A long letter written in World War II from a French woman in Belgium to a friend in Australia has surfaced in northern NSW.
Carol Hugginson said her nephew Thor Hugginson came across "a very yellowed envelope" addressed to Clara Hugginson, of 25 Hubbard Street, Islington, near Newcastle in the state's north.
The letter, which contains a diary of life in WWII, was written by a French woman named Fernande Hackray, who was living in Brasschaat in Belgium.
Carol reached out to the Belgium Embassy in Canberra, which is helping her track down Fernande's family.
"They think they have identified some 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 found that Maisie lived at 42 Hubbard Street, Islington in 1943. The diary runs from 1941 to 1946.
THE LETTER begins in a thrilling way: "We are still alive - the four of us and all the members of my family".
"We missed death very narrowly. I will explain to you what 'hell' we have been passing through. First of all I must tell you that I received your last letter [dated April 1, 1940]." However, Fernande didn't receive the letter until February 1, 1941."
"It stayed nearly one year somewhere in a post office," she wrote, adding it had been censored by the English and Germans.
The writer told her friend: "All I told you about the war of 1914 has been surpassed in horror for the poor civillians. I was among them running away 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 start of her ordeal, saying "German planes awoke us" on May 10, 1940, with the invasion of Belgium.
"The radio announced the war. Mr Hackray hurried 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 aged 40, wrote of being driven mad while still at home, among "bombs, planes and their machine guns and sirens".
Her daughters Janine and Francoise were "white as sheets, shaking with fear, clinging to me". "They could not eat anymore. One village near ours was destroyed."
So on May 12, 1940, she left her house with the children and dog.
She headed for her sister's place in France on a train trip 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 scream at her daughter to stay near her. "So many children have been lost."
"It was the most dreadful day of my life. They dropped five bombs very near us."
They hid in small bushes and 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 crowded with refugees, with "not one room or bed to find". They were exhausted. "We slept on the floor of a great building with our coats as blankets." The town was burnt "two days after we left".
She said she must have looked terrible when she reached her sister's place, as "she started to cry".
France was not much better than Belgium. "My brother-in-law was a soldier and the Germans were coming with planes and bombs. So my sister, I and the five children left." They left in a big car and found a flat about 200 miles outside Paris. It was peaceful there for three weeks.
"I was ill with sorrow after the defeat of the Belgians and French."
The Germans were approaching, so they "ran away again".
She separated from her sister and went to live on a farm for three months in the south of France. Her kids had "a wonderful time with all the animals of the farm". "At the end of July, I knew that my husband was still alive." They returned to Belgium after four months away. Her husband had escaped as a prisoner of war.
"Can you imagine the meetings of the father, girls and wife!!!"
Goods had been stolen from their house - "blankets, wireless, sheets, towels, forks, spoons, shoes, gloves, pullovers ... but we were so happy to be together again."
Her husband had "escaped death many times". A small bomb had fallen near him.
"Another time a piece of shrapnel took off the top part of his cask without hurting him."
They hoped for peace, but were "frightened of winter time with nothing to eat and maybe no coal".
On August 31, 1941, she wrote "Still the war goes on. When will it end?"
"Everybody is getting thin," she said, adding 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 in school and "wants to see Australia one day". On February 27, 1942, she wrote: "The war seems to approach Australia. I think of you often".
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