My name is Yvonne Fassotte. I was born in Ixell, Brussels in the year 1923. When I was four years old my parents were legally separated. My mother was French and my father was Belgian. We saw our mother every fortnight and had a holiday every year with her. I had three older sisters, Paulette, Denise and Jaqueline.
After my parents separation the family maid raised my sisters and me. She was called Katherine. She was promoted to housekeeper for the task. Katherine was very strict and a hard worker. When it was required she would give us a slap.
My grandfather was called Joseph Fassotte. He was a gardener by trade. He worked on a large estate close to our home. He later specialized in the cultivation of fruit trees and wrote several books on the subject.
My father was called Paul Charles Fassotte (PCF). He was born 5km from Brussels at a place called Boitsfort (pronounced waffo). When he was young my father used to wear wooden clogs, as did all the family. He went to the school at Ixell.
All his adult life he travelled around the world as an engineer. He was known in the engineering world as PCF.
While my father was an anglophile, Joe, his eldest brother, was Flemish through and through. Uncle Joe travelled everywhere with my father until he lost interest in traveling. He then became a furrier in Bond Street London.
My father bought an old Victorian house in Ixcell. He immediately gutted the house and redesigned the whole interior, including the furniture. It was such a lovely house built specially so that my grandmother could go up the curving staircase without difficulty in her old age. Also, later in his life my father had a stroke and he would have found an ordinary staircase very difficult to climb. For two years he was not doing much and my aunt came in to look after him. Later on the family home was bought by property developers. They demolished our home. I was sort of glad that had happened because I couldn’t bear to think of anyone else in our home along with all our memories.
Still aged six years, I remember my first day at school in 1929. In school the talk was always about the First World War and the behavior of the Germans in Belgium at that time.
In Brussels at that time there was a Flea Market. There were all sorts of items left behind by the Germans. Katherine had to go and visit her family at one time and my sisters and I accompanied her. On that Whit sun Sunday we were dressed in our Sunday best. White socks and white shoes. Katherine had promised to take us on a surprise visit that day. We were looking forward to that surprise and while sitting on the wall some German boys came along. They were about the same age as us. I was about eight years old at that time. We had a fight with the boys. We didn’t win and were told off for our behavior. I can remember very clearly that Katherine put us all to bed. That was a Sunday morning and we were expecting to go out on a surprise trip. That was my first experience with the Germans.
I was the youngest in the family and in 1936 aged twelve I was sent to boarding school. That was Lycee Waroque in the town of Morlanwey. That was in the Black Country of Belgium. One of the teachers took me to the headmistress and they did not believe that it was my father who was going to collect her at the
station one day. My father was very annoyed that the headmistress did not believe me and drove me back to the Boarding School to confront the headmistress. While they were talking the headmistress asked my father for permission to have me X-rayed. It was then found out that I had sclerosis of the spine, a curvature.
One of the girls at the boarding school with me was English. Her father was a jockey. One day Jennifer she took me to a racecourse. We enjoyed ourselves thoroughly that day.
When WW2 started in 1939 my father had been away to New Zealand and Australia. He came home at Christmas in 1939. The headmistress had also died
and a new headmistress was appointed. When the Germans invaded Belgium in 1940 I was still at boarding school. That day the sirens went off. No one at the school knew what was expected of them, it was a very confusing day. Eventually I got the train home and never returned to the boarding school. I had to leave many of my personal effects in school.
We spent the week covering the windows of our home with tape in order to reduce the blast damage.
I joined the Girl Guides after I escaped to England. I did not speak a word of English, how to say yes or no. I hated the first few days. Of course I would have hated the Germans more. They occupied our house and apparently a German woman, equivalent to the ATS danced naked on that table. My father designed all the furniture for the house.
My father had previous experiences in both war and work in armaments. Because of these facts there were many different types of munitions about our home. My father gathered all these compromising items together, put them in a bag and asked Jackie and myself to dispose of them in the forest pond. My sister had her arm in a sling because she just had an operation on her arm.
My sister Jaqueline and myself had just entered the forest and we had started to put these objects into the pond. We turned around and found ourselves confronted by three soldiers pointing rifles with fixed bayonets at us. They spoke different Flemish dialect to us so it was difficult for us to explain what we were doing. The soldiers marched us further into the forest and were then questioned by an officer. He examined our Identity Cards and explained to us that the soldiers thought that we were fifth columnists.
