'How they managed to live through the war, I don't know': the Belgian-born Prestonian family which survived Auschwitz and the Gestapo to forge a new life in the UK
Tom Stock chuckles.
"So, yeah; that's the family story," he says. "There's so much that I don't normally know where to start and, if we covered the whole thing, we'd be here 'til next Thursday."
He's not wrong. Emergency evacuations, SS officers disguised as nuns, covert communication channels along resistance lines, missing offspring, the Gestapo, discovering a talent for lancing boils, square potatoes, train robberies, a 'spotty-faced' American GI, and the curious case of a Prestonian GP treating the wounded in Cairo - Tom's family story has it all.
But it starts in Belgium.
Tom's mother and uncle, Edith and Willy van Paemel respectively, were born in the coastal town of Blankenberge in the years following World War I. Their parents owned a hotel, as did - coincidentally - Tom's paternal grandparents, but Edith and Willy initially eschewed a career in the service industry. By 1939, Edith was a trainee nurse and Willy was in the Belgian army.
As was the case for millions across the continent, World War II careened through the siblings' lives like a tornado. At 19, Edith was with the Belgian Red Cross when she was forced to retreat with the remnants of the Belgian Army to Dunkirk. With German Stuka dive bombers targeting them, she recalls how wounded soldiers would throw themselves into ditches at the side of the road.
"My mother had a tough war," says Tom, now 72. "So many were killed on their way to Dunkirk and Calais, but my mother managed to get on the Shikari, an old British destroyer headed for Dover which was the last vessel to leave. When she landed on British shores, she was so disoriented she asked a police officer what time the next boat back to Belgium was.
"And she always told the tale of the nun who was there helping the wounded," adds Tom. "My mum knew there was something not right. When they arrived in Dover, they all went into the delousing chambers and the interview pool and she noticed the nun was actually a male SS officer who'd been tapping out the ship's position in Morse on a big battery between his legs."
Willy was himself experiencing his fair share of strife. A member of the army when the Nazis invaded Belgium in early May 1940, Willy soon found himself working at a bakery in Antwerp following the Belgian King's unconditional surrender. Under Flamenpolitik, all Flemish soldiers already in captivity were released, including the Flemish-speaking Willy.
But Willy's time in the bakery was short-lived as he was soon visited by the Gestapo, who informed him he had been enlisted to undertake slave labour at Auschwitz and told him to be on the train first thing the following morning. His plans to disobey and flee to live with his aunt were soon quashed: the officials warned him that if he didn't board the train, his parents would.
"I was my uncle's confidant, he never really spoke to anyone else about the war," says Tom, who was born in Belgium but grew up in Preston. "He didn't talk to his daughter about it and his son had about as much interest in the war as I do in ladies' croquet, so I'd get all the tales and the gruesome details.
"It was like something out of a story book and I used to sit there, goggle-eyed, as he talked," he adds. "I was horrified, but he was so pragmatic about everything so, when the Gestapo threatened his parents, that was that: he was on the train and was taken to Auschwitz where he was reunited with my aunt Yvonne."
At Auschwitz, Willy - who got a reputation for lancing boils, jokingly calling himself the Boil Man - worked as a chef and, knowing that some Jewish prisoners were forced to scavenge in the bins for food, would try to leave extra scraps in there for them, cutting potatoes square so as to leave more food for them to find.
"My uncle was a chain-smoker all his life and, when he arrived at Auschwitz, he spoke German to a young SS officer, negotiating for a cigarette," says Tom. " A young Belgian Jew tried to do the same thing, and this soldier just took out his gun and shot him in the head. People were treated like manure."
By the time Willy was at Auschwitz, Edith had made her way to London and was living through the Blitz, sleeping in the Underground and emerging to new landscapes each day moulded by the bombing. Eventually posted to Glasgow, she mistakenly disembarked the train at Preston as the army had removed all station signs so as to confuse any potential invading forces.
The next train wasn't for three days and, distressed and not speaking much English, Edith was spotted by a police officer who took her to the hotel owned by Tom's grandmother. There, she contacted the Red Cross, who asked if would stay in Preston as many Belgian fishermen had been evacuated and brought their boats to the Fylde coast and they needed a nurse.
