|Today's date: Friday May 24, 2013||Vol 46 Issue 21|
We Cover The County...
April 1945 - About a month before the Netherlands was officially liberated on May 5, 1945, the first Canadians arrived just outside the childhood home of John Gansekoele in a rural community in the municipality of Staphorst. Now a Fergus resident, Gansekoele said that day wasn’t quite the end of the Nazis terrorizing the community, but the Canadians were welcomed with open arms. He recalls his mother cooking a large meal to thank the soldiers. submitted photo
Liberation Day: Members of local Dutch community celebrate, remember
by Chris Daponte
This week, as he has every May for several decades, John Gansekoele walked to the flagpole at his Fergus home, lowered the Canadian flag that adorns his property year round and attached a Dutch flag beneath it.
Though he has lived in Canada for over 50 years, he has never forgotten his Dutch roots.
The simple gesture with the flag is Gansekoele’s way of honouring the sacrifices made by Canadians during the liberation of Holland in the Second World War.
“I think it’s kind of a token of remembrance and appreciation for what Canada did for Holland,” he said of his annual tradition. “I’m just forever grateful. I’ll never forget until the day I die.”
Gansekoele proudly counts himself among the thousands of Dutch Canadians living in Wellington County (census numbers indicate over 2,200 Dutch immigrants live in the county, not counting subsequent generations of Dutch Canadians born here, accounting for over 7% of all immigrants in the region).
He was just four years old and too young to remember the initial Nazi attack on the Netherlands in May 1940, but Gansekoele does have many memories of the subsequent five years of German rule.
His family lived in a rural community in the municipality of Staphorst, in the province of Overijssel, in the eastern Netherlands, where his father operated a small blacksmith’s shop.
He said it is very difficult to describe what it was like to live in occupied Holland - especially during the most difficult times, like “the hunger winter” of 1944-45.
Gansekoele noted it must have been a difficult decision for anyone wanting to join the Dutch resistance, because getting caught meant certain death. The horrible experience of living through the Nazi occupation left the family with a profound appreciation for living in a free country.
In 1951, when he was 15, Gansekoele came to Canada with his parents, sister and brother. And every year since their arrival, Gansekoele makes sure to recognize LiberationDay, which is celebrated in the Netherlands on May 5.
He stressed he is always respectful with his own recognition, ensuring the Dutch flag is flown below the Canadian flag.
“This is our country,” he said of Canada. “But it doesn’t mean we forget what happened [in Holland].”
That sentiment is regularly echoed - particularly at this time of year - by roughly one million Canadians of Dutch descent, half of whom call Ontario home.
To recognize the contributions of those individuals, and to celebrate the Liberation anniversary, MPPs unanimously passed legislation on March 25, 2011 to proclaim every May as Dutch Heritage Month in Ontario.
The bill was introduced by Kitchener-Waterloo MPP Elizabeth Witmer, herself the daughter of Dutch parents who immigrated to Canada in the decade following the war.
Arie Plieger, Deputy Consul General in the Netherlands, lauded the bill upon its final passage.
“The Dutch are forever grateful to Canada for playing such an important role in our history,” said Plieger. “Dutch Heritage Month in the month of May will foster respect and honour the past with an opportunity to look into the future as innovative, creative and reliable partners. The Province of Ontario and the Netherlands will continue their special bond and relationship.”
Countless MPPs immediately offered their support of the bill, including Wellington-Halton Hills’ Ted Arnott, who mentioned the important role of Dutch immigrants in Wellington County, and particularly in the local farming communities.
“Dutch Canadians know how to be loyal to their roots and traditions, while at the same time being very proud Canadians,” Arnott said in the legislature during last year’s debate on the bill.
He continued, “Coming here with their dreams and a willingness to work hard and sacrifice much, they realized their dreams, and in the realization of those dreams, Canada has been enriched and strengthened, helping to make us the best country in the world.”
Henk Dykman was just 11 years old when Canadian soldiers liberated the Netherlands, but he remembers it well.
Dykman, who now lives in Guelph, said the events of April 4, 1945 were a dream come true for his family, which lived in Leesten, a small village in eastern Holland near the city of Zutphen.
He said members of a Canadian regiment - the Stormont, Dundas and Glengarry Highlanders - still cautious about a possible German presence, issued a warning with a flame thrower outside his family’s home. His father, luckily, understood the warning and went out to talk with the Canadian soldiers.
“We were free ... We reacted to the drama we had gone through with tears,” Dykman said, referring to nearly five years of Nazi rule in his homeland. “We all just started crying.”
