Cana­di­ans’ role kept alive

Trac­ing war sac­ri­fices, hero­ics on Lib­er­a­tion Trail

Toronto Sun - - NEWS - IAN ROBERT­SON Spe­cial to the Toronto Sun

BER­GEN OP ZOOM, Nether­lands — Cana­dian flags on the fronts of many build­ings are fit­ting re­minders of a long-last­ing love be­tween our coun­tries.

Our sol­diers ended Ger­man oc­cu­pa­tion of this 806-year-old city in Oc­to­ber 1944, guide and re­tired teacher Willem Lo­eff ex­plained.

Or­dered to evac­u­ate, he said the mayor got the com­man­der “to re­lent be­cause there were 20,000 refugees from the south, and 30,000 res­i­dents.”

The in­evitable cost in­cluded two girls ac­ci­den­tally slain by tank ma­chine­gun fire.

Our group was re­minded daily of the war’s an­guish while trav­el­ling Lib­er­a­tion Trail Europe, an in­ter­na­tional remembrance route with nu­mer­ous her­itage sites be­tween Eng­land and Poland. Be­gun in the Nether­lands in 2008, it hon­ours “those who sac­ri­ficed their life for our peace and free­dom, and to keep their mem­ory alive.”

In ad­di­tion to vis­it­ing mu­se­ums and lo­cales memo­ri­al­iz­ing the Sec­ond World War, we heard of the young men who freed com­mu­ni­ties, res­i­dents at risk for hid­ing them, plus re­sis­tance fight­ers.

Dur­ing cer­e­monies, in­clud­ing at mind-numb­ingly large ceme­ter­ies, we met lo­cals and dig­ni­taries hon­or­ing sac­ri­fices by 7,600 lib­er­a­tors from the ‘Land of the Maple’ — 5,706 Cana­di­ans killed in Hol­land, the rest rein­terred from else­where in Europe.

Like many Nether­lan­ders, this pic­turesque city of al­most 66,000 hasn’t for­got­ten.

Af­ter we ar­rived, 50 “Silent March” par­tic­i­pants crossed the main square car­ry­ing signs with names of Cana­dian places that were home to at least one sol­dier killed lo­cally.

Many of the 1,118 in the Ber­gen-op-Zoom Cana­dian War Ceme­tery died cross­ing rivers whose bridges were strate­gi­cally de­stroyed.

Oth­ers fell try­ing to dis­lodge en­emy sol­diers north of An­twerp dur­ing the Bat­tle of the Scheldt. Up to 175,000 Cana­di­ans and 200,000 to 450,000 other Al­lied sol­diers were in­volved, Vet­er­ans Af­fairs Canada says.

“The Ger­mans cut the dykes to let sea­wa­ter flood the low-ly­ing fields and the at­tack­ers were forced to fol­low nar­row, fire-swept routes along the tops of dykes or to at­tempt am­phibi­ous as­saults,” the Cana­dian War Mu­seum in Ot­tawa notes. Fight­ing near the muddy 350-km Scheldt river be­tween western Bel­gium and the south­west­ern Nether­lands “cost the First Cana­dian Army 6,367 killed.”

Dur­ing a mov­ing Oct. 28 cer­e­mony at the war ceme­tery, dig­ni­taries in­clud­ing Sabine Nolke, Canada’s am­bas­sador to The Nether­lands, laid wreaths. Teenagers brought flow­ers.

“Our two coun­tries share a be­lief in a world in which equal­ity and fair­ness, hu­man rights and dig­nity and fun­da­men­tal free­doms are guar­an­teed,” Nolke said. “The men rest­ing here fought and died for those prin­ci­ples,” she said.

“We can­not af­ford to take them for granted.”

Plagued by over­seas con­flicts, jour­nal­ists vil­i­fied for news fak­ery — some mur­dered — Nolke said “de­nials, pro­pa­ganda, mis­in­for­ma­tion and plain old-fash­ioned lies” threaten seven decades of in­ter­na­tional or­der.