He even suggested that my sister had her arm in a sling because she injured herself in a parachute drop.
We had to explain that our father wanted to be rid of the munitions before the Germans found them. Lucky for us there was a policeman present who knew our family well. He advised us to take our items to the nearest police station. It was very frightening at the time but I can laugh at the incident now. So we ended up walking along the main road with our pack and escorted by three soldiers with fixed bayonets.
I never saw the invading Germans in Brussels at all. On the Friday after the invasion my father gathered us all at the dining table. This was a normal routine when he wanted to discuss something important. He told us that he had to go back to England. He was working for the British government then as a metallurgist consultant and they wanted him back in England to complete some munitions work. He asked us what we wanted to do. We had the choice of going to England or staying in Belgium. Of course we elected to go to England with him. All my elder sisters were born in England and could speak excellent English. Jackie was born near London. She was a nurse.
This decision led to a difficult and frightening journey for the family. The first stage of the journey took us in the family car from Brussels on a Sunday to Turnai the following day. The family were lucky because many were escaping from Brussels on foot.
During the Monday night the family survived the German bombing of the town. On Tuesday we travelled to the French border only to find it had been closed off. My sisters spent the night in a convent while my father and myself stayed in the car to look after it.
The most terrifying recollection at that stage of the journey for me was the constant presence of the German aircraft. The family eventually reached Paris after three terrifying days of travel. The journey normally took only four hours.
Their immediate objective was to reach the Belgian embassy and to be issued with the visas that would allow us into England. It was on that day I saw the true horror of war. We saw a car full of bullet holes with four dead bodies sprawled in the back seat. That was my first sight of death and it was not a pleasant experience.
The family had to wait for three days before my father was issued with a visa. The English wanted my father but he wouldn’t budge without his daughters so we had to wait another week for our visas.
Eventually the visas were issued and the family travelled by train to St Malo for the final stage of our journey.
We had another fright when we reached St Malo. The English soldiers started to shoot.
My father was shot in the ear and fell to the ground. He was all right but it was still a frightening experience.
We boarded the ship but there was a delay as the ship could only travel at night. That stage of the journey took fifteen hours as opposed to the normal four hours for channel crossing. The family docked in Southampton the following morning. It was then that I had my first sight of the island. It looked so peaceful that I turned to my father and said that I would go and live there one day.
After arriving in England we went to London and registered as an alien. I then moved around England before settling in Wolverhampton and found work as a caterer in war canteens.
Two years after my escape to England my father took me to a solicitor and asked for help to transfer my nationality from Belgian to British.
During the war years I was employed as a cook. After the war I stayed with my sister. I was in the Girls Guides and helped to look after her two children. The local hairdresser employed me to shampoo and that’s how I started my hairdressing career. I was interested in tinting and curling. In 1968 the Wella Foundation posted me to Germany and then to Paris for two-week courses. I’ve never liked the Germans. Although much later on in life I did go to Germany on a hairdresser’s course in 1968. I did not tell them that I was Belgian. That was none of their business.
While I was in Germany one of the instructors fell for the widow I was accommodated with for our course. At one stage the instructor took advantage of my roommate. I took pity on her situation and reported his behavior to his superiors. I had to leave the course because of this. Eventually the head instructor found out the truth and I went on to attend another course in Paris.
On Holiday in Brussels
In 1958 when I was on holiday in Brussels near our former home at Boitsfort, I decided to buy some seeds that were not available in England. I wanted to grow some salad with a little green leaf. That plant, translated from the French is called Lamb’s Tongue. It looks like a lambs tongue, it is very mild and I wanted to grow it back in England. I ordered the seeds and when I went to the shop to collect the seeds. An old gentleman approached me. He said, “Are you the Fassotte’s, the family of Joseph Fassotte”? My grandfather had died in 1911 and here was a man in 1958 still wanting to buy his books on the cultivation of fruit trees.
I still have many keepsakes from my home in Brussels. I do not care what happens to these items when I am gone but they are very important to me. This has come about because I had to leave many of my personal effects back at the boarding school and also at my home in Brussels. I now like to be surrounded by these items from my home in Brussels and my French maternal grandmother. When we used to visit my mother every fortnight, she would tell us stories about the family heirlooms.
We were very friendly with a local painter who died in 1920. He used to sketch the street scenes around the village I came from. Our house was located to the right side of the sketch. On the left side there was a hazel wood and the pond. This was cleared for housing development.