With The Greatest Gratitude

July 1, 2005 by Mac Johnston

Clockwise from right: A Dutch boy shows his gratitude during the National Liberation Parade in Apeldoorn; continuous rain couldn’t dampen the spirits of those lining the parade route; Piet and Anne Charlotte Molemaker lower their national flag on Dutch Remembrance Day; a joyous veteran marches through Apeldoorn.

Did you see the coverage on CBC television on May 8, 2005? Did you watch the National Liberation Parade in Apeldoorn with about 250,000 Dutch citizens lining the parade route in pouring rain? Did you see the smiles and radiant faces of our returning veterans on parade? It was a reception quite unlike anything the veterans have received at home and it was obvious they revelled in the affection.

My visit to the Netherlands for 10 days of events marking the 60th anniversary of the liberation and the end of World War II in Europe prompted this question: Just why are our veterans appreciated more in the Netherlands than at home? It also revealed a clear answer: Because our veterans ended five years of oppression and devastation at a heavy cost in lives and suffering.

The gratitude of the Dutch is unparalleled. Under the umbrella of two organizing groups—Thank You Canada and Allied Veterans, and Welcome Again Veterans—they opened their homes to accommodate returning Canadian veterans as they have every five years since 1985. Their official travel agent, Verstraete Travel & Cruises in Aurora, Ont., booked 1,400 passages for veterans and their companions, with flights originating in Vancouver, Toronto and Montreal. The majority were hosted by families in nearly 50 communities throughout the Netherlands and the remainder stayed in hotels.

Other tour operators also booked groups using hotels, of course, and some individuals returned on their own. By late May, 1,163 returning veterans had applied to Veterans Affairs Canada for a travel subsidy of up to $1,000. No one knows the total for sure, but perhaps 2,000 Canadian veterans returned this time. About 1,500 marched in the Apeldoorn parade, many riding in restored World War II army vehicles.

I took part in the Thank You Canada home-stay program to share the experience of our veterans. The identification tags hanging from the necks of passengers on my flight revealed such destinations as Almelo, Apeldoorn, Borculo, Drachten, Eibergen, Geesteren, Groningen, Nijkerk, Harderwijk, Neede, Niew Leusen, Nunspeet, Twello and Zutphen.

The veterans came together for three major events, the Apeldoorn parade and the ceremonies at the Canadian war cemeteries in Groesbeek and Holten, but in each community, there was a local program of events spread over 10 days.

In Apeldoorn, for instance, America Hall was turned into the Canadian Club, with entertainment, choirs and bands performing. City council held a reception for the vets. There was a commemoration of the crews of 29 Royal Air Force planes lost in the Apeldoorn area. On May 4, the Dutch Remembrance Day, there was a service at the Grote Kerk (Great Church). This was followed by a Silent March in the rain to Oranjepark for a remembrance ceremony and the twinning of the cities of Apeldoorn and Burlington, Ont. Other events during the week included an ecumenical church service, a liberation concert, the Royal Apeldoorn Taptoe (Tattoo) at the soccer stadium, with the Canadian Forces Skyhawks parachute team dropping in, and a farewell party. There were also other activities in the small towns ringing Apeldoorn, including a parade in the village of Ugchelen.

The Dutch have done a much better job than we in Canada in involving school children and youth in remembrance and commemoration of the Canadian war dead in their country. One feature of the week was a 10-day International Youth Conference with 65 participants aged 16 to 18 from Canada, the Netherlands and seven other European nations. Both veterans and youth participated in the welcoming ceremony.

Apeldoorn Mayor J.G. de Graaf, a member of The Royal Canadian Legion’s Liberation of the Netherlands Branch in Apeldoorn, said the concept of commemorating remembrance took hold in the Netherlands in the 1980s. The mayor was a driving force behind the youth forum, which was meant to realize a symbolic transfer of commemoration activities from yesterday’s veterans to today’s youngsters. He told the veterans and youth delegates: “Humanity hasn’t learned the lessons of the two world wars of the last century. It’s too bad…. So, it’s our duty to make our youth aware…. We want them to make the world without wars sometime this century.” One veteran added: “…I hope God will help this new generation to live in peace in this wonderful world.”

Liberation Branch also played its part, holding an awards presentation for the winners of its Remembrance contest. The presenter was Prince Floris, godson of the Legion, whose mother Princess Margriet was born in Ottawa during WW II in a hospital room declared Dutch soil by the Canadian parliament. Branch President Ben Zonnenberg said: “We are happy today because we are free, thanks to our Canadian liberators.”

