Canadian troops played a pivotal role in liberating the Netherlands 70 years ago and the University of New Brunswick has been chosen by the Embassy of the Netherlands as one of three locations across the country to hold an event to commemorate this important moment.
From Memory to Remembrance: 70 Years of Liberation of the Netherlands will take place on Wednesday, April 1, at 7 p.m. at the Richard J. CURRIE CENTER, UNB Fredericton.
Regiments from throughout the Maritimes participated in the final campaign in the Netherlands in April 1945 including dozens of UNB students and alumni. As part of this lecture series, Canadian and Dutch historians take audiences through the Canadian military campaign that led to the capitulation in Wageningen on May 5, 1945.
Cees Kole, Ambassador of the Kingdom of the Netherlands to Canada, says some might assume that the liberation of his country was a cakewalk against a beaten Wehrmacht.
“On the contrary, close to 7,600 Canadian soldiers are buried in the Canadian war cemeteries at Holten, Groesbeek, and Bergen op Zoom,” said Ambassador Kole. “We honour them by bringing them our youth, who bring them flowers and candle lights on several occasions. Many maple trees shade their graves.”
UNB has been chosen to host this prestigious event because of the important work being done by UNB’s Milton F. Gregg Centre for the study of War and Society.
Marc Milner, director of the Gregg Centre, says virtually all of the Netherlands was liberated by Canadians in 1945.
“Canadians played a key role in mitigating the worst of the Hunger Winter in the spring of 1945 by negotiating the delivery of food to areas still under German occupation,” said Dr. Milner. “The Canadian army was also garrisoned in the Netherlands after the war while waiting to go home. For most Dutch, liberation and the Canadian Soldier are synonymous.”
John Deweyert who came to Canada on Dec. 2, 1953, and became a landed immigrant at Gander, Nfld. that day. He currently resides in Nackawic, N.B., and remembers the Hunger Winter well.
“Ever since the Battle of Arnhem in Sept., 1944, water, food and shelter became our main enemy,” said Mr. Deweyert. “When we reached Utrecht we were not only emaciated but also had contracted food poisoning from eating contaminated food. A Red Cross emergency shelter stationed at, or near, the ancient church –The Dom—took us in since we were on the verge of not making it.
Mr. Deweyert said they were given thin potato soup to eat, charcoal pills for medicine and slept body to body on a terrazzo floor covered with straw.
“I thought I was going to die; however, we survived and once we were a bit better we were sent on our way to make room for others more in need.”
Mr. Deweyert’s sister was killed the first day of the war. He says his family died that day. Eventually, the family separated. He and his mother stayed with his maternal grandparents for a short time. His father, brother and the two Jewish fugitives remained behind. They all survived the war.
“On May 5th, 1945, the only way we knew we were liberated was because allied planes flew over the villages on the islands on the south west coast of Holland and dropped pamphlets that said ‘The War is Over’,” said Mr. Deweyert.
The shared experience of a small North American nation giving so much to liberate a small European nation forged a unique bond between the Netherlands and Canada.
“The Dutch retain a special place in the hearts and their collective memory for the Canadian sacrifice of lives fighting to throw the Germans out,” said Dr. Milner. “This lecture is part of the effort to ensure that that legacy does not pass away as the generation that shared that moment in history does.”
Every army unit from Atlantic Canada — indeed from Canada — that served overseas during the Second World War served in the Netherlands in the spring of 1945; they were all there. This unique moment in shared Dutch-Canadian history is therefore very much a part of Canada’s story too.
“As soldiers face the fog of war, so historians face the mists of time. Battlefields are cleared,” said Ambassador Kole. “Witnesses may misremember, misinterpret, tell a half-truth. Yet, for all the difficulty, it is crucial that we pursue history. We need history, to remember what we did not experience first-hand. And we need to remember in order to understand the causes of war and the conditions of peace.”
Doors open at 6:30 p.m. on April 1 and a reception will follow. This is a free, public talk, so members of the community and media are invited to attend.
This lecture is a kickoff to a number of initiatives being undertaken by UNB’s Gregg Centre to commemorate this time in history through an initiative called The Netherlands-Canada Connection. Among the first activities of this new project are a trip by UNB alumni to the Netherlands to participate in liberation celebrations in early May, followed in July by a group of high school history teachers and students from across Canada on a two-week study tour. The latter is the first of three sponsored through the generous support of John and Lucinda Flemer.
Media contact: Natasha Ashfield