At the Wales for Peace lecture on “Belgian Refugees in Wales and Rhyl” which was held at the Little Theatre on May 24th, 2016, our unexpected guest of honour was 93-year-old Mr. Bernard Willems, the son of a Belgian Refugee who currently lives in Prestatyn. We arranged to meet Bernard at a later date in order to record some of his memories and tell his story. What follows is taken from the notes we made at that subsequent meeting.
Mr. Bernard Willems
Photograph: Wales for Peace / Hanna Huws
Bernard’s Grandparents and father were Refugees from Ghent who came to the UK during the First World War. Bernard’ s father joined the Belgian Army and his parents stayed in Banbury, in Oxfordshire. Bernard’s mother, Emma Florence Weeks was an English woman who had travelled extensively in France so was a proficient French speaker. In church one day she heard a couple speaking in French. When the lady dropped her glove, Emma returned it to her, and spoke to them in French. So started a relationship with the couple, Bernard’s grandparents, which led to Emma becoming the pen-friend of their son. This friendship blossomed into romance, and Bernard’s father, Georges, eventually proposed to Emma by letter.
Georges and Emma married. After the war they had three children, but Georges’ commission in the Belgian army meant that they moved a lot. Consequently, their children were born in three different countries – one daughter in Versaille in France, another in Ostend in Belgium and Bernard,who was born in Banbury. Bernard speaks four languages: English, French, Flemish and German.
The Willems family name is well known in Belgium. Jan Frans Willems (11 March 1793 – 24 June 1846) Bernard’s great-grandfather, was a Flemish writer and father of the Flemish movement. He is responsible for the Flemish language as it stands today, and there are numerous memorials to him, most notably in Ghent’s marketplace. It is no coincidence that his statue was placed right across from the Royal Dutch Theatre, which was the counterpart of the Opera, the French-language theatre. This statue is a symbolic representation of Flemish emancipation.
When Bernard was three years of age, he and his family moved back to Belgium. He saw the rebuilding of Belgium in the inter-war years. Bernard studied at the Academy of Fine Art in Brussels.
As he finished his studies, the Second World War broke out, and Belgium was again plunged into the dark days of occupation. Just a teenager, Bernard joined the underground resistance and became invaluable to their cause. He aided British Airmen who were trying to get back to the UK by helping to hide them, and he acted as a liaison between the Antwerp and Brussels resistance.
Bernard’s father was, by now, in charge of a factory which made fire alarms. The factory was requisitioned by the invading forces, and Bernard was able to inform the allies as to which buildings had been fitted with the alarms. He witnessed first-hand the brutality of the German army: On one occasion Bernard was sitting on a tram in Brussels when the Nazis stopped the tram and boarded it. They removed the first 50 people, lined them up in the street and shot them. Bernard was number 52 or 53 on the tram, and so escaped the same fate.
On another occasion, Bernard was sheltering in a house in Abbeville in France, with some other lads. (The Battle of Abbeville: 27th of May – 4th of June, 1940.) A bomb hit the house and the roof collapsed and he was among those trapped – for four days. His friends had assumed he was dead and tried to retrieve his body to bury it. He heard them digging and shouted out, and was rescued.
His brother-in-law told him of an occasion when 300 people were shot inside a church from a vantage point above the church organ. Living in fear as he was British-born, Bernard was targeted and arrested 22 times by the Gestapo.
After the war and the liberation of Belgium, A NAAFI opened in Brussels. The captain in charge was a friend of Bernard’s mother, and so he went to work there as an interpreter. The captain allowed him to use the room one afternoon per week to make sketches of the soldiers for “five bob a time”. He averaged around thirty a day until he received his papers to return to the UK and on his return, he provided a similar service creating portraits of the American airmen at Manston Airbase in Kent.
Having a great love of the sea, Bernard decided to settle in Dover, where he stayed for 11 years, living on the seafront and enjoying sailing his yacht as often as he could. He founded the limited company “Wilectric”, which made electric convector heaters. But, with a growing family, he accepted a job and moved north to Manchester, living in Chorlton Vale. He was a faculty lecturer in fine art.
In 1972 Bernard was requested by telegram to paint a portrait of the then Prince Phillipe of Belgium, who is now Phillipe, King of the Belgians, and one of Phillipe’s sister Princess Astrid. He still has the telegram! He worked primarily from photographs, and considers this commission a great honour. He also sketched a portrait of Pope John Paul II – which is signed by the Pope himself!
As the portrait commissions flooded in, Bernard decided to retire from the University, and eventually moved to Prestatyn – close enough to his family in Manchester, but very close to his beloved sea. Bernard still teaches, from his studio at home, and has around twenty students who come to him twice a week and learn from the great man for free. Bernard says of this: “I have a gift, and it is only right that I share it. That is why I give the lessons for free.” The man certainly does have a gift. His studio walls are full of the most beautiful oil and charcoal/pastel portraits. We found him to be the most charming, fascinating man.
The Refugees in Rhyl project seeks to record the lives and stories of those people who were exiled from Belgium during the First World War and came to our area. To have had the opportunity to meet a man whose family were Belgian Refugees and who himself has incredible stories to tell of his time during the Second World War has been an honour and a privilege.
If you have similar stories to share, please get in touch via our email address firstname.lastname@example.org or the contact page on this website: www.refugeesinrhyl.wordpress.com – you can also contact us this way if you would like us to put you in touch with Bernard.