We have the honor and privilege of speaking to GSFA members about their lives, family stories and, sometimes, their experiences as immigrants coming to the United States. With their permission, we would like to share some of them with you. Some written, some oral and transcribed. We hope to build a series of such stories in the future.
On April 13, 2019, Etienne Elskens, longtime Macomb County resident, GSFA volunteer and board member and storyteller, led a lively and emotional telling of his life as a boy in Belgium, his family history and experience as a teen immigrating from Belgium in 1952. We recorded the conversation and, with his permission, would like to share it with you. For the time being, please allow the following biography written by Mr. Elskens to serve as a loose transcription - we hope to have a full transcription soon. Thank you, Etienne for sharing your story with us.
A biography of Etienne Elskens, 1936 - 1997
I was born in Ukkel. South of Brussels, at Ste. Elisabeth Hospital. I was baptized in Haaltert. The family and godparents visited a few bars to celebrate. A while later they realized I was missing. So they had to go back and look for me.
In 1939 or so my uncle Frans and my dad visited a bar and my uncle saw a man who owed him money. The man ran away when my uncle went to talk to him so he chased him into his home. My dad followed the two of them. When a neighbor found out that the man had died, he notified the police, he knew my uncle so they were arrested, tried and sent to Merkxplas, a prison in Antwerp that is surrounded by water. Mom and I visited my dad at the prison. We had to board a small boat to take us across the canal. We were escorted into a large room and had to sit on a large table. My dad came in and was seated across of us. The guard stayed with us but turned to face away from us so I could hug my dad. My mother went to see the procureur des konings, a king's lawyer.
The case was opened and researched and they realized that the man had died from a heart attack. My dad and uncle were exonerated and set free.
While my dad was in prison, my mother and I left Brussels and moved in with my mother's aunt, who was the sister of my mother.
When dad came home we rented a small house for a few months. A duplex came available of a family we knew.
Everybody in these villages know everybody. Emily and husband had two children, a girl and a boy Alois. He was one year older than me. We became friends. Next to the duplex is a small orchard and house where my friend Desire lived. Desire has two brothers Valerie and Girard. Desire and I became the best of friends.
We had to enter our primary education in the girl's school. In Brussels kids go to school at the age of four but in Haaltert at three. We had a special name for the school. Kakschool. The boys and girls have their own classrooms.
The school is still run by nuns. They hated boys. One in particular. If she saw you talking to the boy next to you she would throw a ruler at you. The ruler was about one by one inch square and about 12 inches long. One time I got caught by her, big woman, and she cut a piece of glossy paper, maybe one inch wide and 8 inches or so long. I had to put this paper in my mouth for the remainder of the day even during recess when we played.
Some of the boys decided to really give her a jolt.
In the month of May the MEIKEVER or MAYBUG comes in. They nestle especially in the cherry and nut trees. Shake the tree and they fall to the ground. There is a queen, a worker and a baker. The baker has white specks on his dark wings. The queen is the smallest. We decided on a specific day and bring the bugs to the school. The easiest way is to put four or five in a match box. Once the nun had her back towards us we opened the boxes and when one would breath on them they would fly due to the warmth. There must have been forty or more bugs flying around. Oh my goodness we thought she was having a heart attack. Of course we got punished by having to write one hundred times “I will not bring a Maybug to school”. But we had our revenge. We also would put a string around one of the legs and it would fly around.
We used a bicycle rim and stick to run with. We also had a paint can, gallon size, and we punched a hole on each side. We hooked a wire to forma loop. Then we filled the can with straw and hay and set it on fire. We would swing the can around and around. Well one time a hedge caught fire and that was the end of the firepot.
We would also play hopscotch with the neighbor girls. Three girls lived on the street all within a few feet.
