Born in Poland and raised in Belgium, Regine Nozice and her Jewish family fled the Nazis during World War II as refugees in their own country.
She and her sister spent much of the war hidden in a convent by a kindly mother superior and priest, evading capture with phony names and papers and their own courage and guile.
After the war, she went to work as a translator for the U.S. armed forces, fell in love and married an Army major and came to America as a war bride, crossing the stormy Atlantic in January 1947 aboard a cargo ship with a baby daughter. (“Everybody was seasick. ... I lost 15 pounds.”)
She settled first in Saltville, a small Southwest Virginia company town, overcoming culture shock to raise six children and operate a small beverage distributor with her husband until his death in 1972, at which point she took the reins and helped build the company into one of the largest in the state.
In the years since, she has traveled the world and, at 94, still comes into the office at Blue Ridge Beverage Co. several days a week as chairman emerita.
“Had a full life,” Regine Nozice Archer said with a laugh.
Indeed, she has — though she has never spent a lot of time publicly sharing her family’s story in the decades since she arrived because, in part, “I always felt millions of people went through the same thing we did. We weren’t the only ones.”
I learned about Archer from reader Walter Marston, a Richmond attorney who read my Veterans Day column about my longtime “pen pal” Nell O’Brien, who also happens to be 94. He thought of Archer, whom he has known since the 1970s through his work with the company and other distributors around the state.
“She’s an absolutely delightful person,” he said. “She is a lot of fun to hang out with. Her life story is chilling in some ways, but inspiring as well.”
And he was right.
Senior photographer Bob Brown and I made the drive to Salem to meet Archer at the headquarters of Blue Ridge Beverage, which distributes beer, wine and nonalcoholic beverages across 49 Virginia counties and 16 cities from facilities in Salem, Abingdon, Lynchburg and Waynesboro.
The company employs about 475, a far cry from the early days, when the company had only 10 employees — and two of them were Archer and her husband, James M. Archer Jr. When he died, Regine took over as president at a time when, her son Bob points out, “there weren’t many women beer distributors in this country, so it was sort of tough in those days.”
“For a period of time, the vultures came out to try to take the business away from us,” he said. “We were the smallest guy on the block.”
However, the family pulled together and persevered, as all six children worked at one time or another at the company. Today, all six of the siblings remain connected to Blue Ridge, either working there or serving on the board. Bob is chairman and CEO, and his sister Jackie is president and COO.
“It all turned out just fine,” he said. “It was a hard way to learn, but as [Regine] says, ‘You do what you gotta do.’ We had a lot of help. We had great people here helping us.”
Challenging times in business must have seemed less than matters of life and death to Regine Archer after going through, you know, actual life-and-death situations. Sounds as if she views her work as a sort of adventure, an approach that continues today.
“I keep coming because every day is different,” she said. “You think you’ve seen it all, and — bingo! — there’s something else you’ve never seen before. That keeps your blood flowing.”
Bob Archer mentioned that whenever one of the kids would try to amaze their mother with some tale of woe about what happened to them, she would say, “‘Well, that was nothing. Let me tell you something,’ and then whip off something about Dunkirk or something. Then we’d say, ‘OK, you’re right. You outdid us again.’”
His mother laughed. “I haven’t done that in a long time,” she said.
In 1940, as the Germans invaded Belgium, Archer, then 15, and her parents and sister fled their home in Liege and headed for the coast — along with many others — seeking transport to England.
They hitched rides on slow trains and occasional trucks, but they mostly walked, diving into ditches when low-flying German planes strafed roadways. They had no food, eating only when generous residents along the way offered soup from large pots in front of their homes, or when they could reach the front of the line at small bakeries before they ran out of bread. They slept in barns or basement air raid shelters.
They got as far as the harbor at Calais, France, before discovering the Germans had surrounded the area, and their path of escape was blocked. Out of options, they started trudging up the beach back toward home. Along the way, they reached Dunkirk, in time to witness the famous evacuation of British soldiers trapped by the Germans. “The Miracle of Dunkirk,” it’s come to be called.
The miracle for Archer is that she and her immediate family survived at all in a place where the Germans instituted a series of anti-Jewish laws, forced Jews to wear yellow Star of David badges to mark them in public and deported Jews to concentration camps. Many members of her extended family did not survive the war.
Archer’s parents spent much of the war hiding on a farm outside Liege with the help of members of the resistance — the farm manager would sound a horn when Germans approached, signaling for Archer’s parents to flee deeper into the woods.
It was much the same at the convent, where Archer knows the mother superior covered for her and her sister, Secha (who now lives in Brussels and goes by Jacqueline, the name she adopted at the convent). Regine became Renee at the convent, but she returned to her given name after the war.
“The Germans may have called on the convent, but we never heard about it,” Archer said. “Mother superior probably had a visit and was asked, ‘Do you have any Jewish children?’ She probably said, ‘God forgive me, no, we don’t.’”
Those three weeks on the road to the coast and back stick out in Archer’s memory, particularly as she watches similar misery play out around the world today with millions displaced from their homes.
“People don’t know what being a refugee is,” she said. “Those three weeks gave you a taste of what it is to be a refugee. We walked. We had nothing. We had people helping us along the road. ... Now there are these millions of people. ... It’s awful. Just awful.”
Archer was within months of graduating from school and headed for university when the new government forbade Jews from attending school. She was never able to continue her education. But later she was given a certificate that declared her educational achievements, and what she had learned, particularly languages — French, German, English, Latin — prepared her well for a job with the U.S. Army as a translator after the Americans arrived.
Working with the Americans introduced her to the most curious of foods — peanut butter and ketchup (peanut butter, she’s come to enjoy with chocolate, but ketchup she does not eat to this day) — and to her future husband, a young officer in the Quartermaster Corps from Virginia.
“I was working in my office and he was working in his office, and somebody told me, ‘There’s a cute major over there,’ ” she recalled.
By the time she arrived in James’ hometown, Archer wasn’t quite sure what she had gotten herself into. Saltville was a small town with a major chemical plant. She was less than an hour from Tennessee and a world away from Belgium.
“My in-laws were very, very nice,” she recalled, which softened her landing.
Eventually, the family would move to Tennessee, where Archer became a U.S. citizen, something she describes as a highlight of her life. Then it was on to the Roanoke Valley in the late 1950s, when they acquired Blue Ridge Beverage.
In Archer’s office, industry awards are displayed on the wall behind her desk. Marston, the attorney, is not surprised she is recognized as a success.
“It could be her World War II experience showing through,” he said. “Not many people are going to go through an experience like that and live life being a wallflower. She has an authoritative way about her.”
The effect of what she went through is unmistakable, Archer said. “Let’s put it this way: it does mark you for life.
“You don’t forget many details,” she said, but added: “When my sister and I are together ... we don’t dwell so much on the past.
“You have to look forward.”