In this photo, you are a beautiful, eighteen year old soldier, with warm brown eyes, looking confident yet inviting at the world, apprehensive about what the future will bring, but ready. A beret covers your forehead and bears the insignia of the Panzer Division, your army unit: a helmet with closed visor and two crossed fencing florets, an honor badge for the knight you were to become, in life. A barely perceptible smile lingers at the corner of your mouth – because a soldier in 1925 was not supposed to smile – yet your gentle disposition could not help it. Confidence – and plenty of it – radiates from the past. You did not know that you would die so young – choosing to stay in Belgium, rather than go to London and join the Government Abroad – but to stay and fight against the Nazi Occupation, with courage and determination, as the leader of the “White Brigade Bral,” your nucleus of the Belgian Resistance.
This is where I came into the picture. All men between age 16 and 36 were called for duty: to join the German Labor Force in the production of war materials: ammunition, bombs, producing artillery, rifles and machine guns, tanks and airplanes, V2 flying bombs, to conquer England and the rest of Europe. Recruited as faceless laborers, forced to build the realization of Hitler’s grandiose dream of “Das Theusand Jahres Reich” – the Thousand Year Empire – except for fathers of four children. They were spared this shameless lottery, they were allowed to stay home and provide for their families, while Hitler’s’ own German men were spread out all over Europe – nameless pawns moved on the War Chess Board by his elite officers; separated from their own families; miserably dying for the Fuhrer’s Impossible Dream.
Mama told me she cried for nine months, when she discovered she was pregnant. She already had 3 children, three mouths to fill while there was no food at all: the milk was rationed, coupons were needed to receive eggs or butter, or anything at all to eat. “Great – I thought as a teenager – my Mama does not love me,” and I would visit your grave after school and stand there, and wish you were not deep under the earth, but would open your arms, so I could cry on your shoulder….But once I had children of my own, I understood her anguish. Of course she would cry. She was worried that the whole family would starve, that the baby might not survive.
And indeed, I lay dying in her arms, barely breathing, my lungs collapsing with slime, cold air and cigarette smoke. But I was a fighter and survived. And Blanche was a really good mother. She always encouraged me, to develop my own talents and pursue my dreams. She was very proud when I won the prize as the best Young Artist of Flanders, in Poetry Recital and later, when I played leading roles in the amateur theater group “Leren Vereert” -To Learn is an Honor – in Oudenaarde. You would have been too.
When the time came that we had to study German in high school, I was already a fluent conversationalist. Through her network of friends, Mama Blanche had located a young man who was serving his 3 years mandatory military service for Belgium, in an army garrison located in Ludenscheid, Westphalia. His German girlfriend had a good friend, so Ruth Giese and I became pen friends. Even though Ruth was three years older than I, she spend her vacations at our house in Oudenaarde, and befriended my sisters. I was Frau Giese’s house guest in Ludenscheid. Frau Giese was a war widow, just like mama Blanche, and our families understood each other very well. They treated me like I had always been part of the Family, as if I were a younger sister of Ruth and her brother Ralph. Ruth was another daughter to my mother. I was invited to the wedding and became Ruth’s Maid of Honor when she married years later.
Blanche was badly scolded by Grandpa Florent Bral at the time:
“How can you let a Bosh in your house? You of all people! Have you forgotten they killed my son and your husband?’’ But Mama retained her usual composure and calmly responded that “German children who lost their father cried just as hard as mine”…and that was all…nothing more needed to be said. We were very proud of Mama, as you would have been.
So, Bernard Loius Bral, here we are today, your daughter you never knew, who was 10 weeks old when you were killed, and my German Friend in California Verena Schelling. She brought a photo of her German father, who “disappeared” in the same war. We are standing here together, to honor both of you, our Fathers. You both died over 70 years ago. We just want to testify that your Values were correct and just; that your sacrifices, together with thousands of others, were not in vain. You answered your call of duty, as best as you understood it, both in your own historical context. History has made you right. Today, you would like each other, just as Verena and I understand one another at a deep level which most American people can never understand. Countries that were once deadly enemies have come together in commerce, and created a lasting peace in Europe, a peace that no Madman with dreams of grandeur can ever destroy.
We are proud of you and we love you. You are forever in our hearts.
Your daughter Rita
San Francisco, September 11, 2015