Sometimes a nun would take us on a field trip. When we came back the nun would enter the large door first and the boys would follow except Desire and I. There is a cement pole for the electric wires next to the doorway and we would stand behind this pole. She never missed us. There was a lay teacher, Juffrouw, miss Redant. She was in our last year to attend this school. One time Alois decided to steal some potatoes from the farmer’s field. I went along. The farmer saw us and yelled to get out of the field. Alois dropped his potatoes but I held on to mine. A little while later there was a knock on the door and the farmer told my mom I stole some potatoes. She told him that was impossible as I was asleep in bed.
The war broke out and my dad and many men from the village and other villages and cities were forced to work in Germany. After a year or so my mother decided to go with my dad. I stayed with my mother’s parents.
Grandpa Jan was wonderful. We would take the milk cow to a meadow and we would sing songs he taught me.
They gave vitamins in the school but were not free and my grandparents did not have the money to pay.
My mother did come home and thus we stayed in the duplex we rented.
My dad and the shop foreman got along really well and he would give dad extra furlough passes. Dad would smuggle coffee beans and women’s underwear into Germany. He would always give a bag of coffee beans to the foreman One time he took back a fur coat. A policeman came to the place he lived and wanted to see the coat. That coat is very large for your small wife. Dad’s answer was that the lady of the house is a seamstress and would alter it. The cop told dad ‘Be careful of your friends”.
One time my dad stayed home and the Germans came to look for him. The constable went to the house of Emily's mother Emily had moved in with her mother because she was ill. The constable told Emily to warn my dad that the Germans were looking for him. She took the short route and the constable went the long way.
But one German found my dad in the outhouse. He had sores on his legs so they told him to report in a couple of weeks to the German office in Aalst to see if the sores had healed. They flashed their flashlight on me while I was In bed.
The planes were flying right over our house, it was a path from England to Germany. One time there were many squadrons of planes all flying in a V formation. We heard later on that Dresden was bombed. A V 1 exploded in my aunt's backyard. Luckily it missed the house. We all heard the explosion. My grandpa built a bunker in the backyard. We also used to listen to the radio. They had special codes like "The rooster shall crow at midnight".
A year or so later my dad and two friends tried to cross the German border. A farmer saw them and asked if they wanted to cross the border. He told them he knew a person who would help them. The man went with them to the town and called out to the man. He came out with a gun pointing at my dad and companions. The two friends were set free but my dad was taken to Daghau concentration camp. He had to make trenches with the bulldozer. Dead bodies were thrown in the trenches, covered with lye and then poured water on the bodies.
Sometimes the Germans attached a hose to the exhaust pipe and stuck it through a window and the people died from the exhaust fumes. Sometimes they burned the bodies and now and then one could hear the screams because the person was not dead. A guard told my dad he had to escape. When you don’t hear the generator there is no electricity on the fence. They are planning to kill everybody. He told a Hollander and Frenchman but they were afraid. It was a dark night, no moon light and my dad escaped. He hid during the day and walked at night till he came to a farm. He saw the people bend their head before they ate and he fainted. He woke up in a bed. The farmer gave my dad clothes and some money and then they went to the main highway and hitched a ride from a convoy that was passing by. The farmer told my dad not to say a word. The farmer asked the driver to stop and let them off.
Sometimes we would find aluminum strips in the morning, this was to interfere with broadcasts.
The Germans took our beautiful church bells down from the steeple. They also came around to check door handles to see if they were copper or brass. If that was the case they stole that too.
Now we were seven and had to go to the boy's school for our secondary education. My parents took me out of this school when I was eleven and sent me to a state run school in Denderleeuw. This school is called Rijksmiddelbare School.
About the end of 1944, the Germans were leaving through our village. My mother and I went to visit my father's sister and as we walked up the street German tanks came around the corner. They stopped and took off the camouflage. Suddenly a general came in his panzer wagon and told the tank crew to load up and leave. As the last tank was going around the corner general Montgomery came around the corner. He must have seen the tank leaving and fortunately no fight broke out.
