Hortense Clews suffered indescribably during the Second World War due to her courageous involvement in the Belgian resistance movement.
The oldest daughter of Jacques and Stephanie Daman, Hortense was born in a small town in Belgium in 1926. Her family was actively involved in the Belgian resistance during World War II, and at thirteen years old, young Hortense joined the movement. She began working as a courier, using the cover of her mother’s grocery store to deliver everything from secret communications to weapons. She rode through the countryside, smuggling grenades in the bottom of a container of eggs and eluding capture by using her youth and the fact that she was a pretty blonde girl to trick German officers into thinking she was helpless and innocent.
Hortense proved to be an exceptional courier, and she and her family continued working with the Belgian resistance until they were betrayed to the Gestapo four years later. Her brother, Francois, managed to avoid capture, but Hortense and her parents were arrested on February 14th, 1944. She was only seventeen.
After their betrayal, Hortense and her parents spent a month being interrogated by Belgian SS officers. During this time, they were tortured and violently beaten. Hortense was branded a terrorist and sentenced to death.
Following their interrogation, Hortense’s father was sent to Buchenwald, while Hortense and her mother were shipped off to Ravensbrück. Ravensbrück is one of the lesser-known concentration camps, but it was no less brutal. It was opened in 1939 and was the only camp built by the Nazi regime for the sole purpose of housing women. Though it was initially small, designed to hold only 3,000 prisoners, by February of 1945, it held more than nine times that.
Conditions at the camp were horrific. Babies were left to starve. Children died at an alarming rate (nearly two each day during an eight month period). Tens of thousands of women were senselessly slaughtered. Those who lived were subjected to forced sterilization and were made to participate in truly terrifying medical experiments. Their bones were broken. Their muscles were cut with shards of wood and glass. They were injected, slashed, and stabbed, and often left to die. Hortense was one of these women. She was given an injection that was designed to give her gangrene. She was given sterilization treatments against her will in an effort to “prevent the contamination of pure Aryan stock”. She suffered unimaginably, but against all odds, she survived.
After 18 months at Ravensbrück, Hotense and her mother were resettled by the Red Cross in Sweden. Hortense’s brother helped liberate Buchenwald, and during the liberation, he found their father. The family was reunited, and on the day Hortense returned to her hometown, she met the man who would become her husband—a Staff Sergeant in the British Army who had become friends with her father during his trip back from Buchenwald.
Soon after, Hortense and her husband moved to the UK where he ran a hospital. Hortense desperately wanted to have family, and despite being told that she would never have children as a result of the sterilization treatments she received in the camps, 16 years later, that dream was realized—first with a daughter named Julia and then with a son named Christopher.
Hortense died on December 18th, 2006, at the age of eighty. Before her death, she was given numerous honors for her bravery and sacrifice during World War II. In addition to being awarded the prestigious Belgian Croix de Guerr and the Medal of Resistance, she was even appointed a Knight of the Order of Leopold II.