If in America, She Would Have Been a Rosie the Riveter: Her Grandmother’s Story Told by Amyah Labrèche

by Matilda Butler on May 5, 2016

Post #69 - Rosie’s Daughters: The “First Woman To” Generation Tells Its Story by Matilda Butler and Kendra Bonnett

[NOTE: We're pleased to share with you some of the intriguing stories we received from readers--stories that honor Rosie the Riveters, women who worked during World War II. Today, Amyah Labrèche tells us about her grandmother Laure Gonze. who lived in Nazi-occupied Belgium during the war. We think you'll agree with us that if Laure Gonze had been in America, she would have been a formidable Rosie the Riveter.]

Laure Gonze: Protecting Her Family

By Amyah Labrèche

Laure’s eyes followed the two soldiers who were walking the alley toward the castle, their guns slung across their shoulders. Since the occupation, the Germans requisitioned the Baron’s 13th century residence for their officers. A wonderful medieval castle with thick stones walls, decorated with ancient tapestries and paintings, more than antique furniture in each of the rooms and slate floors. The property was sitting at the end of the alley, in a wonderful park in the middle of Farciennes, in the Walloon’s part of Belgium. The Nazis were well lodged and the Baron, his family and employees were forced to share their house with them.

The soldiers stopped in front of her yard. She froze. They saluted her with big smiles, complimenting her on the beauty of her garden in a mismatch of French and German words, with a terrible accent that would have made Molière shiver with horror.

She nodded without a smile and they resumed their walk.

When they disappeared at the end of the narrow dirt road, Laure sighed with relief and resumed her work. It will be soon time to start supper and I still have eggs to gather. With the boschs(1) near by, she didn’t want to take a chance… they were worse than natural predators. Benjamin—her husband—and Jean-Baptiste—her son—had worked many hours to reinforce the coop with wood, bricks, stones, bars, chains and padlocks to stop the two legged uniformed foxes from coming in and stealing eggs, chickens, ducks, geese and turkeys. At least now, they were not able to access the coop in a moment and Benjamin would have enough time to let the dog loose and grab his bludgeon. The Germans had confiscated his gun after the last time when he shot them in the butt with a round of chevrotine(2). Seems they didn’t really appreciate the treatment. But it had created an occasion for the entire village to roar in laughter for weeks around a cold beer at the pub.

Benjamin had been lucky. The Germans could have imprisoned him in the concentration camp outside the town or worse, gunned him down. But, they didn’t want problems with the Belgians, as they were just a small garrison. Eighty five soldiers, even armed with guns, can’t survive against two thousand five hundred angry Belgian men, women, children and elders heavily armed with sticks and forks and bludgeons and—the worst—heavy steel frying pans. Hey! After all, Jules Caesar never defeated Belgians with his army, how could these Germans fight successfully with just a handful of men against such barbarian and well-armed warriors.

Benjamin and Jean-Baptiste will be hungry after a hard day working in the coal mine. My fresh vegetable soup, a thick omelette with golden fries and a pool of salad will be welcomed. She had to hurry now.

Hope they will not stop at the pub again, she thought.

Laure didn’t see the time pass as she worked hard all around the house, garden and kitchen to do her chores. From early spring to beginning of winter, her garden and the little orchard demanded a lot of work. Up to now, she had been able to keep the Germans out of it, mostly. They didn’t force her, yet, to give them all her produce like they did with some farmers around. Her days were filled with hard work and she allowed herself to rest only when the dishes was done in the evening. Then, she would sit with her men—and sometimes friends—in the living room, with a nice coffee, near the coal fireplace, to hear all the gossip from around town.

The only sound in the house was the huge grandfather clock in the living room, ticking the time away for more than one hundred and fifty years now. The soup smelled so good that she couldn’t resist getting a bowl of it. Hummm! So satisfying! Her men will be happy.

Five o’clock, the gong chanted away loudly. Laure went to unlock the front door and waited for her men on the front porch. From there, she was able to see them come down the hill from le Pont du Chat with all the other workers. Weird! Where is everybody? The street is empty. Maybe work finished a bit late today? Maybe there was an accident? She hadn’t heard an explosion so, surely not a coup de grisou(3).

Oh! Don’t tell me that Benjamin had a fight again.

Five fifteen gonged the clock. One short boing for the quarters, two short ones for the half hours and many ticks in between. Now, she was worried. She went back inside, pushed the soup pot on the warmer plate of the stove, put a few more chunks of coal in the stove’s belly and went back to the door. Still no movement on the street, just Marion’s big fat cat running after a mouse, she presumed. That cat is stupid and a glutton. He would run after his own shadow to eat it.

Laure took the key, walked out and locked the door. “I will go see what is happening,” she grumbled. Up the hill she went, her eyes fixed to the top. She was expecting to see the many heads popping out from the hump, announcing the workers coming back home. Nothing. Her heart was pounding and not just only because of her climbing the steep hill at full speed, not because she was kind of heavy set women, but because of her anxiety. Something happened, she was now sure of it, she felt it. You know, this kind of funny feeling in the middle of your tummy.

On her way up, almost at the top, Laure heard many voices talking, excited. Oh, Benjamin! Are you at the pub? She pushed the pub’s door open. One hundred and eighty eyes turned her way and then the silence dropped so thick that you could have heard the breathing of a fly. The one hundred and eighty eyes suddenly found the tips of their shoes very attractive. Nobody wanted to look at Laure.