The English soldiers put up a huge tent and had all kinds of goodies to give us. They gave us a ride in their tanks too. We were warned not to take any candy from the Germans as they were leaving because some of the candy had explosives in them. Some kids had their hands blown off in other towns.
My dad came home in 1945.
When we were in the boy’s school we would go to the public swimming pool in Aalst on Saturdays.
The school in Denderleeuw is about four miles away. In the winter I would take the train. There is path along the railroad tracks but one had to cross over four times, back and forth. On one occasion it vas very foggy and as I crossed the tracks the train was only a foot or so away from me. One second or so I would not be here.
The first year was in a hall of the Liberalist party. The new school was being built down the road.
They had made rooms half around a wide open space lower and upper. That's where we had cur gymnastics and lunch. After my first year the principal called me to his office and said I have to take Latin. I told him no so his answer was "bring your mother to my house on Sunday at a set time". Mama went in the house, I had to stay outside and when she came outside I had to take Latin. The following year it was Greek. So now we had also French, Dutch and English. Once in a while we were taken on trips. One time it was the North Sea, another time we went to Brussels to see St Nicolas. Another time we went to the south end of Belgium and stayed in a youth hostel. There was a small river there where we could swim.
In the winter me and a few other fellows had to start a fire in the coal stoves to warm up the rooms. A few boys, me included, had to set up the tables and chairs for lunch in the large open space . We did have beer, soda pop and coffee available.
Graduation time came and we had to line up on the stage behind the curtain. One boy fell off the stage. Guess who? The person who was first of the class was me so I was introduced first and received a beautiful book.
The principal took me aside and told me he wanted to talk to my mother. He handed her an envelope to take with me to the Koninklijk (Royal) Atheneum in Brussels. He told her that's where I should go. I had to take a train to go there. We did have a student railroad pass which was cheaper. In Haaltert we did not celebrate Saint Nicolas but well Saint Martin on November the eleventh.
That's when we get sugar candy, made in different shapes. New year is when we would get toys if available during the war. We were the only family in our neighborhood that had a Christmas tree. Grandpa Jan sawed the tree out of a hedge that somehow grew this fir tree. We decorated it but it toppled over, the bulbs broke, that was the end of the tree.
Now I went to Brussels to school. I was struck by a truck and also the man behind me so I was home for two weeks. We had class hours from 8 am to 5 pm. On Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday we had from 8 am to 1:30 pm. The school offered German on Tuesdays but was not compulsory. I took German being so close to Belgium and we did not have homework or tests, just attend the class and we got a passing grade.
We were playing in the courtyard and I fell. Five minutes later I barely could walk. Again I was home for two weeks. I took the exam in December but never saw the results.
We had to go to Antwerp to the American Embassy to get the necessary papers.
We were supposed to take an English ship but it had been involved in a storm and was in repair in France. We were to go to Southampton, England and board a ship, called Homeland, that came from Bremen Haven. We took a ship to cross the North Sea from Ostend to Dover.
Than we travelled on to London and stayed over night. In the morning we went to the train station and had breakfast. After breakfast we took the train to Southampton and went aboard the ship called Homeland. I stayed in a cabin with my dad, mother was in a cabin with two German girls. I ate my meals with a German couple with one son and one daughter. My parents ate on another table with Germans.
One evening I and dad went to the upper deck and saw the Germans saying SIE HEIL with the arm stretched out. The ladies same way. We left in a hurry. There was a Belgian couple on board with two children and one Belgian-American.
On another occasion I took ill suddenly and as I passed a men's room I went inside. A man was mopping the floor and I had to throw up and did it in a pail standing there. He called me sweinhund. I told my dad and we went to the men's room but luckily for him he was gone. We were in a bad storm and were pushed back one day. We arrived in Halifax were all the Germans disembarked. Canada had no restrictions. Then we went on to New York. We were ushered into a large room, looked like a warehouse. As we opened our suitcases the custom agent took away our chocolate pralines filled with liqueur. Not allowed he told us. We slept in New York and the following day we boarded the train for Detroit. Our crates would follow us at a later date. My dad's sister Helen and husband Victoor picked us up at the Michigan Central. We made a stop at the Green Oaks for a beer and then on to De Soppers for a few beers. There we happen to meet uncle Frans who was divorced from my dad's sister Leontine. He was accompanied by Willy Van Hoorebeek's father. He found us a house to rent on Brys Drive. We stayed with my aunt maybe two months.
