Liberation of the Netherlands May 10, 1940: Remembrance by Will Lenssen

Celebrating the 65th Anniversary of the Liberation of the Netherlands Wed., May 5, 2010
(Guelph Legion Hall – Speech by Will Lenssen, Dutch-Canadian Born in Nederland; Citizen of Canada.)

Thank you. Honourable Consulate General, Mr. Emile Olislagers, Honourable Mayor Farbridge, special guests and notably those Legionnaires present and members of the schools and the community of Guelph/Wellington.

It was interesting how I came to be honoured to speak to you today. You see, it was a Diamond Event – Neil Diamond event to be exact – that brought me here today. Last week, by a stroke of luck, my former Principal called my home and offered my wife a pair of Neil Diamond look alike show tickets here at the Legion. At the event, I read over some of the materials at the entrance and came upon this day’s event as well as the 100th Anniversary of the Canadian Navy started as of May 4, 1910. Having said that, let’s salute and congratulate the Canadian Navy on 100 years of service! Also at the musical Diamond event, the former Chair of the Legion, Eric Smart with whom we sat, indicated that they were looking for speakers. The next day, I emailed of my plans to attend and the reason why. My contact thought I was still in education since I stated that I contacted all the Catholic schools. That is when I was asked to say a few words. I guess it was
meant to be.

Prior to beginning, let me return to my role as educator. Many Canadians do not understand some of the geographical terms of Holland, the Netherlands, and the Dutch. With the young people present, I figured I’d bring you up to date – with apologies to those in the know.

First of all, the name of the country. Is it Holland or is it the Netherlands? Well it is the latter –the “Netherlands”. It is so low, that Amsterdam is below sea level. They say that “God created the world, but the Dutch made the Netherlands”. In the Dutch language, we say “Nederland” with a D instead of the “th” sound. In France, the country is known as “Baie Pays”– literally meaning “Low Lands”. So what is Holland then? Well there are 2 of them – North and South – and they are 2 of 12 provinces that make up the Netherlands, like our 10 provinces make up Canada. North and South Holland are on the sea side – the English Channel and Atlantic Ocean shores. Since these are the first provinces one is likely to enter when you fly from North America to the Netherlands, people think it is the name of the country itself. Not so. North and South Holland, however, gain importance because they are the control entry ports of the Rhine and Ruhr Rivers that travel into the depths of Europe.

So what about the word Dutch? Well – Dutch is the English word for the official language that people who live in The Netherlands speak. For example, “I speak Dutch”. ‘Nederlands’ or ‘Hollands’ are two Dutch words for the language that Dutch people speak. The reasons for various mix ups originated with the early settlements in North America when the British terms Dutch and Deutsch were too close to distinguish. ‘Deutsch’ is the German word for the language that Germans speak but the British language did not clearly distinguish these differences. The Dutch first settled in North America’s present New York and the Germans in Pennsylvania. With the arrival of the English in the area, they used the incorrect term “Pennsylvania Dutch” to address the Germans that lived there with some moving
to what used to be called “New Berlin”; it was in fact the Pennsylvania Deutsch that moved to what become Kitchener-Waterloo.

The Dutch people seem so good natured with all of this global confusion. They don’t even mine blending their patriot colour of Orange with their flag colours of Red, White and Blue! Most people not from the Netherlands think that Hollands, the language, and Holland, the 2 provinces, is the official name of the country. They even name their national teams that are on the world stages “Holland” which doesn’t help my lesson much today.

In summary, there is no such country called Holland. Confused yet? Enough of that. Now let me take you back in time to recognize the purpose of this event. On the morning of May 10, 1940, many Dutch thought they were awakened by a thunderstorm at 4 am in the morning. It was a storm alright – but instead of thunder, it was the sound of planes,
shooting and bombing. Germany under Adolf Hitler without declaration of war attacked the
Netherlands – like they did Poland – like they did Austria. The Netherlands, a small country of 9 million in a land no bigger than Vancouver Island, was a resilient country amidst water ways, canals and polders or small bits of land surrounded by water. But it was no match for the industrial machine and it had to succumb to the power and brutality of Hitler’s Nazi Germany – for 5 hard years. Germany’s main thrust was to take over the “Holland Fortress” implying the English Channel and Atlantic ports of the Netherlands that I mentioned earlier. That meant the cities of Amsterdam and Rotterdam. Only four days later, on May 14th, the Dutch government and Queen Wilhelmina, not wanting to be in the hands of the invaders, reluctantly continued its role abroad – in England, vowing to return. The Dutch could only wait and see.

