Reports of the final days of World War Two in Europe paint vivid
pictures of triumph and despair, compassion and cruelty. Canadian
soldiers fighting to liberate Holland raced to deliver food parcels to
a nation brought to the brink of starvation during the Nazi
occupation. In the small town of Vlagtwedde, near the German
border in north-eastern Holland, members of the North Nova Scotia
Highlanders were astounded when an emaciated and sick woman
approached them for help, claiming that, after nearly four years in
Nazi prisons and camps, she had walked across Germany following
a desperate and dramatic escape. Badly infected blisters on her
bare feet were evidence of her three-week trek, but the soldiers
were incredulous when she told them she was a Canadian - Mona
Parsons from Wolfville, Nova Scotia.
Mona Parsons was born February 17, 1901 in the town of
Middleton, in Nova Scotia's Annapolis Valley. Her father, Norval
Parsons, was a prosperous businessman and her mother Mary
(Keith) looked after their home and two sons, Ross and Gwyn.
Their first child, Matilda didn't survive infancy, so Mona was both
the only daughter and the baby in the family - doted on by all, but
particularly her father.
In 1911 Norval's business burnt to the ground in a fire that
destroyed several businesses, devastating the town. He packed up
his family and moved them down the line to Wolfville. There, Mona
attended school at the Acadia Ladies Seminary and got her first
taste of live theatre through the touring companies and amateur
performances. Her acting and musical abilities eventually led her to
parts in local productions.
World War One broke out when Mona was thirteen. The
impressionable teenager developed a strong sense of patriotism,
knitting socks for soldiers and engaging in community activities to
support the troops and the war effort. Her father and her brothers
enlisted in the Overseas Expeditionary Force, and her brother Ross
was wounded at Lens in 1917.
The war years were a turning point for Mona Parsons. Not only did
she see the devastating effects on the families of those who died or
were wounded, she also saw women emerge from the shadows of
husbands, fathers and brothers to take control of farms and
businesses, and even more dramatically, to assume roles as nurses
near the battle front. Although many women returned to their
former domestic roles after the war was over, for Mona things could
never be the same. She wanted a career and independence before
she would ever consider marriage. And even then, she would have
to be recognised as an equal.
Upon graduating with a certificate in Elocution, Mona Parsons
attended the Currie School of Expression in Boston. Through the
1920s, she moved back and forth between Wolfville and the United
States, taking classes at Acadia University and teaching elocution
at Central College in Conway, Arkansas, before she landed a role in
the Ziegfeld Follies in New York. The Follies were the largest
musical theatre review of the twentieth century, and their
impresario, Florenz Ziegfeld, was said to have been impressed by
Mona - but then he had a reputation for a lovely voice, a pretty
face and a nicely turned leg.
But Mona quickly grew bored with the Follies, and with the wealthy
men who sought the company of showgirls. She craved roles in
plays crafted by some of the great writers of the twentieth century,
but before she could pursue them she received an urgent telegram
in February 1930, summoning her home. Her mother had suffered
a stroke. Shortly after she arrived home, her mother suffered a
second, and fatal stroke.
Her mother's death was another turning point for Mona. She was
29-years old - old for a showgirl in those days. Her theatre career
wasn't going in the direction she wanted. The stock market had
crashed in October 1929, destroying the fortunes of many of the
people she'd known. She needed a career, one that would provide
stability in tough times. Influenced by her memories of stories
about World War One nurses, and influenced by the nurse who
tended her mother in her final illness, she enrolled in the Jersey
School of Medicine to become a nurse. She graduated with honours
in September 1935, wrote her R.N exams in February 1935 and
landed a job in the office of a Park Avenue Ear, Nose and Throat
Specialist - an ex-pat Nova Scotian named Ross Faulkner. In the
midst of the Great Depression, Mona was an independent woman
embarking on a solid career with a good future, living in one of the
most cosmopolitan cities on the North American continent.
