I first went to Amsterdam as a young man with no motivation other than vacation time and a seat sale. Knowing nothing of the place I remember sitting on a tram, the prerequisite Canadian flag on my small kit bag drawing the attention of elderly woman, who pointed and said, “KaNAda?” I didn’t understand why my yes made her so happy.
“You want to see Rijksmuseum?” She joyfully asked. I didn’t know what it was, but I had no plans, why not? Energized, she grabbed my arm and off we went into this ornate massive red brick building. We whizzed through gallery after gallery, with a choir of guards yelling at us as she attempted to sit on furniture, open chests, touch the Delft. Having covered acres of galleries she said, “You want to see Nard Vark?” That’s what it sounded like. She meant Rembrandt’s masterpiece de Nachtwacht (The Night Watch), which curiously had been attacked two years before and placed behind protective glass. When she reached behind the glass to pat the painting the guards had had enough and escorted us out of the museum. It was the first time I’d ever been thrown out of a place. All the while she kept pointing to me, saying “KaNAda!” and expressing her outrage that rules weren’t bent for a Canadian.
In December, three decades after this experience, I returned to The Netherlands. This time I had a purpose. As we mark the 70th anniversary of the liberation of The Netherlands by the Canadian army (Lieutenant General Charles Foulkes accepted the German surrender on May 5th, 1945), I was on a type of personal pilgrimage to see some of the places important to us.
My father was part of the liberation, though like most Canadian Vets, he never spoke of the war other than to tell me about running out of money on a pub crawl in England and, rather than sleep rough, asking the sheriff in Nottingham for a jail cell for the night. All that is left now is a small black and white photo of him and some of his comrades holding a captured German naval flag and a thank you medal awarded posthumously. With no one left to answer my questions I felt the need to return to The Netherlands.
My tightly packed itinerary allowed a night in Apeldoorn, two nights in Arnhem and three in Amsterdam.
The Netherlands are a dream destination to travel around because the country is so compact, and public transportation so well-organized and inexpensive. You can cover a great deal of the country without resorting to a rental car. After a night flight from Montreal I landed at Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport, purchased a modestly priced train ticket (€16.20 / $22.84) to Apeldoorn and strolled on to a train at the airport’s lower level rail station and 90 minutes later was at my hotel.
Apeldoorn is considered ‘a Queen city’ because it’s where the royal family enjoyed the tranquility of the vast Palace Het Loo, surrounded by parks and formal gardens one expects of royal accommodation. Now a museum, during the war the palace was used by the Germans as a military hospital and later as Allied headquarters.
In Apeldoorn I met Jan Koorenhof, who helps organize thank you events every five years for Canadian vets. Koorenhof told me they picked a particular street for the parade because it was wide enough to allow participants to march seven-abreast. However, when the Canadian Vets appeared the crowds were so thick, so appreciative, so anxious to hug, kiss and thank their liberators that the parade was reduced to single file.
I’ve often heard Canadian vets comment about their treatment at Apeldoorn and how endlessly free food and drink flows. The winter of 1944-45 had been so harsh that thousands of Dutch died of starvation. Then, in April 1945, before the liberation, Canada allocated 750 trucks to drive in convoys delivering 300 tons of food a day to the people. Koorenhof explains the local attitude is, “They fed us then, we feed them now.”
The people are so thankful that they have installed a statue, the Man with Two Hats (De man met de twee hoeden) on Canada-laan across from where the thank you parades are held. Because the people were so happy at being liberated raising one hat wasn’t enough. A replica statue stands in Ottawa. Each faces the other.
My first full day in Arnhem began with a visit with Chris Petter and his wife, Meis. They live in a modern neighbourhood of townhouses which encircle a vast, wooden windmill whose bight white arms were making loops in the morning sky. Several times a week for almost 40 years Petter, who remembers the liberation, has visited the graves of men who died fighting for Holland’s liberation. On each of his visits he lays flowers purchased with his own money on their graves. But that wasn’t enough, he has researched the lives of the fallen, compiling biographies and corresponding with their family members. In the case of Jack Wills, an airman from Saskatoon, Petter found Jack’s fiancé, Cora Dier, to let her know where Jack is buried. How he honours our Vets earned him the attention of various media in Canada and Europe, and an MBE from Queen Elizabeth. (Chris Petter died in early 2017. I hope there are flowers for his grave. He lived a good and honourable life.)
After our visit, I followed Petter’s steps and the Arnhem Oosterbeek War Cemetery and Groesbeek Canadian War Cemetery, which is the largest war cemetery in The Netherlands. Petter told me the story of the five stones set together at the Oosterbeek cemetery. In all war cemeteries graves are spaced evenly apart, but since these fliers couldn’t be individually identified these crewmates are buried together.
The day finished at the National Liberation Museum in Groesbeek. The museum is on one of the country’s rare hills and the centre of some of the fiercest fighting of the war. It’s a small, interesting museum focused on life before the war, the occupation, then the liberation and rebuilding of the country.
My next day was back at a cemetery. This time the Canadian War Cemetery in Bergen op Zoom. It’s almost a two-hour drive, but the roads are modern and well-maintained and the countryside pleasant. If you don’t have a car, it’s still easy to reach this region using public transportation.
The Bergen cemetery was next the British cemetery. Some people may think holidaying in cemeteries odd, but is really a sacrifice? This is after all a pilgrimage. It was in the Canadian cemetery I met one of the gardeners who works for the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. Martin told me that even though this is the smallest Canadian cemetery in The Netherlands with 965 of 1,115 graves for fallen Canadians, it has six kilometres of edging around the tombstones. He also told me that the limestone grave markers are cleaned twice a year, three times if it’s a damp winter.
From the cemetery I took a break to have lunch in the centre of Bergen, a wonderful 800-year-old city which boggles the mind with its ancientness. The country’s oldest hotel, Grand Hotel Dedraak has been in business since 1397, that’s 95 years before Columbus set sail!
My final war stop was at the Liberation Museum of Zeeland. Begun as a family run museum it is very personal and exceptionally well done. The museum is adding a whole new outdoor experience with jeep drive, bailey bridge, trenches, gardens and more exhibition space to complete the experience. Their collection is constantly growing because even 70 years after the surrender, unexploded bombs and war artifacts are regularly uncovered by farmers ploughing fields or during new construction.
Visiting these places is humbling. The Dutch are vigorous in ensuring that succeeding generations know the story of their freedom and appreciate Canada’s role in their liberation. In addition to school trips to museums and war memorials is the Christmas Eve tradition of placing a candle on every war grave. The images of candle light graveyards produce a lump-in-throat pride.
Whatever time of year you visit, it’s easy to develop your own war pilgrimage. The Netherlands are part of the Liberation Route Europe, which is a commemorative experience ranging from Plymouth, England to Gdansk, Poland. The route is designed to allow people to follow parts of it or drop in to individual places and learn about a particular area’s history. There are plaques, audio stories, tours, travel offices and websites to help you organize your own experience.
I’m glad I returned to The Netherlands. The trip was too quick. It’s a small place, but has much to take in and caters to all tastes. I liked the art, history and pace.
The Netherlands are worth visiting on their own, but for Canadians there is that separate, special, stronger appeal, a shared history and experience and pride.
If you go:
For information about The Netherlands and various touring and cultural options, contact your travel agent, Netherlands Tourism at www.holland.com, Amsterdam Tourism at www.Iamsterdam.com and the Liberation Route at http://liberationroute.com. The Royal Canadian Legion Branch 005 www.rcl005.nl also welcomes inquiries from Canadians.