By Dianne Swingel
Mount Morris (Ill.) Church of the Brethren on a recent Sunday held a service and celebration for member Isabelle Krol, on the 50th anniversary of her becoming an official citizen of the United States. She came to the United States from Belgium, following World War II. Following is part of her life story, taken from an interview by Dianne Swingel:
Isabelle was born on June 4, 1930 in Dour, Belgium. Although neutral at the start of Hitler’s regime, Germany invaded Belgium (about 9 million people) in May of 1940. There was fighting for 18 days, and troops were pushed into a small pocket in the north-east part of the country. King Leopold III was so fearful of the small Belgium army being wiped out, that he surrendered to the Germans. This was very unpopular with countrymen, and some Belgians escaped to the United Kingdom, and set up a government and army in exile.
Isabelle (10) was living in the large home in Dour which had belonged to the Muir sisters, with her mother Rose, sister Henrietta (7), and brother Louis (5). They were renting from the Harmegnie family, who had inherited the home, and her mother was able to live in that same home for 70 years of her life. The building may have been used for military during WWI, as there were bars on the windows upstairs, and tales were told about a well in which important possessions had been hidden from the Germans. Rose’s own family home had been occupied by German troops during WWI. Dour was very close to the French border, and thus was important to the Germans. It was on the route to get to England, by way of the North Sea.
During the war years, her mother worked doing laundry and cleaning houses; her father was in a mental institution during the time of the war, due to severe depression, and died in 1946. He had always worked in the coal mines before. Times were very difficult for them, and often her mother had to take the brother to work with her, as the girls were in school. Food and money was scarce and they were often hungry, but they had enough to get by, thanks to the kindness of relatives and friends. There was one older cousin from France who was able to cross the border and sneak them butter and coffee, which she had hidden in her belt. When Isabelle went to school each day, the teacher gave her a nice sandwich to eat; this same teacher had done the same kindness for her own mother, when she was in school.
Isabelle was able to spend one month of each summer during the war years in Switzerland, which was a neutral country. This was part of a program set up for poor children of war-torn countries, in which children would stay in private homes. Her brother was able to stay in Sweden, in a similar program there. There they were fed well, and gained weight. The sister stayed with the mother. The family also received some food parcels as well as clothing from Sweden, Switzerland, and the US.
Isabelle remembers the visibility of the German troops at all times, and everyone was expected to cooperate with them. She can remember the sounds of the soldiers marching on the stone streets, and singing. Education was monitored by the Germans, especially not allowing anything negative to be taught about them. However, Isabelle had a teacher who was able to sneak in this contraband information to share with students. There was some degree of kindness, though, as the Germans had an after-school program for the younger children, and provided small amounts of food.
Her uncle worked for the Germans, as he wanted to be a policeman in the town, which meant more food for his family. There was a cousin who worked in the underground, was eventually discovered, and was taken to a concentration camp. In their town, three little Jewish girls from Holland were brought in to a home and were passed off as “nieces,” so they could attend school and not be taken by the Germans.
In 1944 the Americans were moving into their area, and she remembers the sounds of planes flying over, and some bombing of roads. All in the town had to go to basements for safety. In the big home they were living in, she unhappily remembers the spiders which were always around, and especially in the basement during the raids.
As the Americans were gaining ground on the Germans, Isabelle remembers seeing the Americans landing in their parachutes. Local girls made dresses from the parachute material. There was some fighting in the streets. After the country was liberated in the fall of 1944, the majority of the American soldiers were based in nearby Mons, which still has an American base there.
Once the war was over, the people who survived the concentration camps, like her cousin, returned. Her uncle was considered a collaborator with the Germans, and had been in hiding for a year. When found, he and other collaborators were paraded through the town, people threw eggs at them, and they were imprisoned.
Belgium lost around 1 percent of its population during the war, but its economy wasn’t as damaged as many countries. There was a rapid economic recovery, partly as a result of the Marshal Plan.
Isabelle and Zenon
Isabelle and Zenon [from Poland] met at a dancing club, and he taught her various dances like the waltz, tango, and cha-cha, that he‘d learned in the displaced persons camp. They were engaged one year, married by the pastor, and lived with Isabelle’s mother. Isabelle did cleaning and nanny work, while he worked in a paint manufacturing company, which was owned by Isabelle’s employers.
After two years of marriage, they decided to leave Belgium, as there was not much of a future for a displaced worker there. They first considered Germany, but then decided to go to America, as there would be more opportunities for them. There were few visas for the Polish, but more available for those from Belgium. Isabelle took a class in basic conversational English.
They were sponsored by Church World Service and set out for Idlewild in New York on April 7, 1954, with just $365, and no personal contacts in the US. They were met at the airport by Mr. Coolich from Church World Service and taken to the home of Mrs. Jean Beaver, an ordained elder in the Presbyterian Church. She was the widow of Gilbert Beaver, a leader in the Y movement and a leader for world peace. Their large home was a religious conference farm, and she was looking for a young couple to help her. Mrs. Beaver’s home was very large, with 17 bedrooms, on a 100 acre plot. Zenon worked as a groundskeeper, and Isabelle helped with cleaning. Their communication with Mrs. Beaver was a limited form of English. They lived with Mrs. Beaver for eight years.
Mrs. Beaver offered to sell them 10 acres on the grounds. Zenon built a beautiful white home on the property. They eventually sold their home and moved to Mt. Kisko, N.Y., where they rented while fixing up an old farm house. They then moved to Croton Falls, where Zenon did sub-contractor work, finished the home, and moved in. The children flourished in the very good Brewster school system. Later on Zenon purchased another old home in the country, to fix up and use as a summer place.
They both took an “English for the Foreign Born” class, and then became US citizens on April 30, 1965.
Isabelle became a deacon in the Presbyterian church, and Zenon said he would retire when her term was up. So when this happened, they sold the home in New York for a wonderful profit, took a long trip around the southeast of the US, and ended up purchasing a house on auction in Fulton, Ky. They lived there for around eight years. Eventually Zenon began to have some memory problems, and they decided they should move closer to daughters Catherine and Rose.
They worked with a realtor who suggested that price-wise, it might be more reasonable to look at Mt. Morris. Around the year 2000 they purchased their home and after church shopping in town, they were invited to visit the Church of the Brethren and continued attending there. Isabelle was impressed by the church’s emphasis on peace. The warm and welcoming phone calls of Bill Powers impressed her and she joined during the time the Ritchey-Martins were pastors. Isabelle served on the church leadership team, helped in the nursery, and served as a deacon.
Zenon had continuing difficulties and growing dementia, and went to stay at the Dixon Health Center. He died in 2008. Isabelle continues to live in the house on Lincoln Street, with her dog, Shadow.
— Dianne Swingel is a member of Mount Morris Church of the Brethren in Mount Morris, Ill.