Queen Wilhelmina proclaimed that all Dutch people should do “all that is possible in the …..
interest of the country”. The Queen sent her daughter, Dutch Crown Princess Juliana, and
Juliana’s 2 daughters to Ottawa for protection. There, Juliana gave birth to her third daughter. At the time of delivery, the issue of citizenship was so important to Juliana and to the Dutch people. In a sign of great kindness, soil was taken from the ground and placed below Juliana’s bed in the Ottawa hospital and declared to be a gift to the Netherlands – in other words, it became Dutch soil! On January 19, 1943, Princess Margriet was born a Dutch citizen and was declared to be born on Dutch soil – while in Canada! What a tremendous gift Canada gave to the Dutch during the war – a gift the Dutch people would never forget. Will we ever forget, seeing the thousands of tulips the Netherlands still send to Ottawa and Victoria, BC as a token of thanks after 65 years?

Not all Germans were in favour of the war, my parents and my mother-in-law, who was born in Germany, told me. Many Germans did not act at the voting poles when Hitler got elected with less than the popular vote. That is perhaps why one “Brown Shirt” soldier turned his eyes away when he saw my dad in hiding. That “Brown Shirt” was just a German soldier, not a “Black Shirt, not an “SS”, not a Nazi. Many German soldiers and civilians realized the power of the vote – and let Hitler take advantage of apathy. Will we remember to exercise the freedom to vote every election because of that lesson and because our Canadian veterans fought to preserve it? I hope so. Next election, what will you do to honour our Veterans who fought for the democracy?

And so my dad, Louis, and his brother, Wim, joined the Dutch Resistance, otherwise known as the “Underground” because the flat land could not lend itself to typical guerrilla warfare on the surface of the land. So they were called “submerged ones”, those who used stealth and trickery and deceit to fend off the enemy. Louis and Wim were not aware of one another’s under ground resistance cell. Why not, you ask? If the resistance movement cells or groups were connected, the enemy would only need to find one and they would all fall. My dad never asked his brother about it – and his brother never asked my dad. What did they do as resistance fighters? They sometimes acted as double agents – pretending to help the enemy and leading the enemy away from food; hiding and helping wanted Jews escape; discovering and exposing Dutch Nazi spies within the community; blowing up ammunition dumps; informing the Allies. On one such assignment, my dad discovered that his brother was caught – and executed. Dad lost his best friend that day. I now carry my uncle’s name as my own – Wilhelmus aka Wim aka Will.

With that name and connection, will I ever forget the sacrifices of the Dutch people, the Allies, notably Canadians? Not likely.

My uncle Ton remembers the invasion of the Allies, the invasion being named “Market Garden”. The 1980’s movie “A Bridge Too Far” was made in memory of that invasion. My uncle remembers sitting on his back porch as a boy, seeing the towing planes over head, towing the gliders with men and machines aboard. He remembers when the gliders and the parachutists were released – and the grave decisions made. He remembers that the Dutch people told the Allies that the Germans had retreated. He recalls that the Allies did not heed the resistance cells, like my dad’s, who stated that the Germans in fact did not retreat – but that the Germans were in the forests hiding – waiting – for this invasion. When the parachutists and gliders came to landon Dutch soil, many were shot as they drifted down to Mother earth. My dad was imprisoned at the time, losing about 70 pounds, weighing in at about 110 when he should have pushed the scales to 180. It was a time when my mom had to fend for the family – by bicycle across the mine filled roads and amidst skirmishes and Enemy camps – to get a portion of bread or bacon or an egg or 2 or secure some meat from a cow that was killed by a grenade.

40 years later that same Uncle Ton heard about the movie that was going to be shot on location to recall the Invasion Market Garden. He relived his childhood experience by playing a role as a German soldier, an American soldier and a Dutch citizen along side famous actor, Ryan O’Neill. I recall reading the book “A Bridge Too Far” while studying at the University of Waterloo in the early 1970’s. As I shared it with my dad and mom and their Dutch friends and relatives, I heard them tell me they personally knew those people written about in the book. Will I with my family’s role in that invasion and the movie and the book forget the sacrifices made to free Nederland?

The south of the Netherlands was finally freed in the fall of 1944 by American, British, Polish and Canadian troops. The north and west saw the Canadian forces sweep across the
Netherlands in the spring of 1945 culminating in the German surrender at 4 pm 65 years ago today – on May 5, 1945 in the town of Wageningen where the 1st Canadian Corps commander Lieutenant-General Charles Foulkes dictated the terms of surrender to the 25th German Army Commander Colonel-General Johannes Blaskowitz.

“People of the Netherlands – thou art free.” These were the historic words spoken on the
5th of May 1945 by then Dutch Prime Minister Pieter S. Gerbrandy in an extended
broadcast from Radio Orange (in Dutch: Radio Oranje). This special liberation broadcast
has been re-enacted by the Dutch language service at Radio Netherlands many times.

Ever since then, Their slogan was “no celebration without commemoration”, so
Remembrance Day always fell before Liberation Day On May 4th there are solemn
ceremonies commemorating all the Dutch who have died in conflicts worldwide. On May 5th
there is a celebration of freedom everywhere, now and in the future, especially where it is
threatened. The two days have changed in character over the years but still reflect the
significance of the second World War in the Dutch psyche.