Living with my aunt I went to Lakeview High School. The principal wanted to move me up one year but I told him that I wanted to be in my age group to have more years to learn English. When I showed him my diploma he was amazed at the many languages I had taken. That's why he wanted to move me into the 11th grade instead of the 10th grade. He asked if he could display my diploma in a glass case where also trophies were displayed.
I also went for English in the ninth grade. I had a wonderful teacher Mrs. Semrau who stayed after school a couple of days per week to learn English. Because we moved to Brys Drive I had to go to Southlake. I asked the principal "Why?" Because I am now in a different district. I told him we had no districts in Belgium and I went to school in Brussels 18 miles away. We could go anywhere. I reported to Southlake and the principal sent me back to Lakeview. Mr Shaublin told me I had to pay $400.00. I told him we did not have the money. So he waivered the cost.
That same year we moved to Woodhall in Detroit. I met 5 Belgian kids. John Pittoors became my buddy.
Marcel Muylaert, his brother Florent and sister Marie Therese lived next door to us on Woodhall. George De Roo lived also on Woodhall.
All of us went to Southeastern high school except John who went to Willbur Wright.
In English Comp one Mrs Doile made a point of it that I was getting over 90 per cent on the tests and that I was in the country only a few months. You kids are born here and barely pass. This really embarrassed me. I took a machine shop course and I loved it. I guess that's why I became a diemaker at the Chrysler Corporation.
I worked as a gardener for a while till I was 16 and then got a job at the Food Fair Marked as a stock boy. I took care of the baking aisle. I was stocking the sugar bags when I noticed a gentleman watching me. I was called to the stockroom. The manager introduced to the man who had been watching me. He asked me how much I was making and he gave me a dime raise.The manager told me after some time that when I graduate he would make me assistant manager. He told me one time that I had to learn the whole store and Monday I would
take the soap isle. I told Mr Kay "don't put me there because I will not show up”. The soap and stuff makes my eyes water. He told me I had to. I did not show up and that Monday I got a job at A&P for about a year.
I was eighteen now and I found a job in a small tool shop. Gentz Engineering. I worked there two years.
I served an apprenticeship at Chrysler. It took me two years to get hired in because I did not know anyone at Chrysler. But because of my persistence in reporting every two weeks or so at the Outer Drive plant and see Mr Conlogue I got in through the help of the office girl. She put a good word in for me.
About two weeks later I was called to report at the Vernor plant.
I served my apprenticeship at the Vernor South plant. It took four years to finish.
I was hired in April and in August I had to go to the hospital for an appendix operation In 1958 I asked for 7 weeks vacation time and went to Belgium and saw the worlds fair. After graduation from the apprenticeship we were laid off but were able to work at the Mack plant. In 1966 I was able to transfer to the Sterling Stamping Plant on 15 mile Rd. and Van Dyke. In 1969 I became a foreman for two years but because I had to work midnights I decided to go back on the floor again as a diemaker. The superintendent asked me several times to come back, they needed me. But I turned down his request. Later on I worked upstairs on the computer and did the scheduling when dies had to be brought in for repair to do preventive maintenance. The foreman was Ulrich.
There were two of us upstairs. My partner and I retired in May 1997. Every time we went to see some of the men upstairs Ulrich would call out to me and would ask me to come back. My answer was a definitely no.
I was very happy to be retired at the age of 60.
This is part of my life story. Not included is my happy married life to a wonderful lady Judy.
Copyright © 2019, Etienne Elskens & The Genealogical Society of Flemish Americans.