text for 2 voices about sounds of World War 2 from the point of view of a young boy.
|The following piece, to which David Behrman contributed sounds and suggestions was first performed at a retrospective concert of my music at Roulette, in New Yoirk City on 30 November 2007
also participating to the concert were pianist Jenny Lin and flutist Jackie Martelle
The Sounds of War
For 2 voices and some music
By Jacques Bekaert
Intro: Music : British song from 1940 "Who do you think you are kidding, Mr. Hitler"
On 10 May 1940, early in the morning, Nazi troops invaded Belgium and Holland. I was born a day later. My father was an infantry company commander, in charge of the lives of a hundred twenty men. My mother, in a desperate attempt to put some distance between herself, her coming baby, and the blitzkrieg launched by Hitler and his generals, chose to join her parents in a little Flemish town. When she arrived, just a couple of days before delivery, she found that they were already gone. They had not completely forgotten their daughter: they left her a car and their driver, Monsieur Oscar. She went to Bruges, the delightful medieval city that was once a seaport.
Jacques: The panzer divisions moved fast. A few days after my birth, my mother, her newborn baby, the car and the chauffeur fled to France. I became a refugee. To protect us from the deadly raid of the stukas, the new single engine German bombers used with such devastating results in Guernica, the driver fixed a mattress on top of the limousine. The stukas were built so that when diving they would produce a terrifying sound, like thousands of women wailing.
This was the first big sound I heard, and it was very ugly.
We slept, my mother later told me, in barns, along the road, or in the car. Some people were nice, and gave my mother milk and a bit of food so she could keep nourishing me. Others spat on us, calling us dirty refugees.
D. The British managed to save their troops and our future by launching the biggest rescue operation ever in Dunkirk. A couple of weeks later the French themselves gave up. London became the capital of the free world.
(Sounds of distant radios and prepared piano)
J. My own clear recollection of the war probably started in 1943.
A few images come to my mind.
I remember a long column of war prisoners, Russians I was told, passing through our village. I vaguely remember a man with a huge bloody bandage around his head. Their slow parade lasted forever.
I remember German soldiers singing Halli Hallo early in the morning when marching through the village.
I remember a horse running amok in the street; it was a most terrifying sight, this crazy horse with foaming mouth, this wild gallop, his master screaming. A familiar scene gone berserk.
I remember planes fighting, high in the sky, and a parachute coming slowly towards us. It was a British pilot, and he was later captured.
I remember long waits in front of the bakery, or the butcher.
I remember my father looking at the same map, day after day. Or listening quietly to the BBC, to strange messages.
D The BBC program always started with the first beat of Beethoven’s Fifth symphony.
J. I came to fear certain sounds: bells and sirens. Sirens especially. Often they lacerated the silence of the night. We knew what it meant. We had to leave our beds at once, run to one of the cellars, where mattresses had been set up for the family, the nanny and the maid. The maid prayed aloud. My mother was telling us stories, explaining we had nothing to fear, that the planes were piloted by good people, English, Americans, maybe even Belgians.
She said that they were not going to bomb us, but were flying further, to Germany. Still once in a while a bomb felt nearby.
D. It was hard for a child to understand what is war. I knew nothing else, and at the same time the adults kept telling me it was terrible, very dangerous, the worst we could experience. They talked endlessly about days of peace. They said peace was wonderful, sweet, and that there would be chocolate. I had no idea what chocolate was. I had never tasted chocolate.
J. How will chocolate come? What is the sound of chocolate, I asked
Chocolate is silent, but there will be plenty of nice music, there will be rivers of chocolate, my father replied. And houses will have roofs made of gold. I did not know what gold was either. Finally my father showed me one of his teeth, bright yellow. This is gold, he said. There will be gold everywhere. How strange was the world: a roof made of teeth.
If peace is so beautiful, what are we waiting for ?
D. I developed a certain suspiciousness toward the adults. They did not seem to know what they really wanted. They loved peace, they hated war but war was all over the place. Nobody ever told me there were some good reasons to fight the Nazis. War appeared more like a huge, absurd and unavoidable disaster. I understood that the Belgians were on the right side, that there was something bad about the Germans, or the Nazis as my mother called them. Not much more.