She agreed and eventually met Tom's father Leslie, who had himself been demobbed after being severely injured at the battle of El Alamein in Egypt, where he was working as a dispatch rider when a bomb exploded near him, 'shattering' his nervous system in Tom's words. Taken to hospital in Cairo, his doctor was, amazingly, his GP from back home in Preston.
Edith and Leslie were soon engaged, but Edith's mother, known to the family as Bobonna, still had no idea if either of her children were alive having last heard from her daughter when she was fleeing to Dunkirk and from her son when he had been taken to Auschwitz. Edith had tried to contact her mother through the Red Cross to no avail.
Discussing this with a friend who worked with Belgian evacuees in Fleetwood one evening in the pub, Leslie was taken aback when his contact asked him for more details and promised to get the news to his fiancées parents, before telling him not to ask any more questions. Tom later discovered that the message had been taken down a Jewish resistance line into Europe.
Some weeks later, Bobonna had a knock on the door of their hotel in Blankenberge and was told the news. By all accounts, her hair turned white overnight.
By now, the allied advance on Auschwitz was gathering pace and the German guards were warning prisoners of the supposed brutality of the Russian soldiers, saying they'd rape the women and kill the men so as to keep them fearful. One morning, Willy awoke to find the guards gone and, petrified of the Russian advance, was one of the first people in the Jewish camp as he sought to rouse the prisoners to escape.
"He saw mounds of hair, suitcases, and jewellery, some of which was taken by escaping prisoners," says Tom. "But they soon dropped it all because they were too weak to carry anything, according to my uncle. Along with a group of Belgians, my uncle and aunt Yvonne started the march across Europe towards Belgium. Their journey home was traumatic beyond belief."
Criss-crossing between the German and allied lines, the group was soon apprehended and put on to a train to what Willy believed was Prague. Robbed at another station by German SS troopers, the group eventually managed to escape again and resumed their march home. But it was when they crossed into American territory that things became perilous.
"My uncle wouldn't discuss things when he was sober," explains Tom. "But, when he'd finished cooking at the hotel of an evening, he would make himself the biggest mountain of chips you've ever seen anyone consume and shout to me in Flemish 'Tom, grab a couple of beers and let's have a talk'. And that was it, we'd be chatting away about these horrible stories."
One of which involved a US squadron. Hiding in a shell hole, the Belgian group were spotted and the GIs separated the women from the men. Tom reports that his uncle believed they intended to rape the women, only for a 'spotty-faced' young American officer to draw his pistol and threaten his own men, screaming at them to stop.
The group fled and, eight months after they left Auschwitz, eventually made it back to Belgian soil where they were admitted to hospital in Bruges.
After the war, Willy returned to Blankenberge, as did Edith and Leslie for a few years, Tom and his sister Lesley themselves born in Belgium. But Lancastrian Leslie soon found the bite of homesickness too hard to resist and told his wife he wanted to return to the UK, explaining that he understood if she wished to remain in Belgium with the children.
"But my mother loved Preston and she loved this country," says Tom, with the family moving back to Grimsargh in the late '40s. "She became essentially English - I'm more Belgian than my mum was. When she came to this country at 19, she didn't really have any idea where she was. Now, I look at my own grandchildren and think 'you have no idea what your great-grandmother went through'.
"Looking back, I don't think there's pride in the fact that they managed to survive," adds Tom. "But there was such a powerful hatred - a hatred like you couldn't believe - for the Germans and I was brought up on a diet of hate for the Germans. But, as a child, how could I hate? How they managed to live through it all, I just don't know."
In 1982, Edith suffered an embolism and a stroke. Willy and extended family came over from Belgium to be with her and, whilst in the hospital, Willy suddenly grabbed Tom by the arm and told him to gather the family. Tom asked why and Willy replied 'your mother will die tonight'. Tom asked his uncle how he knew and Willy replied 'I've watched people die.'
Edith died four hours later. Leslie followed in 1987 and Willy in 1999. But the family will never let its Belgian roots wither, according to Tom.
"There was always that strong family connection to Blankenberge and I'm still very much part of Belgium," he explains. "My mum would be utterly delighted to know that Belgium is still such an important part of our lives and that link is incredibly important to me. I'll never let them go in my lifetime and I know damn well my kids won't either."