“When eating fruit, remember the one who planted the tree.” (Vietnamese Proverb)
On May fifth of this year, it will be 76 years since Dutch citizens were freed from the brutal five-year occupation by Nazi troops. Often historical events become blurred or muted as the years pass. That is not the case for some Dutch-Canadian citizens concerning the liberation of their country and the role Canadian soldiers played in that historic event.
“It was a moment in Dutch history when [Canadian soldiers] who had nothing to do with Holland came there and liberated my country. That’s a very unusual situation . . . people who lived six or seven thousand miles away came to my country and risked their lives to free my people.” This is how Jacob Vandershaaf sums up his personal reaction to a major event in World War Two. Jacob, who witnessed first-hand the hardships that followed the Second World War in Holland and who emigrated to Canada in 1967, recently shared his recollections.
Decades later, he cannot fully reconcile how such an act of sacrifice by Canadian soldiers could have happened. Jacob does not have vivid childhood memories of the actual war years; he was born during the Hongerwinter (‘Hunger Winter’) of 1944, when people in the western provinces of Holland, and especially in the cities of Amsterdam, The Hague and Rotterdam, subsisted on fewer than 600 calories a day, and when people resorted to eating tulip bulbs to survive. It is estimated that 20,000 Dutch people died from famine. Jacob’s family lived in the northeast province of Friesland where conditions were not as severe. Nonetheless, Jacob recalls hearing stories about the Nazi occupation. His father was shot in the arm and imprisoned for nine months merely because he attempted to intervene when he saw Nazi soldiers stealing food from Dutch women. Jacob’s grandparents hid people in a specially constructed haystack to help them escape from Nazi soldiers. His parents hid a Hungarian Jew. The people who were forced to hide were known as onderduikers [literally ‘under divers’ or people in hiding], one of the most famous being Anne Frank.
Many Dutch people participated in the Resistance, helping to hide 300,000 people in the autumn of 1944. The underground organization was mainly made up of small-scale independent cells that also took part in a range of disruptive activities during the occupation, including forging ration cards and counterfeiting money, collecting intelligence, publishing underground newspapers and sabotaging phone lines and railways.
As a young man, Jacob left Holland in 1967, with Australia as his destination. He had been told that it was Canada’s Centennial year, so he planned what he thought would be a brief detour. Arriving with $67 in his pocket, he hitchhiked across Canada, stopping at Expo 67 in Montreal and the Pam-Am Games in Winnipeg. “You talk about exciting times,” he recalled, “It was a beautiful summer.”
Jacob never made it to Australia. Instead, he worked at a number of construction jobs and earned a degree in history and philosophy from Dordt University in Iowa. In 1996, Jacob and his daughter Angela Santiago founded The Little Potato Company which has earned an enviable international reputation. In a reflective moment, Jacob commented on his life in Canada. “I started from scratch, and I am grateful that I have done well in Canada.”
Repeatedly, during the conversation, Jacob directed the talk away from himself and back to the enduring gratitude the Dutch people feel for Canada. Thinking about an event that happened 76 years ago, he looks for ways to explain how present-day events in the land of his birth are so closely connected to the Canadian soldiers who spent 240 days liberating Holland between September 1944 and May 5, 1945. He is painfully aware that 7,600 Canadian soldiers died in the campaign.
“Dutch schools teach children about the war and Canada’s contribution, and it is also taught in homes,” Jacob explained. Nonetheless, it is difficult to explain why the emotions have not become diluted with the passage of time. “For my generation, sure, the gratitude to Canada was always there, but to see it years later, that impresses me. We need to tell the stories again and again and again,” he insists. Jacob regrets that he was not in Holland for the 50th Anniversary celebration of the Liberation in 1995. He recalls watching a CBC documentary hosted by Peter Mansbridge and wishing that he could have been there in person. The large-scale 75th anniversary celebrations were cancelled last year because of the pandemic.
Jacob’s personal experiences form the backdrop for a decision he made when he heard about plans for Branch 262 of the Royal Canadian Legion to construct a Veterans Memorial Park in downtown Outlook. He immediately contacted other farmers who, like him, arrived in Canada from Holland or who are children of Dutch immigrants. He explained the purpose of the Legion project to his colleagues and urged them to make donations. The response was immediate and overwhelming. Generous donations have been received from Sunrise Potatoes, Northern Konstar Seed Potatoes, the Oudman Family and Tuberosum Technologies. Jacob and his friends see their contributions to assist with the construction of the Park as a way of showing gratitude to Canada and Canadian soldiers who gave so much to Holland so many years ago. “We are thankful to Canadian soldiers. Literally, if it wasn’t for them, we would not be here in Canada today,” is Jacob’s succinct analysis.
The generosity of the donations, along with many other contributions from organizations and local citizens, means that, despite the unforeseen problems caused by the pandemic, the Veterans Memorial Park project can proceed, with an official opening tentatively planned for the Fall of 2021.