THE DAY MARY WAS NOT WATCHING
There was a ghostly atmosphere in Asten in the night of Wednesday 20 to Thursday 21 September 1944. British grenade fire had caused total ravage in and around the church. Asten was evacuated on the Thursday, followed that evening by the parish of Ommel, a favourite pilgrimage place to the Virgin Mary. ‘Das ganze Heiligtum geht kaputt’ (the entire shrine will be destroyed), the Germans had said. Many residents of Ommel were looking for shelter, but many stayed at home. They did not see the need to leave…
The Klaus and Michiels families and their many children had a common air raid shelter on the Ommels Eindje: a deep ditch between the farmhouses, with straw on the bottom and provisionally covered with branches tied together. The children sometimes used the shelter as a playhouse.
There were difficult choices to be made that Thursday evening in Ommel. To flee from the approaching violence of war or not? Pastor Vogels and his housekeeper left for Vlierden, taking with them the Miracle Statue of the Virgin Mary of Ommel, Comforter in Any Emergency. Many families also left, those on the Ommels Eindje stayed where they were.
Their air raid shelter now had to prove itself. In the evenings there was some quarrelling about who could sleep next to whom. ’No complaining’, said the parents, ‘purely by age.’ The families did not sleep very much that night but they were still there the following morning. The dawn of a new day in the war saw them go back into their houses.
But the violence of war was now so intense that the Michiels and Klaus families had to flee back into the shelter at about quarter to eleven. Twenty of them – not all the children were at home – descended back into the ditch in an orderly way.
It happened in a split second. A grenade hit one of the two thick linden trees right behind the shelter. It fell as a projectile silently downwards where the explosion caused death and destruction. The devastation was enormous, and local residents came to assist.
Eight of the children were killed instantly; six were also wounded, five of them seriously. Three of them died later, eleven deaths in total…
The Michiels family lost Miet (19), Thea (15), Louis (14), Hendrik (12), Nella (11) and Martien (6). After several weeks mother Helena (46) also passed away. She died from a broken heart; everyone in Ommel knew that.
The Klaus family had a similar drama. Jan (12), Leo (11), Anna (9) and Dina (8) all lost their lives. Martien (7) and his sister Riet (5) were seriously injured, but survived.
Dora Michiels – then 8 years old – remembers ‘smoke, dust, fear, crying and screaming’. Everyone who could get out was trying to. I took hold of my brother Martien’s hand, but he didn’t take hold of mine. He had just a small hole in the top of his head, but I knew he was dead.’
The other Martien, then 7 and the youngest son of the Klaus family: ‘The shelter was full of smoke and it stank. I was lying among all the dead children. I was bleeding so heavily, just like my sister Riet, that our neighbours thought we were also dead.’
Help was seriously delayed by the relentless battle. The seriously injured victims were still in Ommel on that hellish night when the village went up in flames. In was only of the following day, Saturday, that they were taken to hospital, even then there were some obstacles.
Dora Michiels: ”Mother and I were escorted through the front line in a black car with a white flag. There was a dead horse on the road every ten metres or so. The British soldiers had to pull the horses off the road to let us through. Many German soldiers were also lying there.”
For fifty years Dora Michiels could not speak of her ordeal. Fellow sufferer Martin Klaus didn’t have the same problem, and in 1994 he managed to persuade Dora to take part in the annual Remembrance parade. Since then they have often appeared together at events associated with the war. Dora didn’t receive any expert help at the time. Martin found strength from his faith – even though the Virgin Mary of Ommel had not been watching when fate struck. He bears no grudges. ‘All soldiers, including German ones, did what they had to do. As far as I’m concerned the Germans can join in our Remembrance events. We are victims of war, and they are just the same.’
Destruction in the centre of Asten (photo: Imperial War Museum)