May 21 – THE SECOND WORLD WAR IN EUROPE
THE SECOND WORLD WAR IN EUROPE
When the war broke out in 1939, 300 Brothers were mobilized in France and about 20 in Belgium. A year later most of them had returned home but more than 80 French Brothers remained prisoners in German camps. Eight escaped and a few more were sent back home. At the end of 1944 more than 60 were still behind barbed wire and the luckiest ones were working on farms. The cards they were allowed to send to Saint Laurent-sur-Sevre at long intervals, though brief and sometimes censored, give an idea of the kind of life they were leading. They have been kept in the archives at the General House. No synthesis of these cards has ever been made but they could form a basis for a very interesting sociological and historical study.
In 1941 Germany had invited the citizens of the countries its troops occupied to work on building sites and in factories in Germany. Faced with the lack of response to the pompous posters plastering the walls, a million and a half men were called up in 1943: it was compulsory labour. Some 75 Brothers were liable to be called up (none in Belgium because religious were exempt), but 50 managed to get around this obligation by getting false identity cards or remaining hidden in the schools.
Few Brothers were killed during the Second World War: a Brother from Belgium, and four French Brothers; two of them had been called up and two were doing compulsory labour (one was killed in Germany, and the other was reported missing in Norway). As after the First World War, a large number of Brothers left the Institute after they had returned home.
The war entailed another serious consequence: besides losing two Assistants in 1940, (Br. Elzear, who was arrested by the Germans, and Br. Onuphre who died), the Central Administration was unable to communicate with the Brothers in faraway areas (Asia, Africa, Canada) and even with many Brothers in Europe.
Some Gabrielite schools in England, Belgium and France were disrupted but nearly all of them carried on normally, even though some had to move, as was the case for the school for the deaf and the blind in Nantes that had to take refuge at Les Herbiers. Among the worst hit was the one in Boechout (Belgium) which was occupied in turn by Belgian, French and German troops, and, after the liberation, by Canadian and British troops; in England the school at Oaklands was damaged by VI’s and V2’s in 1944 and 1945. Some houses of formation lived through troubled times. The postulants who had started their novitiate at La Tremblaie on 29 September 1938 and had moved to Peruwelz ori 3 August 1939 returned hurriedly to La Tremblaie a month later when the war broke out. In May 1940 the German troops invaded Belgium and it was then the tum of the Belgian novices to take refuge at La Tremblaie, where some war orphans and war wounded were also housed. In Italy the juniors and novices living at Zagarolo hurriedly took the last train to Rome in January 1944.