By Andria Hill-Lehr
Nova Scotian Mona Parsons was born into privilege, and married a millionaire – not exactly preparation for the dangers of assisting the Dutch underground in World War Two. Parsons and her Dutch husband, Willem Leonhardt, helped Allied airmen shot down over the Occupied Netherlands to evade Nazi capture. For over a year their efforts went undetected.
Then, traitors infiltrated the network. Willem went into hiding. Mona believed she could deflect suspicion by remaining in their home. That choice nearly cost her, her life in 1941, leading to a prison sentence, and ultimately a dramatic escape from Nazi Germany in March 1945.
At first, Mona thought this was another intimidation tactic, but what she heard shook her badly. The two British flyers whom she and Willem had sheltered had been caught in Leiden. Though Richard Pape made a desperate attempt to tear up his diary and his code book and flush them down the toilet, (as he dramatically described in a book he wrote later, scooping the unflushed pieces out of the toilet and eating them as the Gestapo broke down the door) he neglected to exercise the same precaution with one damning piece of evidence against Mona. In Pape’s pocket was Mona’s calling card. On the reverse was the name of Virginia Tufts Pickett, and the address in London where she was living at the time. Mona had asked Pape to contact Virginia, so that she could let Mona’s father in Canada know of her contribution to the war effort. But Mona’s message was never delivered, and the Gestapo acquired the evidence that directly linked the British airmen to Mona.
During her interrogation, Mona also learned that other members of the little network had been captured. Numb with shock, she listened as she heard the names of people she knew read aloud with others she didn’t recognise: Bernard Besselink, a farmer; Jan Agterkamp, a journalist; Frederik Boessenkool, a teacher; Jan Huese, a businessman; Harmen van der Leek, a professor; and Dirk Brouwer. The thought briefly flickered in her mind that the Gestapo were lying, that the people named had not been arrested, but that the Gestapo were hoping that upon hearing their names, she might betray something. But, she realized, they couldn’t have known the name of the British airmen unless they’d captured them.
The cold terror that started in the pit of her stomach and rapidly engulfed her told her that this was not a Gestapo ruse, and that the arrests were all too true. She gave no outward sign of fear, instead feigning boredom at the unfamiliar names and offering incredulous chuckles when told of the alleged involvement of people she knew. She asked for a cigarette in a bid to buy time to calm her nerves. Lighting it without a tremor, she inhaled deeply, and stared steadily at the interrogating officer. Calmly, she asked him why, if he thought he already knew so much, he was persisting in asking her questions for which she had no answer. Her ploy worked. Angered at Mona’s refusal to be intimidated, the officer ended the interview and tersely ordered that she be returned to her cell. A prisoner she might have been, but she was also a strong-willed woman. And her captors had to admit, even if not to her, a degree of grudging respect for her strength.
So rapid was the Allied advance into the area around Rhede that a notation in the War Diaries indicated that the military were scrambling to produce maps of the battle zones because they changed so quickly, so frequently. Consequently, Mona and Wendelien’s planned escape to Holland was altered by the Allies’ ever-changing battle plans. The Canadian infantry had been busy liberating northeastern Holland in late March and early April, and the Canadian Armoured Division re-entered Germany to take Meppen on April 8. From there, the Armoured Division set a course for Oldenburg. In the meantime, fighting became particularly vicious after the Polish Armoured Division crossed the Küsten Kanal in an area only a few kilometres from Rhede.
On April 14, 1945, the fighting around Rhede moved closer. The bump of artillery, which had been daily background sound for Mona and Wendelien, became the buzz and roar of shells exploding in their midst – “shells were bursting all around, tanks rattled by the front door and machine guns were being fired from the corners of the house.” The Polish offensive and Canadian efforts sent the Nazis into a rear-guard action. Artillery shells began bursting in the fields as farmers, their families and labourers scrambled for cover. The milchräder’s wife grabbed some food and bedding, and herded her children into the basement. Mona favoured taking her chances above ground to being in the close confines of a cramped, dusty cellar, which reminded her too much of prison. She remained on the main floor of the house until the farmer emerged to check on the battle’s progress during a brief lull. He went outside to speak to a German soldier and offer him food. In a flash, an artillery shell passed within a metre of Mona’s head and landed nearby, exploding on impact and sending a plume of earth skyward. Mona flung herself on the floor before she could see what happened to the farmer and the soldier, and decided that the cellar was preferable to the ground floor of the house if the next shell landed on the building. Joining the rest of the family in the cellar, Mona huddled in a corner on a mat while the battle raged over their heads.