February seemed to be significant month for her. It marked the
month of her birth, the month of her mother's death, the month in
which she passed her R.N. exam, the month in which she launched
her nursing career, and in 1937 February brought another
significant event. She met Willem Leonhardt, the man who would
become her first husband.
Leonhardt was quiet and conservative, born to a distinguished
Dutch family - and he was a millionaire. Better yet, his fortunes
had weathered the Depression and had even improved. His
business? Plumbing fixtures. That may seem odd, but consider that
his family's business had started in the nineteenth century, laying
the foundation of the modern water and sewer in Amsterdam. And
in the twentieth century, when indoor facilities were more the norm
and Hollywood films began to depict bathrooms as a place of
splendour and opulence, the room was no longer on the list of
things not to be discussed in polite company. And the Leonhardt
fortune grew with the new interest.
Mona's brother, based in Rhode Island with the Nicholson File
Company, called her one day to ask a favour. Would she be willing
to show a business associate the sites of New York? She readily
agreed and a meeting with Willem Leonhardt was set up. Mona's
beauty, vivacity and energy captivated Willem.
A few days later, he left New York to continue his business trip to
Mexico. Before heading back to Amsterdam a few weeks later, he
made a point of stopping off in New York to propose marriage.
Before she accepted, Willem told her that he was divorced
(something not as common as it is now - and even considered
scandalous in those days) because his first wife, Winnifred's
adulterous affair. That affair, he told Mona, had resulted in the birth
of a boy. Willem had wanted to disown both of them, but his father
had said that such a thing might bring scandal on the family's good
name. Willem told Mona that he had conferred a sum of money on
Winnifred and the boy, quietly divorced her and had not heard from
them since. He thought they had left the country.
Mona appreciated Willem's honesty and readily accepted his
proposal. September 1 was set for the nuptials in Holland. Willem
returned to New York in July, and together they sailed in luxury to
Europe on the New York-Bremen line.
Upon arriving in Holland, Mona was given rooms in Schoonoord,
Willem's parents' estate in s'Graveland, where she was introduced
to her personal maid, Gertrude and her chauffeur, de Boer. The
house is still a local landmark with its three-storeys and long,
sloping, thatched roof, though the rolling pastures, farmlands and
orchards that once belonged to the estate have long since been
subdivided and developed.
A quiet wedding ceremony, attended only by immediately family
and close friends, took place at the Town Hall on September 1,
1937. It was followed by a lavish reception in the gardens at
World War One broke out when Mona was thirteen. The impressionable
teenager developed a strong sense of patriotism, knitting socks for
soldiers and engaging in community activitiesic
page 1 of 4
page 1 of 4
Schoonord. Afterwards, they set off in Willem's Jaguar for an
extended honeymoon along the French and Italian Rivieras. Upon
returning to Holland, they purchased land in Laren, where they
built a three-storey dream home, surrounded by lavish gardens.
They dubbed their estate "Ingleside". It seemed that Mona had
found her Prince Charming. The only thing that remained to be
done was to live happily ever after.
The world had different ideas. The war clouds that had gathered
over Europe for several years became more ominous. Mona wrote a
postcard to her father, Norval and stepmother, Alma in Canada to
register her dismay over the outbreak of war, and her shock and
grief over the sinking of the S.S. Athenia. By the time that postcard
arrived in Canada, Canada had also declared war on Germany. She
wrote again to Norval and Alma a few days later to reassure them
that, regardless of events in Europe, everyone was confident that
Holland would remain neutral.
How wrong she was. In May 1940 Holland was invaded by Nazi
Germany. Six days later, Holland surrendered. The country was
plunged into an occupation that would drag on for five years,
resulting in the transport or deaths of thousands of its citizens, and
bringing the nation to the brink of starvation.Though Mona was a
wealthy socialite, she believed it was necessary to find ways to
resist and thwart the Nazi occupation. She and Willem joined a
group of like-minded people who vowed to do whatever they could
to counter the Nazis' efforts. This network would eventually
become organised into what's remembered as The Resistance, but
that wouldn't happen until Mona and many others had been
arrested and even executed.