Dykman remained in Holland for 11 years after the war, and moved by himself to Vancouver in 1956, and to Ontario in 1978. But he never forgot that day in 1945, or the brave Canadians that died so he and his family, and countless others, could be free.
“April 4 was our Liberation Day,” Dykman said of the day Canadian soldiers fought to free his village.
He knows many Dutch Canadians recognize May 5 as Liberation Day, but for him, the personal and emotional connection remains April 4.
“I was very much aware of the date, even this year,” said Dykman, now 78.
“More and more it’s becoming the day for me to remember those soldiers who didn’t make it ... It’s very much a Remembrance Day for me.”
In 1983, Dykman’s parents came from Holland to Guelph for a visit. His mother told him she still wondered about a Canadian soldier wounded just outside the family’s house during the liberation in 1945.
His mother’s curiosity lit something of a fire in Dykman, who began to search for that soldier - as well as other surviving members of the famous Stormont, Dundas and Glengarry Highlanders, known to many simply as “the Glens.”
In January of 1984, he was able to contact the family of the soldier. He was happy to find out the man did not die on his family’s doorstep as they had feared - it turns out he was shot in the elbow.
The man did die in 1983 but Dykman continued his search for members of the Glens and was reunited with several of them who shared stories about the battle of Zutphen and even his exact house in Leesten.
“I never gave it much thought that they would remember anything until then,” he said. “I didn’t realize the significance of the battle that happened in our area.”
Dykman said the veterans told him the Glens regiment lost 11 men in the battle in and around Zutphen, and about 35 Canadian soldiers in total died within two kilometres of his home.
More recently, the city of Zutphen agreed to name 11 streets after the 11 Glens who died there, he added.
In 2010, Dykman returned to the Zutphen area for a ceremony to name a newly constructed bridge after Marshall Lawes, a member of the Glens regiment from Frankford, Ontario, killed in action near Leesten.
Unfortunately, the night before the dedication, Lawes’ son Leroy, who travelled from Trenton for the ceremony, died of a heart attack.
Dykman, who did not know Leroy well, said the news was sad but he feels Leroy died with a feeling of content, having experienced a “very moving” trip that included a visit to his father’s grave site.
“In the end, I was glad to have had the privilege of speaking at the opening of the bridge,” said Dykman.
Countless Dutch Canadians in and around Wellington County have their own compelling similar stories to tell.
In Mapleton Township for example, an area renowned for its rich Dutch heritage, it’s not uncommon for families to share stories, especially at this time of the year, of what life was like under German rule.
Drayton’s Lucy Veenstra was born in Canada a full 11 years after the end of the war, but she remains very familiar with the story of her parents’ flags.
Wietse and Elizabeth Praamsma owned a dry goods store in the town of Joure, Friesland. Motivated by the D-Day landing of Allied forces in Normandy on June 6, 1944, Wietse decided to make flags of the allied nations - including Great Britain, the United States and Canada - as well as Dutch flags.
“He felt that was something he could do. I’m sure it was a sentimental thing,” Veenstra said of her father’s efforts. “I think it was out of gratitude.”
But despite their success in France, it would be almost 10 months before Allied forces would liberate the town of Joure, which made Wietse’s flag making endeavour a dangerous one.
The town was controlled by German forces, which regularly raided local businesses.
“It was done in secret,” said Veenstra. “It was risky ... he was brave to do it.”
Material was very scarce during the war, which made the task not only dangerous, but also very difficult. Yet Wietse and his helpers completed six large flags.
Canadian forces arrived in Joure the morning of April 15, 1945 and Wietse’s flags were proudly displayed outside the store during official liberation festivities on May 16 and 17.
He continued the tradition every year on May 5 until the Praamsma family - including Wietse, Elizabeth and their five children (Veenstra was not yet born) - immigrated to Canada in 1954.
Decades later, the flags were re-discovered in a suitcase and after talks with officials in Holland, it became clear repatriation was an option.
The Het Jouster Museum in Joure was “very keen” on taking the flags, Veenstra said, so her husband Jim brought them back to Holland on behalf of the family.
They are now on display at the museum and on May 5, 2010 to commemorate the 65th anniversary of the Liberation of the Netherlands, two of the flags were flown at the former Praamsma store, now known as Brattingas Warenhuis.
It’s quite a story and one Praamsma family members hold dear to their hearts.
“It’s something my dad did many, many years ago,” Veenstra said. “We’re very proud of that ... it’s something the Dutch people would honour.”
Similar sentiments will be on display across the county - and indeed the nation - this week, when Dutch Canadians, as they have for over 65 years, honour the Liberation, an integral part of both Canadian and Dutch history.
May 4, 2012
The Wellington Advertiser
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