She warned against turn­ing “a blind eye” when peo­ple of dif­fer­ent back­grounds are pre­sented as threats, when po­lit­i­cal gains fos­ter di­vi­sions, “when pub­lic dis­course de­scends into trib­al­ism; when facts be­come ne­go­tiable de­pend­ing on one’s agenda.”

WAR­TIME STRUG­GLES

“The province of Zee­land played a cru­cial role dur­ing the lib­er­a­tion,” notes the Lib­er­a­tion Mu­seum Zee­land, in the town of Nieuw­dorp.

Af­ter fierce fight­ing, An­twerp’s har­bour opened for Al­lied ship­ments, par­tic­u­larly es­sen­tial food for res­i­dents Ger­man in­vaders starved.

“It took 85 days to lib­er­ate this area,” mu­seum di­rec­tor Stef Traas ex­plained.

Opened in 2009, the soonto-be-ex­panded fa­cil­ity’s dis­plays in­clude some of the 45,000 relics res­i­dents do­nated, such as de­ac­ti­vated bombs, bul­lets, hel­mets and uni­forms.

Its film in­cludes war footage, and dio­ra­mas have full­size mod­els por­tray­ing mil­i­tary plus civil­ian fig­ures.

A Ger­man bunker came from nearby Vlissin­gen, Hol­land’s “most-bombed city due to its ship­yard,” guide Robert W. Cats­burg said. The mu­seum’s park also fea­tures a tem­po­rary Nieuw­dorp church

that re­placed a bombed-out one, a U.S. Army tank, plus anti-land­ing craft bar­ri­ers be­side a pond.

In ad­di­tion to re­count­ing res­i­dents’ plights, guides em­pha­size “free­dom and democ­racy for fu­ture gen­er­a­tions,” Traas said.

AN­NIVER­SARY EVENTS

“We started the Lib­er­a­tion Route to con­nect his­tory and tourism,” said Peter Kruk, Lib­er­a­tion Route Europe Foun­da­tion’s pro­gram man­ager.

With prepa­ra­tions un­der­way for 2019 and 2020 — the lat­ter mark­ing 75 years since Ger­man forces in Hol­land sur­ren­dered on May 5, 1945 — “we are pro­mot­ing 300 remembrance and her­itage sites, spe­cial events and com­mem­o­ra­tions.”

The 2020 pro­gram will in­clude a 3,000-km hik­ing route be­tween Lon­don and Ber­lin, with new mark­ers along ex­ist­ing trails “where some­thing hap­pened,” Kruk said.

In ad­di­tion to three large Com­mon­wealth war ceme­ter­ies, Am­s­ter­dam-based Martin Reel­ick, vice-pres­i­dent of Royal Cana­dian Le­gion Branch 005, said com­mu­ni­ties tend lo­cal graves of Al­lied sol­diers plus re­sis­tance fight­ers, and cel­e­brate an­niver­sary dates.

Dur­ing the oc­cu­pa­tion, 234,000 Dutch cit­i­zens died, some in con­cen­tra­tion camps and pris­ons, oth­ers ex­e­cuted, starved or worked to death, Vet­er­ans Af­fairs Canada notes. Sick­ness, dis­ease and gen­eral health de­cline due to de­pri­va­tion con­trib­uted to the losses.

JEW­ISH VIC­TIMS

There are also memo­ri­als to Jews, Reel­ick said, adding only 8,000 sur­vived of 88,000 reg­is­tered when Hol­land sur­ren­dered in May 1940.

Lib­er­ated by Cana­di­ans five years later, lit­tle re­mains of Camp Wester­bork, from which al­most 98,000 Jews were trans­ported to Ger­many for ex­e­cu­tion. One was Anne Frank, whose fa­ther had her di­ary pub­lished in 1947.

A photo of chil­dren’s ac­tiv­i­ties or­ga­nizer Salo Car­lebach, who vol­un­tar­ily ac­com­pa­nied 50 or­phans to a death camp, stands among 102,000 small bricks rep­re­sent­ing all Wester­bork vic­tims, guide Michiel Smit said. “He didn’t want them to go on the train alone.”

