending to salute the Führer as required, but managing to tweak their noses instead. Twice was he convened to the infamous Villa St. Pauly, the national headquarters of the German Secret Police known as the Gestapo. Twice he was able to talk himself out of trouble and was never arrested or tortured as many others were in the basement of that hell-hole. Horror stories filled the post-war national press, horror stories of many who were “suspected of anti-German activities” and who never left the villa alive or free. Many who failed to salute the Nazi flag or otherwise disrespected the Nazis were deported and never heard from again. Such was the case of my uncle Albert New who one day failed to come home from his railroad job, coincident with a failed national strike. Another uncle who wanted to go-along in order to get-along was punished after the war for not being resistant enough to the Nazis. After the war, collaborators were initially paraded in the streets where the population could take revenge; women collaborators had their heads shaved, men collaborators were arrested, paraded and judged in a special tribunal. As is so often the case in reconciliation periods during which the fog of post-war frenzies many were wrongly accused and mistreated. And many members of special tribunals played the roles of judge and jury undeservedly, unfairly and even fraudulently. Dad, who too often risked deportation of his whole family, and even death during the 4-year trauma, declined to join these “law and order” committees and tribunals, being disgusted with belated and ‘convenient’ patriotism by too many.
Dad had the attention of the Nazi Command as he frequently traveled to Brussels and other places to acquire tubing and other materials to manufacture bicycles, a rare commodity during the war. Those tubes and tires provided a convenient hiding place for currency and messages between resistance cells. Spy tales and stories of intrigue told by Dad and others after the liberation were plentiful. Most were chilling revelations about missed appointments in dark corners of Brussels due to mismatched flowers in one’s lapel, or mismatched code words that would immediately raise suspicions about a set up on either side.
Though too young perhaps to fully understand the implications of certain events, the three boys would witness a spine tingling episode of the classic movie scene in which a truckload of German soldiers comes screeching to a halt in front of Dad’s retail shop, followed by an officer’s open-top car out of which would step a typical Nazi officer who hurriedly entered the premises, taking direct aim at a cupboard where Dad was keeping black market cigarettes intended to finance resistance activities. By sheer luck, the last packet had been sold just hours before. Without evidence, Nazi code would not permit an arrest, and they departed. But the officer returned immediately by himself to give Dad a warning: “watch your friends”, he declared, and departed. This stunning revelation was unsettling to Dad, but grateful for this show of humanity in a sea of inhumanity.
Women were left alone, but that did not mean that Mom could relax. Violation of Nazi laws was always met with the deportation of whole families who would be separated into camps for adult males, adult women and the children. So Mom always had the bags packed in case such an order would befall the family.
Luxembourg boys were not spared from direct participation in the new fatherland somehow. Little kids like me had no connection to the occupiers except when an inadvertent rule breaking would take place. Such was the case for me one evening when I heard rumblings in the street. Darkened windows did not allow even a peak into the street. Curiosity drove me to open the door ever so slightly to find out what the noise was all about. A Nazi soldier noticed my defiance of the law, aimed his weapon at me and chased me into the house and down into the basement where I promptly got a major lecture. Though my knowledge of German was extremely limited at age 4, I understood clearly that I was an outlaw and might get punished, judging by the angry mannerism of the soldier. He turned around and left out the front door, admonishing my parents on the way.
As I was being chased into the basement, we passed a room to which my Dad had “lost” the key. Inside was a sick Jewish Luxembourger who was waiting to be transported over the border to France. After the war, Dad explained that there frequently were guests in that room, without mother and family being aware of it. Among them was even an American soldier who was operating behind enemy lines and had become injured. Mom almost suffered a heart attack when Dad made these revelations, after the war, angry at him for jeopardizing the whole family. But such were the contingencies in time of war. Risk then appears relative. Just having a French or American or British flag in one’s possession was considered treason. Not saluting the German flag was equally treasonous and punishable.
In this circus of inhumanity, our parents tried hard to teach us to be careful and correct toward the invaders. We would hear stories of other families being deported for relatively minor offenses. We were also aware of the “yellow gnomes” who were Luxembourgers that collaborated with the Germans, wearing a dark yellow uniform. They did so out of fear or perhaps out of a sense of empowerment for the first time in their lives. Many were friends or acquaintances who made clear to us that they would never betray us to their masters. But everyone was under suspicion and most were not trusted.
Dad was fully informed about the June 6, 1944 landings on the coast of France by Allied armed forces, having listened, illegally, to the broadcasts from England. Headphones were not common at the time, so that the volume had to be very low for fear of soldiers hearing these broadcasts through outside windows. Care was given to meticulously returning the radio dial to a German station after the Sunday morning broadcast, in case a Gestapo would visit and notice the radio dial tuned to the wrong broadcast.
While Luxembourg’s liberation was still three months away, D-Day provided vivid hope and a bright light at the end of this long and dark tunnel. Those in hiding often became too excited about the prospects and started making bad decisions, jeopardizing their safety. Many paid for those mistakes with deportation to concentration camps.
During the night of September 9, 1944, we were holed up in the basement of our 4-story building, as American artillery had begun to shell the main railroad station, key rail and road intersections in the capital. Stray shells landed in our neighbor’s bathroom, seconds after use by a family member. We were hunkered down, trembling with fear about being buried in the rubble of our building. Throughout the evening and into the middle of the night we could hear the rumblings of tank chains, heavy trucks unloading barricades right in front of our home on the main street (Route de Longvy) coming from Longwy in France leading to downtown Luxembourg City. We would have a front row seat at the red-line that is to be defended by die-hard “Prussian” soldiers to the bitter end. Certainty of death hung over hunkered down families.
