A long letter written during World War II by a French woman in Belgium to a friend in Australia has surfaced in northern New South Wales.
Carol Hugginson said her nephew Thor Hugginson came across “a badly yellowed envelope” addressed to Clara Hugginson of 25 Hubbard Street, Islington, near Newcastle in the upstate.
The letter, which contains a diary of life during World War II, was written by a Frenchwoman named Fernande Hackray, who lived in Brasschaat in Belgium.
Carol has contacted the Belgian Embassy in Canberra, which is helping her find Fernande’s family.
“They think they have identified descendants,” she said.
The letter was originally sent to Maisie Duffin. Carol thinks Maisie may have sent it to Clara to read. Carol’s research revealed that Maisie lived at 42 Hubbard Street, Islington in 1943. The diary goes from 1941 to 1946.
THE LETTER begins thrillingly: “We are still alive – the four of us and all my family members”.
“We missed death by very little. I’m going to tell you what ‘hell’ we went through. First of all, I must tell you that I received your last letter. [dated April 1, 1940]”However, Fernande will not receive the letter until February 1, 1941.”
“He sat for almost a year somewhere in a post office,” she wrote, adding that he had been censored by the English and the Germans.
The writer said to his friend: “Everything I told you about the war of 1914 has been exceeded in horror for the poor civilians. I was among them on the run with my children.
She left Belgium and headed for France.
“I stayed there for four months without knowing if my husband was alive.”
She recounted the beginning of her ordeal, saying that “German planes woke us up” on May 10, 1940, with the invasion of Belgium.
“The radio announced the war. Mr. Hackray hastened to join his regiment. Can you imagine his departure!!!” [Carol’s research has shown that Fernande’s husband was Henri Victor Hackray, born about 1899]
Fernande, then 40, wrote of being driven mad while still at home, among “bombs, planes and their machine guns and sirens”.
His daughters Janine and Françoise were “white as sheets, trembling with fear, clinging to me”. “They couldn’t eat. A village near ours was destroyed.”
So, on May 12, 1940, she left her house with the children and the dog.
She headed to her sister’s home in France on a train journey that usually takes three hours.
“I was there two days later,” she said, adding that German planes attacked the train, forcing it to stop five times.
She had to yell at her daughter to stay close to her. “So many children have been lost.”
“It was the most terrible day of my life. They dropped five bombs very close to us.”
They hid in small bushes, and the nettle tore her stockings to pieces. “We were full of scratches on our hands and legs, even on our faces. Then we walked five miles through the fields to reach a small town.”
The town was packed with refugees, with “not a room or a bed to be found”. They were exhausted. “We slept on the floor of a tall building with our coats as blankets.” The city was burned “two days after we left”.
She said she must have looked terrible when she arrived at her sister’s house because “she started crying”.
France was not much better than Belgium. “My brother-in-law was in the military and the Germans were coming with planes and bombs. So my sister, me and the five children left.” They drove off in a big car and found an apartment about 200 miles from Paris. It was quiet there for three weeks.
“I was sick with grief after the defeat of the Belgians and the French.”
The Germans were approaching, so they “ran away again.”
She separates from her sister and goes to live for three months on a farm in the south of France. Her children had “a wonderful time with all the farm animals”. “At the end of July, I found out my husband was still alive.” They returned to Belgium after four months of absence. Her husband had escaped as a prisoner of war.
“Can you imagine the encounters of father, daughters and wife!!!”
Belongings had been stolen from their home – “blankets, cordless, sheets, towels, forks, spoons, shoes, gloves, sweaters…but we were so happy to be together again”.
Her husband had “several times escaped death”. A small bomb had fallen near him.
“Another time, a piece of shrapnel ripped off the top of his barrel without hurting him.”
They hoped for peace, but were “afraid of winter with nothing to eat and perhaps no coal”.
On August 31, 1941, she wrote “The war continues. When will it end?”
“Everyone is losing weight,” she said, adding that there was no more bacon, rice, chocolate, cocoa, oil, barley, meat, mutton, pork, tea or coffee. “We eat just enough to keep us alive.” She added that Janine was learning English at school and “wants to see Australia one day”. On February 27, 1942, she wrote: “War seems to be approaching Australia. I often think of you”.
- More to follow in the days to come.