She looked around and saw Benjamin. He too had his gaze fixed intensely to the tip of his dusty boots. She looked around but saw no traces of Jean-Baptiste.

Benjamin’s mouth felt so dry. He would have given anything for a beer at that very moment.

“Benjamin,” she said calmly with her deep, loud and firm voice. “Where is Jean-Baptiste? What is happening here?”

“… Euh…” mumbled Benjamin. He looked like a child caught with his hand in the cookie jar. “… hummmm… euh…” He couldn’t speak. Words were sticking in his throat. Fear of her or emotion because something had happened, Laure couldn’t say. She moved forward a few steps. Some men backed up few steps.

“Benjamin… talk to me!” She couldn’t stand it anymore. She felt that her nerves had climbed up to the surface of her skin; it was almost painful. She was about to explode. Finally, Benjamin found the courage to talk.

“The boschs… hummmm… the boschs came to the mine and they arrested Jean-Baptiste. They took him to the concentration camp to be interrogated. Seems they think he stole their coffee shipment last week.”

The one hundred and eighty eyes had had enough of admiring the tips of the boots and now were fixing Laure. She was unsettled, nervous, should I say flabbergasted? And then, a great rage climbed in her chest. How dare they? Arresting MY son? Bastards!

Her heavy body started to tremble in rage, her round cheeks became red, her breath heavy, her eyes even changed color. They were not green anymore but kind of a transparent glaucous tint and her hands closed in fists. She looked like a bull ready to charge.

Everybody in the pub backed up. Laure Gonze was well known in town to be quite a strong and tempered woman. Good heart but…kind of explosive at times. She was a tall and massive woman and nobody argued too long with her. Twice a week, she went on the terril(4) to gather discarded coal in huge bags she brought home on a heavy wooden cart she pulled to the house. Laure was also known to walk for days over the borders and brought—under the German’s noses—coffee, flour and sugar and sometimes other goodies for her family and friends. Selling these items brought in a bit more money, as she was also known to be, euh… a tight purse.

Laure turned her back to the crowd and went out the pub’s door. In the evening sun, she took a deep breath and started to walk toward the concentration camp, just a fifteen minute walk past the mine. In the pub, the men didn’t know what to do. Stop her? That would be a big risk for their lives so they decided to courageously follow her… from afar and see what would happen.

When Laure arrived at the camp, the armed guard tried to stop her but she pushed him away. Bewildered, he looked at her opening the camp fence and walking toward the prisoner’s barracks screaming: “Jean-Baptiste! Where are you? Jean-Baptiste. Show yourself up, little brat! How dare you disappear like that at suppertime? Do you think I only have that to do, running after you all the time? When it is not the pub it will be here now? Jean-Baptiste! Jean-Baptiste!”

A door opened. It was the office of the camp’s director. The man in a sharp uniform, straight as if he had swallowed an umbrella, was now standing on the porch.

“What do you want?” he yelled in French with a heavy accent.

“I am searching for my son, Jean-Baptiste!” she answered back.

“He is here. I arrested him! I…”

He didn’t have the time to finish his sentence. Full of rage, Laure pushed him away, entered the office, grabbed her six foot four inches son by the ear and dragged him out of the building.

“How dare you miss suppertime? How dare you make me walk all that distance? You go home now and never try that on me again. Do you understand, brat?” she screamed at him, shaking his head by pulling and pushing his poor ear and slapping him on the head with her free hand.

Not letting go of his ear and continuing to slap him, she hastily pulled Jean-Baptiste toward the camp door. The Germans were all transfixed. Enlarged round eyes, mouths opened wide, rooted to the spot, not one of them thought of moving, of stopping them from going out or even of holding up their guns.

Laure with Jean-Baptiste hunched behind her, grimacing from pain and still dragged by the ear, went out of the camp, passed the mine hump where the crowd from the pub had gathered and went down the long hill toward the house.

The crowd from the pub had to run to catch up to Laure and her son but she didn’t care, she didn’t want to stop. Her goal was to arrive at the house… quick… She was not afraid of the soldiers but she knew, she had feelings, she had some kind of an insight, a movement, a deep rumble, a strong knowing that she will need, urgently, to go to… the outhouse!

Three hours later, Laure’s tummy settled down and everybody’s stomach was full of soup and omelette and fries and salad. They were all sitting in the living room with a strong and fragrant coffee. Some friends came to visit and laughter filled the house again.

“What were you thinking to do such a thing Laure?” they asked

“I don’t know,” she answered. “But I had to do something.” On these words she got up to get the coffee pot and some cups for two friends who just came in.

Up to now, nobody understands why the Germans never stopped her or why they never came to the house to arrest her and Jean-Baptiste. They were left alone and, strange thing, the camp director – usually so stiff—started to salute my grandma every time their path crossed and it seems, I was told, that he had a glimpse of admiration in his eyes when he was looking at her.



(1) Bosch was the name given to the German soldiers during the war time.
(2) Buckshot.
(3) Firedamp explosion in coalmines.
(4) Hill near the mine where they piled the coal debris.

Amyah Labrèche is a writer and published author of two children and Middle Grade (MG) books and many articles. She’s a journalist, translator and photographer, now living in Canada on the beautiful Vancouver Island. She says, “Besides writing for children and MG, I started—at friends and family demands—to write my memoirs. This story of my grandmother, Laure Gonze, is one part of my family history that I can remember. As you see, we have a pretty colorful one. I hope you enjoy my little story, which is 100% true, by the way.”

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