In 2010 I received a mysterious email with the subject header, “Searching Family Baltuck.” The sender was Johan Lebichot. For some reason, the name rang a bell, though the bell was rusty and had long been silent. The message began…
My name is Johan Lebichot, 33 years old, and I am writing you from Belgium, Europe. I am searching a family from Detroit who corresponded with my grandmother 60 years ago. If you are the right person, you can confirm: Your parents are Harry and Eleanor Baltuck and your grandmother is Rose Baltuck. Your brothers and sisters are Lewis, William, Leonore, Debbie, Connie and Miriam. Sorting the contents of my grandmother I found a letter from Mrs. Rose Baltuck, a picture of your uncle Lewis Baltuck…
…his military grave…
…and six New Year cards coming from your parents during the year Fifties, made from pictures with their children, you, your brothers and sisters when you were young.
Your grandmother explains in her letter to my grandmother that during the war your father came into her flower shop to buy flowers for his brother’s grave…”
In his message, Johan Lebichot explained that when his grandmother died in 2002 her shop was sold, but he had saved a box of old letters from the dust bin, transferring it from her attic to his. Eight years later, while on paternity leave, Johan remembered the box. From its contents, he pieced together the frayed threads of a story connecting our families all the way back to 1944. No wonder his name seemed familiar! When I was a child, I’d heard the story from my grandmother’s lips. It began when my father visited his brother Lewis’s grave in a temporary American Military Cemetery at Fosse-la-Ville, Belgium.
He tried to buy flowers at a shop owned by Madam Jeanne Lebichot, but locals were observing their own memorial services, and the flowers were all spoken for. Already shattered by grief, my father broke down and wept, and so did the shopkeeper. She told him her little daughter had died in an accident the same day his brother was killed on the Siegfried Line. Jeanne Lebichot gave my father flowers, refusing payment, and adopted my uncle’s grave. She used to send my Grandma Rose dried and pressed sprays of flowers from the bouquets she left on Lewis’s grave on holidays, and the anniversaries of his birth and death. Grief, gratitude, and mutual comfort blossomed into friendship. Long after my uncle’s remains had come home to Detroit, the two women exchanged gifts, letters, and love.
Rose kept all Jeanne’s letters, just as Jeanne kept Rose’s. But Jeanne spoke no English, and Rose spoke no French. For twenty-one years my father wrote to Jeanne on behalf of his mother Rose, and translated Jeanne’s letters for her. After his death in 1965, the women lost touch. The story might have ended there, but for a box in Johan’s attic and one in mine, which held the letters and photographs Jeanne had sent Rose over the years.
Since Johan’s first mysterious email in 2010, our families have become reacquainted. We too have exchanged gifts, stories, and letters, old and new. Johan and I have learned much about our grandmothers from letters written to a stranger on the other side of the ocean. Through this exchange a new generation has become friends. Like Grandma Rose, I’ve had the pleasure of watching the next generation of Lebichots grow up.
After corresponding for several years with Johan, my sister Constance asked me to join her on a trip to France. I couldn’t possibly be so close, and not visit Johan in Belgium.
I’ve always felt a strong connection to my uncle, although he died before I was born. I walked the same Normandy Beaches that Allied forces had stormed on D-Day in 1944, and followed his footsteps through France. I’d taken my kids to the WWII museums, battlefields and cemeteries. However, this trip would be different. I’d have none of the anonymity I had enjoyed as a simple tourist. In the event of extreme awkwardness, I could not invoke my mother’s comforting motto, “You’ll never see these people again.”
A tenuous connection between our families had been resuscitated, and survived against impossible odds; I did not want to lose it again. So for the first time in sixty-nine years, the Baltucks and the Lebichots were to meet face to face, in spite of shyness or hesitation. Still, I worried. My college French was rusty. Johan said his English was too. What if we couldn’t understand each other? Worse yet, what if we met, and didn’t even like each other? Constance and I flew into Paris and took the train straight to Liege, rather than spend time worrying about it.
Johan and his wife Anita generously took a day off from work to drive us to the site of the American Cemetery. They picked us up outside our hotel, looking just like their photos, and their English was very good. We had an hour in the car to chat before we arrived at what used to be the temporary military cemetery.
At the time we’d planned the trip, it hadn’t registered that we would be in Belgium on the 69th anniversary of my uncle’s death, but it gave me a little shiver to realize it. The soldiers’ remains have long since been moved to permanent military cemeteries in France, or sent home to their wives and mothers in the United States. Far from disappointed, I was glad to see that the site had been reassigned to happier uses–a playground, gardens, home to windmills generating new energy.
A small monument there commemorates its history. A plaque reads, “In proud memory of the 2199 American soldiers here buried with 96 Allied Brothers in Arms. They gave their lives to set free our country in the fights of the fall 1944 and in the Battle of the Bulge.”
In Fosse-la-Ville, we paid our respects at Jeanne Lebichot’s grave before visiting the flower shop she owned during the war years. Vacant and in disrepair, it holds tight to its stories. We alone knew that seventy years ago my father’s footsteps echoed down that very street, and that the door of that shop swung open with a push from his hand. Only in our hearts could we hear his anguish for a little brother lost in a cruel war.
Johan grew up in Fosse-la-Ville and described his grandparent’s home, above the shop. We asked about his childhood. After hearing about his parents’ divorce, and the wrenching death of his mother that left him orphaned far too young, I understood why he and Anita were so determined to build a safe, secure, and loving home for their children, and I felt my heart stretching to make room for them all
Chez Lebichot, Johan introduced us to his son Arthur, and we set up the train set I’d brought him from America. Then Johan cracked open a bottle of champagne. Before sharing his photos and letters, we toasted our grandmothers, my uncle, his mother, and the circumstances that brought us together on this journey.
For the first time I saw an image of Jeanne, and wondered at the friendship between her and Rose, two such different women, a devout Catholic and a Jew, with an ocean between, who shared no common language, and had never even met. From interviews and friendships I’d made with soldiers who had served in my uncle’s battalion, I can say with certainty that only one who has endured the trauma of the battlefield can truly understand what another war veteran has suffered. I also believe that only a grieving mother can comprehend the pain of another who has lost a child, and that is something Jeanne and Rose did have in common.
Was it coincidence that Johan and I had both held onto our box in the attic? That we cared enough to piece together the story, and reach out to a stranger in goodwill? That it was worth a trip across an ocean to keep the story alive and growing? I think not. Both our childhoods were difficult, both our families fractured, and we both know what it is to be orphaned.
Since my trip to Belgium, Johan and Anita have had another baby, a little girl, and I share their joy. He follows the adventures of my kids on Facebook. He lost his job and found a better one. Next summer Johan is coming to visit us here in Edmonds, his first trip to the United States. I will share my home—and life and family–with him, as he has shared his with mine. I also want to take him to visit my sister Constance in Juneau during salmon spawning season, and I hope to send him home with heaps of smoked salmon and many more stories.
People can shut themselves off from further attachment–and potential pain, effort, and expense. Or they can be open to new beginnings–and potential joy. For me, it’s a constant struggle. This time, I choose to focus on life over death, I choose to mend rather than toss, I prefer an open hand to a closed fist, and I choose to give myself the gift of a happy ending.
…Please, could you confirm that you are (or not) a member of this family I am searching?
Yes, Johan, I can confirm that this is the family we were both searching for.
— By Naomi Baltuck
Naomi Baltuck is a storyteller, author, and longtime resident of Edmonds. When she isn’t writing, she loves to travel, almost as much as she loves coming home again.