When at last the assault stopped three days later, Mona and the farmer’s eldest daughter were sent out to view the damage. The first sight that greeted them was the farmer’s feet sticking out of a ditch. Near him was the soldier, also dead, a sausage still clutched in one hand. The child began to wail and ran back to the house to get her mother. Mona and the farmer’s widow struggled to carry the farmer’s body into the house. They had only just laid the corpse on the floor when Allied soldiers went through the town, telling the occupants they had 40 minutes to clear out of the area and get over the border into Holland – about a five-minute trip away….
As Mona travelled through Holland the extent of the devastation of the Dutch countryside began to have an impact. The country was just emerging from the Hongerwinter of 1944-45, precipitated when the Nazis cut off food supplies to the Dutch nation as punishment for its dogged resistance to Nazi occupation. And the battles between advancing Allies and retreating Nazis had laid waste to the countryside. Rotting carcasses of livestock dotted the fields, hulks of military vehicles were strewn along muddy roadsides. In some places, corpses of soldiers and civilians lay amid the rubble and ruins of what once were homes, farms and villages. Those left alive were as thin and ragged as Mona herself.
For the first time, Mona felt defeated and wondered if there was any point in returning home. Would her house even be standing? What had been Willem’s fate? How many of her friends would still be in Laren? She stopped to rest near Vlagtwedde, at a farmhouse in the midst of what had obviously been a battle zone, just a few kilometres from the Dutch farmhouse where she had heard stories of heroic Canadians fighting to liberate the country and bring food to a starving nation.
Exhausted, she tried to ask for a drink at the farmhouse. “I tried to remember my Dutch, but it was hopelessly mixed with German. The people looked hostile, until I assured them I was a Canadian married to a Dutchman – then they couldn’t do enough for me.” She managed to communicate that she needed to find Allied troops, and the farmer’s brother, aged 64, proudly produced a bicycle (one of the few not confiscated in the mad rush by the Nazis to leave the area) and offered to take Mona to what he believed were Polish troops.
The first soldier Mona saw was loading a truck. She approached him hopefully, and with as much confidence as she could muster. A once wealthy woman used to dressing in the height of fashion, Mona now carried only 87 pounds on her 5’ 8” frame, was filthy and clad in shabby clothes, with only filthy bandages on her feet, having discarded the wooden clogs because they had chafed her already tortured feet. The soldier responded gruffly when asked if he spoke English, doubtless cautious because of warnings about Wehrwolf [a Nazi initiative to encourage women to befriend Allied soldiers, steal their food and weapons and, if possible, kill them]. But his brusqueness quickly changed to amazement at hearing that she had escaped from a Nazi prison and then walked across Germany. His suspicion was raised again, however, when she claimed to be Canadian. Where in Canada was she from, he wanted to know. When she replied that her home was in a little town in Nova Scotia called Wolfville, an expletive escaped his lips and he nearly dropped the box he was holding. He told her his name was Clarence Leonard of Halifax, and that she had just met up with the North Nova Scotia Highlanders.
Since arriving in Holland, Canadian soldiers had seen the effects of starvation and years of deprivation on the Dutch people. But little did any of them expect to find a Canadian woman in such condition, who had lived the experiences she had. Mona was greeted by fellow Canadians who eagerly shared their rations with her, treating her to white bread with honey and plum jam, and hot tea – her first since the cup she’d been given in the Amstelveense Prison just prior to her transport to Germany in March 1942. During her incarceration in Germany, the only drinks she’d had were water and, occasionally, ersatz coffee. The other gift she remembered for the rest of her life was from a young soldier who had received a care package from home. In it were some Moirs chocolates (in those days manufactured in Bedford, Nova Scotia). He’d savoured each one, making them last as long as possible, but when he found a Canadian woman in their midst – and a Nova Scotian, no less – he gave her the last three precious chocolates to remind her of home. After years of deprivation, they were more precious to her than any jewels or finery she’d possessed. She did not gobble them up, but cradled them in her palm for a while, inhaling the rich, chocolatey-sweet scent. When they began to melt, she put them in her pocket in order to save them and savour them little by little. In an attempt to follow the precautions necessary in a war zone, the soldiers asked her to wait for the arrival of an officer. But when she declined, they did not persist. Their instincts must have convinced them she was telling the truth. After receiving more clean bandages for her feet, she set out again.