Illustrated Autobiography

The cover art of Josianne Stone's illustrated autobiography. 

EDITOR'S NOTE: This story was written in response to a reader-submitted question through Open Source, a platform where readers can ask Richland Source’s newsroom to investigate a question.

ASHLAND -- Ashland resident Josianne Stone, 94, was 13 years old when the Nazi occupation of Belgium began in her rural hometown near the French border. 

But war had not been new to her at 13. 

“All my life has been war,” Stone said. “If it wasn’t the war, it was talking about the war.”

Josianne Stone as a child

Stone (right) and her sister Suzanne in front of their maternal grandfather's cafe in Bois-du-Luc, a coal mining area in Belgium. 

Stone was born in 1927, roughly a decade after World War I ended. She recalls having nightmares of war as a young child before Nazi occupation. So, when her grandfather woke her up at 4 a.m. one morning in 1940 to take shelter, she was not surprised by the Nazi attack. 

“We knew that war was imminent,” Stone said. “We were prepared, but it’s just like for anything else. You’re prepared but you’re not.”   

The daughter of a musician and cook, and the granddaughter of coal miners, Stone grew up in the close-knit community of Saint-Vaast, which banded together through mine explosions and other tragedies.

That mindset changed with Nazi occupation.

“You were afraid to speak and you could not really trust people,” Stone said. “It’s really sad but it’s something that you cannot get rid of. Once it’s instilled in you — I’m not saying that I don’t trust people but not the way most people call trust.”

Stone has lived several lifetimes since her childhood in Nazi-occupied Belgium, including studying dress design in Paris as a young adult, operating a Christian bookstore ministry in New York with her late husband, and currently illustrating and writing books about what she has learned through it all.

From Saint-Vaast, Belgium, to Ashland, Ohio

Stone’s illustrated autobiography “From War to Peace by HIS Grace — Reflections of my Life through WWII and 2020” will be released in the beginning of 2022, said her daughter Gigi Stone, who helped with publishing logistics. 

The autobiography includes memories from her childhood in Belgium, specifically the time after she moved to Brussels in the late 1930s to live with her grandparents, who managed an apartment building. 

Her teenage years were marked by Nazi occupation — following a curfew, covering windows to block light from intruding on the blackness of night. Her school closed for a period, she said, and when she returned the curriculum had been altered, removing information that did not fit Nazism. Food also became scarce.

Her book details memories from that time she had long kept to herself, such as being questioned by the secret police of Nazi Germany — the Geheime Staatspolizei, or Gestapo — with her sister.

Josianne Stone recounts memories from her childhood during Nazi occupation.

It was common for the Gestapo to randomly stop and search street cars.

Stone described a particular day when the Gestapo approached her street car and the person sitting behind her whispered in her ear. “I’m a deplorable,” the person said, and Stone explained her next decisions. She grabbed the bar above her so her large winter coat sleeves covered the person. 

The Gestapo left without spotting the person. Stone never turned around to look at the person’s face or ask further questions, she said. 

“You didn’t look at people,” Stone said. “I mean it was — you were kind of afraid of everybody.”

The war felt as if it was over for her before it had officially ended because the Allies liberated Belgium following the D-Day invasion of Normandy, France, in the summer of 1944.

Josianne Stone remembers the liberation.

Yet, the joy and relief Stone felt was complicated by two deaths on liberation day — her uncle and her friend's father. Remaining German soldiers in the area had shot them in a last-ditch effort. 

In the months that followed, Stone settled into what seemed to be a lifestyle she had not yet known — one without war. But that too soon came to an abrupt halt.

Josianne Stone remembers first hearing of the Battle of the Bulge.

The last major German military offensive in western Europe, the Battle of the Bulge, occurred in December of that year. The German attack in the Ardennes region of Belgium, one of the bloodiest of the war, had temporary success, but large losses on the German side prevented the Axis powers from resisting the Allied advance. 

Germany surrendered in the months following the battle's end in January 1945.

Stone, now a young adult, began planning for her future. She decided to pursue a career in clothing design using her long-held sewing skills (her maternal grandmother taught her to thread a needle at the age of 2).

“I worked day and night,” Stone said, explaining that she saved up to pay for school and lodging in Paris in 1948.

Studying fashion in Paris, France

Stone (second to left) spends time with students and family in the Tuileries Gardens in Paris amid her fashion design studies. 

Stone’s intention was to return to Belgium to open her own fashion studio in Brussels. 

“I always had my plans,” Stone said with a laugh, her daughter Gigi adding, “still does at 94.”

But, Stone’s plans changed when she returned home from her studies in Paris. 

“I get to the railroad station in Brussels from Paris, and my mother is there waiting for me with a bouquet of flowers," Stone explained. "And she said ‘Oh, I have great news. We have an offer to go to America, but we won’t go without you.'"

An American family, who her parent’s worked for as a cook and butler, sponsored their relocation to the United States. Stone didn't want to leave Belgium and initially planned to go to the U.S. for only two years, also adding jokingly that she had no intention to marry. She met her late husband Clifford Stone in 1951, just a few years after moving.

The pair relocated to Long Island, New York, to be near Clifford’s family. During what Stone described as an era of protest, the 1960s, they turned to God.

Stone and her husband opened a Christian bookstore — called “The Rock” Christian Bookhouse — in Wantagh in November 1972. Stone continued to run the store after her husband's death in 1992, for about 30 years in operation.

Stone has three children, Gigi, Robert and Steven. Stone’s time in Ohio began when she moved to be closer to one of her sons and his family in 2005 — and she brought with her a new love of drawing. She discovered her knack for working with colored pencils after taking an adult art class in New York. 

Josianne Stone explains her path to art.

While Stone is far removed geographically and in time from Nazi-occupied Belgium, the memories remain vivid in her mind. Stone created the drawings in her illustrated autobiography throughout the past few years.

"It's very emotional, also stressful, you know, but I must say that it came," Stone said of the memories that flooded back as she drew.

The aforementioned autobiography will be Stone’s second published work, the first being a collection of stories titled “My Miracles ... God's Grace at Work,” which was published in the fall of 2021. 

"My life has been one miracle after another," Stone said. 

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Emma Davis is a 2021 graduate of the University of Richmond, from which she holds a bachelor's degree in journalism and leadership studies. Emma reports for Knox Pages and Ashland Source through Report for America.

Emma Davis is a 2021 graduate of the University of Richmond, from which she holds a bachelor's degree in journalism and leadership studies. Emma reports for Knox Pages and Ashland Source through Report for America.