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Duckler: She survived WWII in Europe, but now this Pittsfield woman faces an invisible enemy

  • Maureen Van Horn during World War II in London. Courtesy

  • RIGHT: Maureen Van Horn after World War II on the Italian coast.

  • ABOVE: Maureen Van Horn, who lived through the bombing of London during World War II, has lived in Pittsfield for over 30 years. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

  • Maureen Van Horn faced the bombing of London during World War II and now is facing a far different enemy – the threat of the COVID-19 virus. Van Horn has lived in Pittsfield for over 30 years. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

  • Maureen Van Horn faced the bombing of London during World War II and now is facing the threat of the COVID-19 virus. Van Horn has lived in Pittsfield for over 30 years. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Maureen Van Horn faced the bombing of London during World War II and now is facing the threat of the COVID-19 virus. Van Horn has lived in Pittsfield for over 30 years. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Maureen Van Horn faced the bombing of London during World War II and now is facing the threat of the COVID-19 virus. Van Horn has lived in Pittsfield for over 30 years. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Maureen Van Horn faced the bombing of London during World War II and now is facing the threat of the COVID-19 virus. Van Horn has lived in Pittsfield for over 30 years. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • People sleep on the platform of Piccadilly Underground station in London during Nazi bombing raids on Sept. 28, 1940. AP

  • A clergyman arranges two cherubs amid the debris of St. Pauls altar in London, Oct. 11, 1940, after the famous London Cathedral was bombed by German raiders. (AP Photo) —AP

  • Debris piled in Cheapside, London, on Oct. 17, 1940, after bombs had fallen during a Nazi air raid. (AP Photo) —AP

Monitor columnist
Published: 5/9/2020 5:32:38 PM

Once, Maureen Van Horn worried about the Germans.

These days, it’s the germs.

At 94, she’s lived through the last two world wars – one involving troops, the other a virus.

She’s a British native who, as a rambunctious teen, felt the sting of Germany’s 1940 bombing campaign during World War II, when Hitler’s air force tried and failed to pound England into submission.

The war in Europe ended 75 years ago on Friday, May 8. It’s been called VE Day – Victory in Europe Day – ever since.

Maureen came to the states in 1948 and she’s lived in her Pittsfield home for 30 years.

And now, she’s on the sidelines for the most recent conflict to engulf the world, the coronavirus, which, unlike Germany in 1945, has yet to surrender.

“It’s a vicious, vicious thing, and it amazes and astonishes me that it can travel worldwide so easily,” Maureen told me recently at her home. “Unbelievable, and it is frightening, yes. It worries me because so many people have died. This coronavirus is absolutely dreadful.”

She’s secure that quarantining herself plus food deliveries from family and friends will be enough for her to defeat this enemy. She’s watched the pandemic unfold on TV and in her beloved New York Times.

She recalls that resources, daily items we all take for granted, were rationed during the war. She’s amused what we here in the states have chosen to hoard.

“One of my friends, a guy, unasked, brings me rolls of toilet paper,” Maureen said. “I am not short of toilet paper, I don’t worry about it, but I can’t imagine this mad rush to get it.

“In England,” she continued, “we were hoarding sugar.”

And fighting an enemy intent on world domination. Maureen was a school girl when Germany began pulverizing London. Sure, she was concerned with the Nazi threat in 1940, but at 14 years old, fear mixed with curiosity, even a little wonder.

“The country was very negative I think at the time,” Maureen said. “I didn’t know much about it; I wasn’t interested. It was very exciting, to tell you the truth. This was a great holiday.”

Maureen and her friends sang songs, chants, really, targeting Germany with lyrics such as, “We’re gonna hang up our laundry on the Siegfried Line,” and “Run, Hitler, run, Hitler, run, run, run,” and “Heil Hitler, yah yah yah, oh what a silly little man you are.”

“I was pretty stupid in that I don’t think I grasped the magnitude at the time,” Maureen said.

Before fleeing for safety underground, crazy, dangerous scenarios mixed with youthful curiosity. Like the time an incendiary bomb landed near the family’s home.

Maureen’s two older brothers rushed to put out the fire. They brought the bomb home, where their 5-year-old brother snagged it and later brought it to school.

“A day or two later,” Maureen said, “he swapped it for a miniature-wheeled metal car.”

School children went below, into the London Underground stations to hide from the bombs. They took the subway out of town, to private school, to escape the raids. They lived with host families. A home Maureen bunked at had a bunker below its garden.

“We didn’t want to be buried in the bowels of the garden,” Maureen said. “So, when the Blitz began we went to a public shelter. And that was not much better.”

That was her life then. That was the country’s life, hearing bombs explode, seeing buildings crumble, searching for a place to hide.

Maureen came to the United States in 1948 and married Ralph Van Horn the next year. Ralph died nine years ago, and Maureen lost a daughter, Christina, to a heart attack 2½ years ago. Maureen said Christina was a lost soul.

Life’s hard knocks and her advanced age have not fared well in their attempt to slow this woman down.

She’s sharp as they come, articulate, funny. She wore a delicate red sweater and necklace laced with shiny rocks. Her accent was still strong, and she said she would have offered tea if our meeting had taken place two years earlier.

She uses a walker and a cane. Her mobility is fine. Slow, but fine. She worked as a school teacher before settling in as a stay-at-home mom. She closed her eyes tightly while speaking, searching for visions and words about Ralph and Christina and her own youthful years in England, when Germany was on the doorstep of winning the war.

The coronavirus and COVID-19 needed no such reflection. It’s here, now, and Maureen’s daughter, Stephanie Van Horn, and friends bring her food and anything else she might need, including toilet paper.

She no longer goes out, taking the medical community’s advice and staying home until further notice. She’s missing her weekly activity.

“I should be going to yoga class,” Maureen said. “You don’t get down on the floor because most of us would not be able to get up.”

She sprinkled in humor in classic British form, dry, with a nuanced delivery. She said England’s leader during World War II, Winston Churchill, was great.

“His sense of the moment and his oratory made him great,” Maureen said. “He had a strong sense of service and duty, loyalty to the crown. I think he was great at that time.”

But some enemies simply don’t die, no matter who’s in charge. At least not without a fight. World War II lasted six years before Germany surrendered.

The coronavirus marches on, too, clandestinely moving around the world to ambush and kill, keeping us at home, turning houses and apartments into a multiplex of institutions, school, theater, restaurant, gym.

And, unlike the German leader during World War II, there’s no face with whom to target, no arm-waving histrionics aimed at millions, no little mustache to hang on to. And hate.

Just this weird looking satellite thing. Microscopic. Prefers to utilize ambush techniques. Travels well over short distances. Deadly.

“One could hate Der Fuhrer unabashedly and vehemently while ridiculing,” Maureen said. “But it’s hard to hate an invisible virus, although both are/were relentless killers.

“Hitler’s were murders,” Maureen continued, “but COVID sees not, nor cares who its victims may be.”




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