Although the war continued in the Far East and the Netherlands was not fully liberated until
August 1945, it was soon decided that Liberation Day should be held on 5 May, the date of the German army’s capitulation to the Canadians. It used to be the poor relative of Remembrance Day, only being celebrated once every five years from the sixties to the late seventies. Nowadays it is a popular, festive occasion whose stated aim is not just to celebrate Holland’s liberation from the German occupation between 1940-45 but also to cherish freedom and democracy worldwide.

And now Germany too is a staunch supporter of freedom because of the manner in which the Canadians treated them – allowing them to retain their dignity and integrity as human beings. In fact, my wife’s dad, David Milley, born Canadian, was commissioned over to Europe after the war to ensure there be a peaceful and orderly transition from Hitler’s Germany to one that we know today. So my present family had more connections to talk about. Canadians showed postwar

Germany how it could be to the world – a contributor to peace. They did that by not
repeating the poor treatment of Germany after WW I – a treatment exploited by Hitler to gain German support and expansion to protect the “Fatherland”.

Now this war was over. And so were my parents’ dreams – all shattered from the past. However, hope was restored. Canadians were good to them in the Netherlands. What would it be like in Canada for a young Dutch family? Dad worked his way over on a coal boat and landed in Nova Scotia, took a train to his Nederlandse friend’s in Oakville and prepared our temporary home.

Mom, my brothers Louis, Jr (4), Arnold (3) and I (2) arrived 6 months later in Quebec with all possessions in tow – to move into the 250 sq ft pidgeon and chicken coup in Oakville. That was our home for the first 3 months for which we were so grateful. We were offered an opportunity in a welcoming country called Canada. The sacrifices of Canadians gave us this. It was so strong in my parents that when family would be talking in Dutch and a Canadian neighbour came by, my parents would say to the Dutch persons that we now have to speak English (though very limited) to honour our Canadian guest. “Never forget your heritage or birthplace, but we are Canadians now,” they would say with pride and love. My oldest brother became a priest and was the Chaplain for the Police, Fire Department, 11th Field Regiment and this Legion; my brother Arnie owned his own business like our dad and became a technology teacher; my youngest brother Ted excelled in Hockey, playing in the Major Jr A and here in Guelph, winning the Centennial Cup and eventually playing for the Netherlands in the Lake Placcid Olympics. How the world turns!

A sceptic would ask “How do we know that people will not forget the role of the Canadian
soldier and civilian during the war ?” After so many years, how would the Dutch pay tribute to the generosity and sacrifice of the Canadian men and women? Let me count just a few of the ways:

• Dutch Tulips are sent annually by the thousands to Ottawa and Victoria, just to mention a
couple of cities. See a tulip and remember. It is like a Remembrance Day Poppy.

• Dutch children in the schools still take turns tending the grave sites of the fallen Allied
and Dutch soldiers and civilians who gave up their lives for freedom. Canadians are
particularly remembered. Museums still hold the memories, the tragedies and the events.

• If ever you travel to Victoria in British Columbia and hear the Carillion, otherwise known
as the “bell or chime tower” in front of the provincial parliament buildings there, you will
hear this gift from the Dutch people. It echoes the many “thank you’s” the Dutch express.

• Invitations are regularly sent to Veterans to return to the Netherlands and rekindle their
relationships with the families who housed them and fed them when there was little. That
trip was taken by many this week, including students/staff from Erin District high School,
who are travelling to the Netherlands to visit and remember our efforts, our fallen – and
to rekindle the Dutch-Canadian Friendship.

• Travel in the Netherlands with a Canadian Flag on your backpack or jacket and watch
how you are treated by the Dutch citizens. I’ve had that experience.
My hope is that Canadians, like the Dutch in the Netherlands today, never forget their Armed

Service men and women who liberated the Netherlands. Today is a good sign that we as a
Guelph-Wellington community stand tall in acknowledging our veterans who helped liberate
Nederland. On behalf of all naturalized Dutch people here, all generations that have come from Dutch descent – and all who consider themselves Dutch because they wish they were – we say thanks to you, veterans, and to your families, for giving the supreme sacrifice that allows the Netherlands to be free today. We also appreciate the peace keeping our troops are performing in other countries under siege by terror or famine or natural disaster. Canadians keep on giving!

Let me end with the following quote which was taken from a post-war Dutch post card and
depicts the thought I wish to leave you with on this momentous occasion – that thought being the affection of the Dutch for the Canadian soldiers and citizens. The post card read: “The enemy stole our food, the Canadians our hearts.”

The Dutch should not forget you. The Dutch can not forget you. The Dutch WILL not forget
you, Canada! I pray that you as Canadians also do not forget your own. Take care of each other, God bless you and enjoy your day of freedom!

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