My mother and I were on our way to the bakery to get bread for lunch. All of a sudden, planes screamed down from the sky. They roared close to my head, fired their guns, rose up, turned around, and seconds later came back and started to drop bombs.
“Mom, what’s going on?” I shouted, hanging on to her hand for dear life. I was not yet five years old.
“It’s the Germans. We have to go back home,” she shouted back. She tightened her grip on my hand and started to run.
People hurried in every direction, looking for any kind of shelter. Our house was only a few blocks away, but roof tiles, tree limbs, broken glass, bricks, and debris fell onto the pavement, making it difficult to run, even to walk. My ears hurt from the high-pitched sirens of the diving bombers and from the blasts of the bombs. The flashes of the explosions blinded me. The ground shook. Smoke was everywhere. The air smelled like someone had struck a million matches.
“I can’t see. I can’t breathe,” I cried out, my words lost in the chaos of the bombardment.
Still holding my hand, my mother stopped running and froze. I looked up at her face. Her eyes were wide open; her lips quivered as if she were going to cry; dazed, she stared at the house that was breaking apart, a block from where we stood. As the walls started to crumble, I let go of her hand, covered my ears, and shouted, “NO.”
Coming from over the rooftops, its siren blaring, a plane headed straight for me. Puffs of dirt coming up from the ground moved at lightning speed toward my feet. I panicked. I bolted. I tripped. I fell. My face hit something hard on the ground. I screamed, but nobody heard me.
My mother rushed to pick me up. “Alain,” she shrieked. As she tried to help me, I jumped back on my feet and started to run. She dashed after me. We both rushed to our house, which was miraculously standing, and we were lucky to be able to reach it; we ran down to the basement, where my aunts and cousins were hiding. There, we were somewhat safe. My face, my shirt, and my hands were dripping with blood.
My mother crumpled to the floor, too shaken to stand. My aunt Madeleine, my father’s sister, hurried to help her sit on a chair, and held her hands.
“Jacqueline, we were so afraid for you,” she sobbed.
Then she turned to me. “What happened to you, Alain? What’s all that blood?”
Fighting back tears, my mother said, “A German plane strafed us, but we were not hit. Alain got scared. He ran and tripped. He fell on something hard, probably a rock or a brick. He hurt his face.” I tried to hide my mouth with my hands, but blood flowed through my fingers. “Let me look at you,” my mother said. She pulled my arms away from my face.
“You have a big cut below your nose. Your upper lip is split. We need a doctor.”
My cousins stared at me and at the blood oozing out from under my nose, mixed into my tears. I did not want to cry in front of everybody, but I could not help it.
“I know it hurts, Alain,” my mom said, “We have to go to the hospital; we will, as soon as the planes go away.” The blood still came out of my lip. It almost tasted sweet. She took my shirt off and pressed it on my mouth.
A few minutes later, the commotion in the streets ended. Silence set in. The raid was over. It seemed safe to venture outside. My mom put a clean shirt on me and told me to hold the bloody one over my face. We left the house. I hoped that we would have no trouble reaching the hospital. I dreaded what the doctor would do to me, but I knew I had no choice; my lip had to be taken care of.
Out onto the street, I could not believe my eyes. I pointed at the skeletons of houses lining the opposite side of the street. My mouth was painful when I talked, so I mumbled, “The houses, gone.” A wall stood by itself, a window still attached to it, and farther up the street, a piece of roof looked like it was hanging in the air. “Mom, it’s going to fall on us,” I shouted in panic, forgetting I should not talk. It hurt.
Smoldering ruins were all that was left of the homes on that side of the street. By some stroke of luck, most structures on our side had not been touched.
Many people stared motionless at the devastation. Some cried, others frantically dug through the ruins of their homes, searching for persons or pets trapped under the debris. Bodies littered the ground. My mom covered her mouth with her hand and stared at the widespread destruction. Her eyes betrayed her panic.
“Oh my god,” she whispered.