Giving birth as bombs fall
History is not kind to the humble. Stories celebrating selfless acts of bravery and compassion are often never told because the heroes shy away from praise and attention. My mother, Halina Pisarski, was one of these special people.
Her story begins in May 1940, three days after Germany invaded Belgium. My father was off fighting for the British forces. Nine months pregnant and with 8- and 10-year old sons in tow, she boarded a train hoping to reach the relative safety of France.
It took three days for that train to cover 75 kilometres. During the trek there was nothing to eat or drink. What little food she had brought along was quickly exhausted. Things seemed impossibly desperate – and then she went into labour. The train stopped and she found herself stranded somewhere in southern Belgium, near the city of Tournai. How she protected her children from repeated attacks by low-flying aircraft strafing the train with bombs and machine-gun fire is a story in itself.
Now in full labour, she managed to get to a makeshift hospital where she met a young student nurse who helped deliver the baby. And there, in the middle of a war zone, I was born.
My brothers were told to wait outside. In all the confusion, a team of Red Cross workers collecting orphaned or stranded children picked them up and put them in their vehicle. An hour after I was delivered, the bombing became so intense that the building was evacuated. Clothed in only a short hospital gown and wrapped in a sheet, holding her one-hour-old infant close to her, my mother was put in an ambulance with severely wounded soldiers. The ambulance never had a chance to leave. An explosion ripped off the roof of the vehicle and killed the driver. My mother somehow got out. She grabbed a coat from a dead soldier and rummaged around other dead bodies for handkerchiefs and anything else useful for herself and her newborn.
She was frantic over her missing sons but with no idea where to look and night falling, she took refuge in a barn with several other stranded women. One was a 17-year-old girl who had also just given birth but was unable to breastfeed. Another was a nurse who was caring for a baby whose mother died during childbirth. She too had no milk to feed the infant, so my mother fed all three newborns, one after the other. At night, the women had to stay awake to chase away rats. My mother remained in that barn for a few days in order to regain her strength. She begged at a nearby German army encampment for food for her as well as the other women
My mother eventually took to the road and started looking for my brothers. She walked from orphanage to orphanage, asking every person she met if they knew where displaced children might have been taken. During the day, when one diaper was soiled, she would rinse it in a puddle of water and hang it on her back to dry. At one point, she took shelter for the night in the entrance of a chapel only to find out in the morning that there had been a sign outside the gated grounds with the warning: “Beware: Mine Field.”
And on she walked. Another night, she came upon a large deserted house. She found her way to one of the bedrooms and collapsed on a bed, completely exhausted from carrying her baby all day under a hot May sun. She had barely fallen asleep when a German soldier arrived and warned her that the house had been requisitioned as a hospital for German soldiers. However, he took pity on us and told her she could spend the night. He even brought her some hot soup to eat. She finally found my brothers at a nunnery and returned home to Brussels.
At this point, I should mention that my mother was Polish, and that she had dark brown eyes and black hair. Even though she had attended university, the only work she could find was cleaning houses. It was wartime and people were wary of foreigners. She was constantly on her guard on her way to and from work because the Gestapo would frequently pick up anyone who looked remotely Jewish.
In 1943, even though I was barely three, I remember the Gestapo coming to our apartment building to take away the Jewish family who lived downstairs. By a stroke of good fortune, the youngest daughter was not at home that evening. A few days later, my mother was approached and asked to take the little girl to Antwerp where a family would hide the child. My mother accepted the mission without hesitation.
I vividly remember how she recounted that story to me. There was a German officer seated on the train across from my mother and the little girl. He kept glancing back and forth between her and the girl. While he was staring, all she could think about was her three-year-old daughter and her now 11- and 13-year-old boys at home alone. They had been strictly instructed not to leave the apartment. She battled slipping into panic. What would happen to them if anything happened to her?
When she arrived in Antwerp, the arrangement called for my mother to sit on a bench with the girl. A woman would come, sit on the other side of the child and my mother would leave. However, my mother was so traumatized by the ride on the train that her legs were frozen in place and incapable of supporting her. Finally as darkness came, she found the strength to get up and board the train back to Brussels.
These were not her only heroic deeds. She sent parcels to that Jewish family in the German work camp even though she barely earned enough to feed herself and her children. I still have the postcards they sent her asking for food and clothing. I remember how she told me that she had had to work one full day to purchase one egg for me! For three long years after I was born, she pumped her breasts every single day and took the excess milk to the Red Cross to feed preemies and newborns whose mothers had died or couldn’t produce breast milk and who could not properly digest cow’s milk. She was given a booklet where they tracked the number of litres of milk she donated! I still have that precious document in my possession. She only stopped when her teeth literally started to disintegrate from lack of calcium. Any cow’s milk she worked so hard to purchase was for us children; she never drank a drop.
There are only two of us left now, a younger brother and I. Who will remember my mother when we are gone? I do not want her name to pass into oblivion after I am no longer here to cherish and honour her memory and her contributions. I decided to contact Plan Canada, an international development and relief organization, I have long been supporting. They set up an Endowment Fund in my mother’s name to keep her memory alive. It is designed so that all the proceeds go toward Plan Canada’s Children of War Fund. I know my mother would be proud of helping children in conflict zones even after her passing. Through this fund, the legacy of her courage and goodness will live on.
I had the privilege of calling this great woman “Maman.” To others, she was simply Halina Pisarski.
Jenny Hetherington lives in Toronto. For more information on setting up a legacy or endowment fund, please go to Plancanada.ca/waystogive.