May 5, 2014

1944. Life in Occupied Brussels

The Black Market in Brussels
September 7, 1944
Passed for publication — A.E.F. FIELD PRESS CENSOR

The news blackout still holds on this front tonight. The latest releases are that British troops have reached the Albert Canal. American troops on the right flank of the British drive are now in contact with the British east of Brussels. And over in the Channel pocket, the Canadians and the British on the left continue to close in.

There can be little doubt that a decisive battle is developing—perhaps one of the final battles of the war in Western Europe. The optimism on the front is what you would expect after an advance of more than 700 miles in a week.

Brussels is seething with every sort of rumor, and they pass from person to person so fast that it is difficult to convince people that they are not true. If you walked down any street in Brussels right now you can hear that Hitler has committed suicide; that Goering has flown to Sweden; that German generals are conferring about appealing for an armistice. None of these rumors can be confirmed, and no one knows where they came from. But the people repeat them with glee.

We are beginning to find out now just how Belgium lived under the Nazis, for there seems to be no shortages here or anything except bread. The shop windows in downtown Brussels rival Fifth Avenue in New York for color and smartness. Their shelves, of course, are not nearly so full. But there is a good front on everything. The women dress smartly and the suits of the men seem of good quality. And people look moderately well fed, although there are some signs of malnutrition in the working districts.

But it was all done through the black market, an organization which became extremely efficient during the four years of occupation. There was a black market for everything. American phonograph records could be purchased from people who had regular traffic to Spain. The film "Gone With the Wind" was shown secretly a number of times here. The price of seeing it was something like $20 a ticket. The film also was smuggled in.

The finest brandies and wines were smuggled in from France despite the Nazi order that liquors were reserved for the German army. And it was possible even to buy Scotch whiskey gotten into the country some way or another.

Perfumes, silk stockings, motor oil, tires, buttons, needles and thread all were and are available for those who have the money. I talked to one man who told me he paid the equivalent of $400 for a suit of clothes.

This has resulted in a peculiar kind of inflation here in Belgium. But most people seem to be fairly well off, and during this liberation holiday, money is flowing in like Saturday night in a gold mining camp.

However, it does shake you to walk into a restaurant and have a perfect meal. Hors d'oeuvres of sardine and tomato and ham and lettuce followed by roast chicken or steak or chops, and then finish up with ice cream or fruit and coffee and brandy. Then you find that it costs you about $70 a plate.

Brussels has lived comparatively well during the occupation. But the black market has become such an institution that people are finding it hard to go into stores and ask out loud for some silk dress material—or for a bottle of brandy or for a loaf of bread. For the past four years they have been getting all this from under the counter—and from right under the noses of the Germans.

This is Bill Downs in Brussels returning you to CBS in New York.