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Visiting Le Bizet, Belgium: Surrealism at the Border, With Some Excruciating History
How disturbing can local historical associations be?
Le Bizet is a Belgian village, situated in a border conurbation with France. So far, so good.
Interestingly, it is in effect a suburb of the adjacent French city of Armentières. What makes it more unusual is that the French city has a Belgian suburb which is officially bilingual in French and Dutch.
The village belongs to the municipality of Comines-Warneton / Komen-Waasten, which forms part of the Belgian province of Hainaut / Henegouwen, with which, however, it is not geographically contiguous.
So, what with these Dutch variants of place-names in French, what is the Dutch form of Le Bizet? The answer: there is no, distinct Dutch form, even though Le Bizet is officially bilingual.
However — and this is curious — step over the border into France and Dutch-speakers have their own spelling — Armentiers — for the French name Armentières.
So: a city in France with a Dutch place-name variant, and an officially bilingual Belgian village without one.
Le Bizet was the home of local schoolteacher Paul Rose (1917-1945), known for having fulfilled a number of rôles. A member of a prominent, local family and an officer of the Belgian army in early World War Two, he was captured by Nazi-German invaders, released and on his return to Le Bizet, enrolled in the local Belgian Resistance. Interestingly for the geographical situation of Le Bizet, Paul Rose spent much of his time liaising with the French Resistance, conveying details of troop and aircraft movements to his French counterparts.
But the plot thickens: because of Rose's humanitarian instincts, contravening the often callous framework of tradecraft, he allowed himself the luxury of helping a British soldier who subsequently became a prisoner of war: this was literally fatal to him. The British soldier betrayed him to the Nazi-German occupiers; he was tortured by the Gestapo, who, however were unable to make him in turn betray his fellow resistants; and he was sent to Germany, and eventually resided in Dora-Mittelbau concentration camp.
The story becomes more complex. After World War Two, Hitler's armaments minister Albert Speer claimed to have alleviated conditions in Dora-Mittelbau. He also claimed that his deputy, not he, was responsible for the management of concentration camps (1), which maybe begs the question of how he could then claim to have alleviated conditions in Dora-Mittelbau.
These later claims aside, Paul Rose died under the terrible conditions at Dora-Mittelbau in February 1945.
It is not just the geographical and linguistic situation of Le Bizet that is surreal. The tragic story of local resistant and hero Paul Rose, for whom there is a memorial in rue de l'Eglise / Kerkstraat, lifts the lid, as it were, upon the web of betrayal and self-justification that, in wartime, and its aftermath, held so many Continental Europeans in its grip.
The official line for the Belgian residents of Le Bizet even today is that gratitude to British Allies in World War Two should be felt; and the official record still stands that Albert Speer's claimed attempts to alleviate conditions in concentration camps - for which, however, he was not supposedly responsible - helped to serve in mitigation to spare him the death penalty at Nuremberg (2).
January 22, 2018
(1) Speer's deputy, Fritz Sauckel, was executed in 1946, having been found guilty at the Nuremberg War Crimes Tribunal.
(2) There are lingering suspicions that an unrecorded deal was done by the US Government to spare Albert Speer's life in return for assisting the US Strategic Bombing Survey.
Some sourcing: Wikipedia
Also worth seeing
In Le Bizet itself, Saint-André /Sint-Andries church is in neo-Gothic style, dating from 1906, rebuilt after World War One damage.
Ploegsteert (distance: 2.7 kilometres); a huge Commonwealth war memorial, evidencing fierce fighting in the district World War One, has memories of Sir Winston Churchill.
Armentières, France (distance: 2.6 kilometres); the town hall belfry is in a striking Flemish style
How to get there: Brussels Airlines flies from New York to Brussels Airport (Brussel Nationaal / Bruxelles-National ), from where car rental is available. Brussels is the nearest large airport to Le Bizet (distance: 137 kilometres). Please check with the airline or your travel agent for up to date information. Please refer to appropriate consular sources for any special border crossing arrangements which may apply to citizens of certain nationalities.
MJFenn is an independent travel writer based in Ontario, Canada