My hosts were Piet and Anne Charlotte Molemaker of Apeldoorn. They made it their mission to share with me the beauty of Holland today, but also the legacy of WW II. We went to a small clearing in the forest on the Apeldoorn outskirts. Here was a simple memorial, still bearing flowers and a wreath from a recent visit by citizens paying their respects. The memorial reads: “Here rest 16 good citizens of Holland who were shot on the 13th of April 1945 by the German Army of Occupation.” A stone tablet lists the names of the victims.

We went to the Woeste Hoeve memorial to the 117 Dutch civilians shot by the German Army after a senior German officer was killed when the Dutch Underground ambushed a supply convoy. A rough translation of the explanation would be: “In the morning of 8 March 1945 they were killed at this place by the German occupiers in reprisal.” Behind a large wooden cross is a glass panel inscribed with the names of the victims.

At Ugchelen we saw the memorial to four townsfolk killed by the Germans. We also visited Ereveld Loenen, a Dutch war cemetery near Apeldoorn containing the graves of Dutch soldiers, resistance fighters and forced labourers.

Dutch citizens showed their appreciation in many ways. One was to decorate individual homes and even whole streets, with banners, Canadian flags and Dutch flags, and other appropriate symbols, such as the dove, a symbol of peace. A newspaper distributed signs that read: “Thank you Boys,” and many signs read: “Welkom Liberators.”

My host Piet Molemaker said: “We have two sleeping rooms that are free and so we can do something for our liberators…. And that’s the reason we open our home and it is the last thing we can do for you, for the Canadians. It was nice to learn the experiences, a different view…. It was intensive, but it was a good week.”

Gilbert Hoek of Vasseen explains why he has hosted Henry and Gladys Greenfield of Swansea Branch in Toronto five times: “Because I like our freedom and it’s caused by the Canadians. I was born after the war but probably I would not be born if we are not liberated. That’s why we thank the Canadians and all nations who fought for our freedom…. We give that feeling to our children and now to their children. We celebrate every year on May 5 and hope we can keep it.”

The most impressive expression of gratitude was the huge crowd lining the Apeldoorn parade route on a very rainy day. “We came to this parade because we are very grateful that the Canadians liberated our country,” spectator Mike van Kooten of Apeldoorn told me. “We enjoy that we are free,” said Ria Mulder of Apeldoorn.

There was much debate about Prime Minister Paul Martin’s decision not to come to Holland because the life of his minority government was in peril in Parliament. Eventually the leaders of the four major political parties compromised and arrived in Holland the day after the Apeldoorn parade. A reception for the Thank You Canada veterans was arranged and the politicians later had dinner with the official Veterans Affairs Canada delegation.

Through it all, the dominant theme was Dutch gratitude for the major Canadian role in ending the hell and misery of war. To get an idea of what it was like in much of occupied Europe, consider the following condensed account of an interview with returning veteran Martin Maxwell, 81, of Toronto, who immigrated to Canada in 1952.

“I was born in Vienna in 1924. We were five children, a brother and three girls. Unfortunately my father died at a very young age. He had colon cancer. And so my mother couldn’t look after us. We went to orphanages. My brother and I went to one. My three little sisters went to the other one and again a year later my mother died of pneumonia. She was only 40, but in those days you couldn’t cure pneumonia. We were at these orphanages until the Germans occupied Austria. We were told the orphanages had to be closed. And when the director of the orphanage said to the SS man who came, what do I do with these children? He said that’s your business. Anyhow, we all went to Vienna and some very nice people that we knew gave my brother and me a room.

“And then of course the terrible night of Kristallnacht happened (Nov. 9, 1938) where thousands of shops and synagogues were burned. We were arrested, my brother and I. The strange thing was when my brother was first arrested he was put in a concentration camp. He was only 15. An SS officer one day said to him, come and clean my boots. I guess he did a good job. When he did this good job, this SS officer said to him, I want you to go back into the camp. I want you to stay with me, look after me, my boots, my belt and everything else.

“I’m telling this story because something happened here. He called my brother in one day and says, ‘I’ve been promoted to Berlin and I’m letting you go and here’s a piece of paper that says this gentleman is not an enemy of the state and anything you can do for him I would appreciate.’ And Leo put it in his pocket and didn’t think anything of it. But we were among thousands arrested at Kristallnacht. When we came in front of the SS officers they said: ‘Where’s your mother and father?’ We said: ‘They are dead.’ And then my brother took out the piece of paper showed it to him and he said: ‘Get out that door!’ and it wasn’t until the next day we found that only 10 people went out that door. The others all went out the other door and were sent to concentration camps or were deported to the Polish border.”