J. At the age of four I learned new and strange words: D day, V day, Hello. Tommy. Americans. And a new geography: Omaha beach, Avranche, Evreux, Normandy. To my French I added percee, tete de pont, poche de resistance, pocket of resistance. Tete de pont (Beachead) was my favorite. A bridge with a head. The world of a child is literal. I could not imagine very well a bridge with a head. Its role in the conduct of war was rather mysterious. But obviously it was very important, good for all of us. We needed many tetes de pont. Tete de pont came again and again in the conversation of the adult.
D. We were preparing for the big day. For Liberation. We were waiting the end of this nightmare, for peace. D day had come. My parents smiled. We listened more and more frequently to the BBC, my father and his employees, four men who had been members of his infantry company at the beginning of the war, looked everyday with great attention at a large map of France. Ils avancent ! They are moving on.
J. I heard these words so often and I knew they meant something very wonderful. The more they moved on, the closer they were from us, the closer we were from la liberation.
The Germans became more discreet. There was no more singing in the streets of Tubize. Once in a while we saw a convoy of German tanks or heavy lorries moving towards the front. But we believed that for them the end was near.
D. It was a beautiful summer again, just like in 1940. It was a glorious summer, days of incredible hope, of intense joy, of fantastic expectations. Paris is free. The allies troops are not far from Brussels. Fragments of Belgium are liberated. It seemed that everyday brought some good news.
J. In the last days of August my little friends and I, along with the rest of the village watched the remnants of the Third Reich leave our territory. It started early in the morning and would go on until sunset, a long, slow, miserable column of defeated men and animals. Ils sont foutus, we repeated after our parents, ils sont kaput.
We laughed, we made smart remarks. They were too tired to react. Their uniforms were in rags. A few men were packed into cars, with bleeding soldiers on the roof. Some of these cars had no tires and made an awful noise on the rough cobblestones. Trucks were often pulled by oxen. To this day I remember the faces of these crushed men. Not a particular face but the general expression of disaster, of total exhaustion, of broken dreams, of complete abandon. In the evening we sat at the family table and discussed the events of the day, and how many soldiers we saw. Even the children were allowed to talk during the meal on such occasions. My father always asked us to count: the number of cars, the number of trucks, the number of men.
To us children it looked like nothing more than an infinite caravan of misery. I was happy, and at the same time this was so deeply sad. Not the German defeat of course, but the individual pain of these men. Because they moved so slowly, we could see the details of their faces, the puffy eyes, the dry lips, the dirty hairs. And also the shoes falling apart. They had nothing left and we were certainly not ready to help them.
D. On the 4th of September 1944 the sky was perfectly blue. The air was still. It was warm.
J. I remember it as a moment of great calm, of security. My father was holding my hand, a rather unusual act of tenderness. Nature was at its most gorgeous. Suddenly a local policeman arrived on his bicycle. He was pedaling very fast, his face was red from the effort.
Out of breath he told my father Monsieur, ils sont la, ils sont la. Here they are. Nothing else. We understood.
I had never seen my father run. But that day, we ran as fast as we could to the main street.
D. The main road was full of people mingling with men in khaki, with jeeps, with bizarre equipment/ The soldiers looked strange to us. There were men and women dancing, singing and crying. It was a bit crazy, the world, my world at least was in the middle of an explosion of happiness. Everything was moving too fast. Words collided in our throat. We wanted to have hundreds of hands to greet these new strong warriors clad in uniforms we had never seen. We wanted to be multiple so as to be everywhere, just to make sure we would not miss any of this precious moment of liberty, of infinite possibilities. Life was ours again. This was freedom and indeed the taste was so sweet.
J. Some of the soldiers had skirts. They were part of a Scottish unit. I was fascinated by their “big lights”, huge searchlights for air defense covered by coarse orange fabric. The heavy guns were wrapped in camouflage nets. The Americans were distributing chewing gum. Chocolate. One big (but every adult was big to the four-year-old I was) black American took me in his arms. I have heard the story a hundred times, told by my mother. He said
D. “You are like a New York baby”.
J. And he gave me my first piece of chocolate. Years later, indeed, I became a kind of New York baby, and no city in the world is closer to my heart.
That night there was little sleep. My father found a small can of pineapple which he had buried years before for this great, wonderful day.
We had no sheets left, no tablecloths, everything had been used to make flags.
And the music started. Music from everywhere. Old and new songs, all these sounds that had been forbidden, from every house, from old radios, from scratching gramophones hidden from the enemy. People sang, people danced, people drank, people talked aloud.
D. New American and British units arrived and continued their march East. The war, for us at least, was over. The time had come to discover peace.
(Music: mixture of various French, American and British war time songs)