Edith Wharton was in Paris in 1915 editing a beautiful book, The Book of the Homeless, with diverse contributions from her era’s luminaries in the arts, from Sarah Bernhardt and Claude Monet, Igor Stravinsky to W.B. Yeats — as a fundraiser to benefit some of the orphans and older disabled survivors evacuated to Paris from bombarded Belgian towns of the German invasion.
Trainloads of Flemish children flowed into the streets, these “piteous waifs” joining thousands of homeless refugees seeking shelter and sleeping on straw in railway stations. At her invitation, former President Theodore Roosevelt contributed an introduction that declared the devastation in Belgium to be as terrible as the Thirty Years’ War and the half-century that followed: “the harrowing tragedy of the poor souls who were driven from their country on the verge of starvation … without hope, and with the members of the family separated from one another, none knowing where the others were to be found.”
Wharton’s Children of Flanders Rescue Committee in Paris couldn’t reach behind the lines to Flanders, where my grandmother, then nicknamed Anneke, had turned 14 when German officers and mapmakers for the Kaiser’s campaign on the Western Front seized her family’s adjoining cafe. Lacemakers — who gathered there creating the region’s renowned export — were replaced by plotters engineering the latticework of destruction.
The stories Grandma Anna told me never mentioned how the takeover of her parents’ home was accomplished, no accounts of brave village defenders nor any support from the Belgian army near the fields of West Flanders. Were they another family left alone to fend for themselves, abandoned on the outskirts of town? News of the terror spread by the initial invasion from the east may have already dashed any hope of resistance.
Agnes Repplier in Wharton’s The Book of the Homeless, 1916: “As long as history is taught, the tale of this terrible year will silence all other tales of horror. Not for us only, but for the listening world, the standard of uttermost evil has been forever changed.”
It was only after more attention was given to the shellshock of later wars, renamed post-traumatic stress disorder in the 1980s, that I began to understand the indelible emotional power behind my grandma’s recurring stories during the German occupation and traveling alone at 19, without family or friends, across the Atlantic to her only relative in America, her older sister, Elsie, who had escaped to Iowa.
The almost trance-like state Anna often assumed was not unlike that of an elder shaman relating origin stories, and the immediacy of many events was conveyed as if she were still in the moment, reliving each traumatic incident in the telling with all the pain and anxiety of the other war veterans we have come to know, since “the war to end all wars” didn’t.
Mary Ann Crowe is a writer in Santa Fe and the daughter, granddaughter, niece and grandniece of war veterans from World War I through the Vietnam War.