Martin and his brother Leo both ended up in England, two of roughly 10,000 children the British government let in. He lived with a family that had a son about his age. “Eventually when their son went into the air force, I volunteered for the army. But because I was classified as an enemy alien, I couldn’t join the regular army, I joined what’s called the Pioneer Corps, people who dig ditches and roads. And after three months, I went to the commanding officer. It took me a week to get an appointment. I said: ‘Look I joined the army and I didn’t join to dig ditches.’ He says: ‘I’ll tell you what I’ll do for you. I will recommend that you transfer to the Tank Corps. After that everything is up to you.’

“So I volunteered for the Tank Corps and I was in the Signals. Eventually my Welsh friend and I volunteered for the Glider Pilot Regiment. Maybe only 20 per cent of all those who volunteered eventually made it. We started training for D-Day.

“About four or five days before D-Day we had briefings. I remember the man saying to us, ‘I know you all remember the destruction of Warsaw and Rotterdam, the fire bombing of London and Liverpool, the whole thing was done to kill as many civilians as possible. Well boys it’s our turn and we are going.’

“We were told that the casualties were going to be very heavy because we were the first ones and we were asked to make our will and write letters to our people that we wanted to know.

“We left England on June 5, 1944, and the job of the people we carried was to destroy or capture the bridges so the Germans couldn’t send reinforcements. One of them was very famous, Pegasus Bridge. I can’t take credit for capturing it because I was only the person who brought the people.

“A little bit later, not that much later, this General Montgomery had the idea that he wanted to finish the war by Christmas. The idea was for 10,000 paratroops to land on the third bridge, to capture the bridge over the Rhine at Arnhem and they would link up with us. The famous movie called it A Bridge Too Far. We were asked to hold the bridge three days. They held it four days, five days, six days. Nobody told us, but I think they knew there was a Panzer division there and they just fired point blank at us.

“Now sometimes in life you are fortunate to make the left turn and live; you make the right turn you die. We carried many of the Polish officers in our glider, so I was in the trench with them and one said, ‘Look let’s find out what’s going on.’ There’s this little hotel in Oosterbeek, not far from where our trench was. ‘Let’s go in there and find out what’s happening.’ I got out of the trench and I walked maybe 50 yards, not even that, when two mortar shells hit the trench and that was the end of them.

“When the next mortar came it was close to me and it threw me against the tree and broke my right hand completely. As you can still see here, it’s never been repaired, couldn’t be. My thigh was broken as I was smashed against the tree. And I was lying there. I don’t know whether I was conscious or not because I didn’t have any medicines; morphine wasn’t there. And I was lying there half-conscious and heard somebody say: ‘Hey this guy is still with us.’

“So they grabbed me and they took me into a cellar which was a terrible sight, because the bodies were stacked up, people were dying…. Anyhow, the order had been given to evacuate Arnhem and we heard the German trucks come in and they put us on the trucks and we drove in these old trucks through the centre of Arnhem towards the hospital.

“When we first arrived in September, the Dutch population went crazy. They kissed us and gave us flowers, but when we left to go to the hospital, we saw these very people hanging from barbed wires strung across the street. Their faces had already gone black and the Germans wouldn’t let them be taken down. They said this is what happens to collaborators and traitors.”

Maxwell survived as a prisoner of war and was freed in May 1945. His brother Leo made it, too. While serving in the American Air Force he was shot down over Romania, but parachuted down and was saved by Tito and his partisans.

“Now I had three sisters in the little home in Paris. The French police decided they didn’t want all these little Jewish girls, so they gave a list to the Germans. One sister was taken away and she died in Auschwitz and another one was taken away. So there was one little girl left. Opposite them lived a Catholic family who saw these trucks come in and go out. They risked their lives so this one little girl would live. She eventually came to Canada and she was a very well known person in Toronto. She was involved in hospitals and many things else.

“So now I am here in this country. I never thought I’d make it. The last time I wasn’t feeling well, I had a triple bypass. I had my hip replaced. But now this was for me the most amazing experience. First of all you can’t believe what a wonderful host we have had. They gave up their bedroom for us. And suddenly I have three new grandchildren. But the feeling of the Dutch people I can’t explain it to you. Like this young man who came up to me and said my father is 85 years old, he is at home and he said go and find a veteran and shake his hand and tell him thank you for our freedom. To me it feels like as if the whole Dutch population wants to put their arms around us. They love us and I think the sad part is they, and we, know it’s our last parade. That’s why I feel a little upset that Prime Minister Martin didn’t feel it was worthwhile to give up his little game of politics and come over and take the salute from our veterans.”

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