Then, suddenly, these noises became more and more faint, engine noise and tank chain clatter sounding more and more distant. My God, they decided to not stand and fight, leaving combat for another day. As daylight broke, we heard similar yet different noises from afar. Dad ventured outside, grabbing his (illegal) American flag (hmmm, where did he keep that thing all this time?) on the way to greet the first friendly tanks and vehicles, turning Route de Longwy into an Avenue of Liberation, now known as Avenue of September 10. Hallelujah, the “Prussians” are gone, the Americans are coming. Here at last, at long last. The city thoroughfares quickly filled with Sherman tanks, and all sorts of vehicles transporting infantrymen, chasing the Germans out of town, back across the border into Germany. Once again we could breathe freely, without fear. Military-age youth came out of hiding, ecstatic with joy and free of fear. The commander of the 5th Armored Division brought Luxembourg a present in the form of Prince Felix, the husband of the beloved Grand Duchess Charlotte and their son Jean, the future Grand Duke of Luxembourg. Celebrations abounded in all the streets of the metropolitan area. Eventually, a US military contingent stayed in Luxembourg for many months to help restore law and order, reconstitute a government and otherwise wish the country all the best.
We learned a lot and quickly about Americans. We saw for the first time people of color, i.e “Africans” in American uniforms, people that we had seen only in movies about Africa. The American ‘occupation’ was, for us kids, Santa Claus in September. They would hand out generous portions of chocolates, trade silk stockings for a bottle of Champagne or wine, among other free-market activities between military and civilian populations. The more creative deals came with General Patton’s Third Army, a.k.a. the “cognac army” (so nicknamed for their brisk trading of goods for a bottle of cognac or fine wine) that winter on the way to save the boys at Bastogne (Belgium) during the famous battle of the Bulge. General Patton, who made his headquarters in Luxembourg City, became a celebrity with his frequent “opinions” being debated in public. Sadness came over Luxembourg when, shortly after the end of the war, Patton died mysteriously in a car accident in Germany. Patton, my first real hero, honored us all by wishing to be buried in Luxembourg among 5000 GI’s who lost their lives during this brutal battle and unforgiving winter.
While denazification was going on in the political sphere, the kids would play with the generous and friendly American soldiers in the fields around our neighborhood, often coming upon unexploded shells and often sustaining Injuries from careless handling of such ordnance.
Liberation also meant that the Americans rounded up stray German soldiers who were herded into a temporary prison in my neighborhood. As the winter at the end of 1944 approached, the coldest winter in recent memory, we would enjoy playing with the GIs guarding those prisoners. Sledding and sliding in the nearby hills of the neighboring town of “Merl”. We did not get to know many GIs closely, as language was a formidable obstacle. I spent countless hours “assisting” American MPs (Military Police) direct traffic near my home, always rewarded with luxurious snacks. Gratefully, the memories of those days have remained with our family, and particularly me, the youngest of the brood, forever.
Going to America was always a dream since that encounter, but never seemed possible, until Dad started doing business with an American company, based in Pontiac, Michigan. Whizzer Motor Company was the first after the war to produce a motorized bicycle, and was looking for a European partner. Dad imported the Whizzers, but soon designed a motorbike more to European taste and set up a factory in Cessange, a suburb of Luxembourg City. Whizzer established itself quickly in Luxembourg, Belgium, Holland and France. Soon the business expanded its market reach with the addition of motorcycle engines (Maico) from a revitalized Germany. The American Whizzer withdrew from the European market in 1955 and offered Dad a new life in America. The family decision was quickly made. After a 2-year wait for the country-quota rules to permit us to be awarded immigration visas, we boarded the SS Rotterdam in Amsterdam and soon landed in Hoboken, NJ to start the realization of our American Dream.
After finishing High School in Pontiac, MI, I landed at the University of Detroit and, upon graduation, I accepted a job in the International Division of Chrysler Corporation, functioning as the official interpreter for the company during its years of expansion and acquisition binge in Europe and Latin America.
At the Chrysler International facility on the city limits between Detroit and Dearborn, I became acquainted with a lovely young lady by the name of Joy Gwin, born in Oklahoma. My obvious timidity would betray my affection for her, but delayed my approach to the woman of my American dream. It was her stubborn determination that finally made her take action and corner me in the office cafeteria, setting off a spark that would last over 40 years. We were soon dating. Of course she wanted to know my Luxembourg history, which I gladly detailed. Joy would retell some of it to her Dad who had stories to tell about his own war time experiences. These included a stint in Luxembourg during the winter of 1944/45, precisely during the Battle of the Bulge. Recently field-commissioned, Lieutenant Lester Gwin was on temporary duty as the prison camp commander in the town of Merl, during that memorably cold and snowy winter. Lester remembered playing with local kids in the snow, sledding and making snowmen. Wow! Is it possible? Did I play with my future father-in-law at age five? And the rest, as they say, is history. Alas, my beloved Joy passed away at age 68, leaving me to tell our story to the world, and record it for our son and daughter to tell their children and grandchildren. Yes, I did “come home”, not to the German Reich, but to America, the land of the free, the home of the brave…. We are forever indebted to America, as it gave so many lives and so much treasure to save such as I and my brothers to tell the American story, honor the American ideal, to live the American Dream.