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What Did You Do in the War?

Belgian nuns created a system of alarms and delaying tactics, including flirting and "not understanding" German, to hide refugees and Jews from the Nazis. Two nuns were shot by French soldiers who thought they were German spies. These and other stories recently discovered in letters and other documents written by Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur in German-occupied Belgium and Italy during World War II have inspired a book by University of Dayton law professor Dennis Turner.

"I call the book 'imaginative nonfiction.' It's inspired by the letters and the other documents. The book features a fictional nun, Sister Christina, in a fictional order, the Sisters of Our Lady of Namur. Sister Christina's narration is based in large part on the events described in the original letters and documents. The book portrays how ordinary people will risk their lives to aid victims of war," Turner said. "I found some really fascinating stories in these letters. It's marvelous to learn how a group of nuns who were usually faithful to their vows bent those rules to protect refugees from the Gestapo. They also were good spies. Their veils and cloaks made them invisible while in plain sight, and their skill at masking their emotions provided them with an aura of calmness, even when being questioned by German police."

Turner will roll out What Did You Do in the War, Sister?, set to publish this week, at events in April at the University of Dayton School of Law and University of Dayton Osher Lifelong Learning Institute. The event at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute is scheduled for 5:30 p.m. April 3 at the 1700 S. Patterson Building on River Campus. The law school event is at 5:30 p.m. April 11 in Keller Hall 120.

"Dennis used some unusual and previously unavailable records to provide a perspective on World War II and the roles played by Catholic nuns in anti-Nazi activities and the Belgian Resistance movement that is entirely new," said Don Lystra, an award-winning fiction writer who has received fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts. "While remaining true to the historical accuracy of his source material, he has crafted an engaging account of World War II. Readers interested in World War II, as well as those fascinated by accounts of remarkable courage exhibited in the lives of ordinary people, will find this book a fascinating and valuable experience."

In addition to the letters, some of which are reprinted in the book, Turner rounded out his research with a trip to Belgium where he and his wife, Kathy, visited many locations where Sister Christina's story unfolds.

"Extraordinary coincidences, or some may say miracles, played a large part in the writing the book," Turner said.

For example, a chance email sent to the publisher of Belgium in the Second World War led to a friendship with the author, widely respected international diplomat and Belgian ambassador Jean-Michel Veranneman. The ambassador, Turner added, was invaluable in keeping him from straying too far from historical facts.

"I cannot think of any non-Belgian better qualified than Professor Dennis Turner to write a book telling a story happening in my country. Not only does he hold degrees in history and law from the best American universities, but he also took the trouble to travel to Belgium, especially Namur, to visit where his story happened," Veranneman said. "And what a story it is. I am sure American, Belgian and other readers will all take pleasure in reading his well-researched book, as it will broaden their knowledge of the lesser known events in a smaller country during that really earth-shattering event that was the Second World War.

"History is like a mosaic, and Dennis Turner's work is both a beautiful and important stone of that mosaic."

There was more serendipity to come, Turner added.

Back in Dayton, a dinner guest introduced Turner to a friend in nearby Yellow Springs, Ohio, Andrée Bognar, who lived in Nazi-occupied Belgium during World War II. Bognar, in turn, made arrangements for Turner to meet and interview her two sisters, Therese Vandermotte and Mimi Wolfss, in Louvain, Belgium, about their experiences as children in German-occupied Belgium.

After having lunch with the sisters, the next day Turner was snapping photos of the Sisters of Notre Dame chapel in Saint-Hubert when he met Guy Joris. Joris told Turner he was the grandson of Gaston Joris who rebuilt the chapel after the war. Guy offered Turner pictures of his grandfather helping set the cornerstone.

A friend of Turner introduced Turner to a publisher and another friend offered to edit the book for free.

The final piece of luck happened in one of Turner's University of Dayton Osher classes. A student, Sam Lauber, told Turner he was one of those Belgian children hidden in a convent during the German occupation.

"It's almost like I was meant to write the book," Turner said.

While writing the book, he also appreciated the many similarities between being a trial lawyer, and a law professor and an author of a book, similarities he can use in the classroom.

"Much like the Sisters of Our Lady of Namur, lawyers need to work with rules and regulations, which do not work in all situations. Flexibility and appreciation of the ambiguity of laws and facts are essential to being a good attorney," Turner said. "The plotline of a book is no different than the plotline of a closing argument in a trial. Both kinds of stories must fit the facts. If there are gaps and inconsistencies in the stories, readers and jurors will reject them. If that happens, books will remain unsold and clients will lose.”

Proceeds from the events will benefit the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute and the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur.

For more information on the book and related events, visit the related link.


News and Communications Staff