FOR­EST OF MAPLES

North­east of Gronin­gen, near the 30,000 maple tree Lib­er­a­tion For­est, a leafy steel mon­u­ment has 43 per­fo­ra­tions rep­re­sent­ing each Cana­dian sol­dier killed in Hol­land’s largest north­ern city.

The for­est is also ded­i­cated to other Al­lies, plus Dutch fight­ers.

Some of Gronin­gen’s re­built cen­tral build­ings bear bat­tle scars, in­clud­ing the climbable Mar­tini church tower, whose 62 car­il­lon bells mark the time.

Dur­ing a three-day lib­er­a­tion bat­tle, 270 cen­tral build­ings were dam­aged or de­stroyed, with 100 civil­ians, 150 Cana­di­ans and 400 Ger­mans killed, his­to­rian Joel Stopels said.

FATE LEARNED

In some cases, Stopels said fam­i­lies learned loved one’s fates months — even years — af­ter their deaths.

In 2015, a plaque was placed on a bridge for a Toronto pri­vate killed as Cana­di­ans swept through Apel­doorn in April 1945.

Stopels learned that Sadie McCor­mack, who was told over seven decades that Pte. Thomas Joseph Warnock McCor­mack, 19, died “some­where in north­ern Hol­land,” was seek­ing his grave. Be­fore her visit in 2013, Stopels con­sulted files at Holten Cana­dian War Ceme­tery.

“At least now we know,” she says in his doc­u­men­tary film, af­ter plac­ing a Cana­dian flag on her brother’s grave, among 1,355 with Cana­dian and 39 other buried Al­lied sol­diers. “It’s a clo­sure.”

An­other sad anec­dote on dis­play de­scribes Nova Sco­tia mother-of-four Vi­ola Langille fi­nally learn­ing of the death of her hus­band, Pte. Ira Langille, 32, of the Stor­mont, Dun­das and Glen­garry High­landers, R.C.I.C., Corn­wall, five months af­ter he was wrongly re­ported miss­ing.

The in­for­ma­tion cen­tre’s im­pres­sive com­put­er­ized and phys­i­cal ar­chives prom­ises “the mem­ory of those who died is kept alive.”

‘NEVER FOR­GET’

A sym­bolic Na­tional Cana­dian War Me­mo­rial in Apel­doorn, a city of 160,000, hon­ours ties be­tween Nether­lands and Canada since the lib­er­a­tion.

Ded­i­cated in 2002, a du­pli­cate of ‘The Man with Two Hats’ stands in Ot­tawa.

Adopted by school chil­dren, the 4.6-me­tre bronze statue — which rep­re­sents war and peace, re­pres­sion and free­dom, life and death, sad­ness and joy — also helps re­mind fu­ture gen­er­a­tions that “free­dom is not nor­mal, Mayor John Berends told us.

“You must re­mem­ber it. You must never for­get.”

IAN ROBERT­SON PHO­TOS

Cy­clist trav­els be­neath The Poppy Bridge, a high­way viaduct near Wel­berg that chil­dren painted large pop­pies on in 2017, ded­i­cated to civil­ians and sol­diers killed in the vil­lage dur­ing the Sec­ond World War.

A Cana­dian flag flies in the cen­tral square of Ber­gen Op Zoom, above a band play­ing Sec­ond World War tunes as part of ser­vices mark­ing the 74th an­niver­sary of lib­er­a­tion.

Ber­gen op Zoom Mayor Frank Pet­ter holds one of 50 signs with names of Cana­dian places that were home for at least one Cana­dian sol­dier killed lib­er­at­ing the city in 1944. An­tique can­nons face the Wester­schelde River near 1699 Oran­je­molen wind­mill in the south­ern sea­side city of Vlissin­gen, which has a Sec­ond World War mu­seum dis­play.

BEVRIJDINGSMUSEUM ZEE­LAND

Mila Haak holds a photo of the for­mer Mid­del­burg Abbey and Long John tower in Mid­del­burg.

Steel Maple Leaf mon­u­ment be­side Lib­er­a­tion For­est has 43 per­fo­rated holes rep­re­sent­ing each 2nd Cana­dian In­fantry Di­vi­sion sol­dier killed lib­er­at­ing Gronin­gen.

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