The network's best opportunity lay in helping downed Allied fliers
evade capture to return to England. The network, comprising
people from diverse walks of life - teachers, farmers, businessmen,
professors - gathered false identity papers, ration cards and civilian
clothing, and provided accommodation and transportation to
coastal villages. There the fliers would be taken by fishing boats to
the North Sea to rendezvous with British submarines that would
take the flyers back to England.
At the beginning of the occupation, the Nazis showed far more
restraint and patience to the Dutch than they had to the citizens of
other countries they had invaded. That was due, in part, to the fact
that the two countries had no history of hostilities. Their languages
shared a family tree. And many of the Dutch were blonde-haired
and blue-eyed - perfect "breeding stock" for the Aryan super-race
of Hitler's demented fantasy.
The Nazis were also notoriously class-conscious. People like Mona
and Willem weren't harassed by soldier. They were treated with
respect, almost deference. The Nazis were confident that, once the
upper class could be convinced that the Nazis were no real threat,
everyone else would see the wisdom of the occupation and the
benefits of joining what the Nazis were certain was about to
become the new world order. The Leonhardts and others of the
upper class and aristocracy used this to their advantage, for a time.
By the summer of 1941, however, the Nazis started to realise that
their plans wouldn't unfold as easily as they'd hoped. The Nazis
began to infiltrate the network, detaining and arresting people with
much the same impunity as the United States' Patriot Act would
evoke in the aftermath of the attacks on New York's World Trade
Centre in September 2001.
Members continued to work doggedly, but found moving the airmen
from place to place was becoming more difficult. Instead of being
able to move them around to two or three places in a few hours,
they were having to keep them in hiding overnight. It was at this
time, in September 1941, that Mona and Willem were to have their
last guests from the Royal Air Force.
Dirk Brouwer was a rising star in the architectural firmament in
Holland in the 1930s, and was a friend of the Leonhardts. His home
at a fashionable address next to the Vondelpark in Amsterdam still
exists, though it has been divided into flats. It was to this home at
Emalaan 10 that the Leonhardts received a dinner invitation
towards the end of September 1941. However, when Brouwer
mentioned that Willem had left his umbrella there after his last
visit, Willem recognised it as the pre-arranged code to alert him
that Brouwer's home was concealing Allied flyers.
Upon arriving at the house, the Leonhardts were introduced to
Flying Officer Jock Moir and Navigator Richard Pape. After a
pleasant dinner, the Leonhardts conducted the flyers, now wearing
civilian clothes, to their car and started the journey back to Laren -
about a 45-minute drive away, during which they would have to
pass through a military checkpoint. They told Moir and Pape to
pretend that they were asleep, and took their false identity cards
from them to hand over at the checkpoint. After a brief but
pleasant chat with the soldiers who gave only a cursory look at the
cards and the apparently drunk men in the back seat, the soldiers
waved them through. Confident that they had tricked the Nazis
again, the Leonhardts continued on to Ingleside with their guests.
Flyers who were fortunate enough to survive a crash landing and
evade capture in Nazi-occupied Holland, were grateful for the
efforts of local people to rescue, hide and house them. For many,
accommodations were in hay mows, cellars and attics. By
comparison, Ingleside was a five-star luxury hotel.
When the Leonhardts began their service in the network, they
dismissed all their servants with the exception of a live-out
housekeeper named Bep, not because they didn't trust their
servants, but because they didn't want them implicated in the
event of the Leonhardts' arrest. That left the servants' quarters on
the third floor of Ingleside completely available. Moir and Pape had
comfortable beds, a private bathroom, a radio, magazines and
other reading material, good food (including one of Mona's
favourite indulgences - chocolate!), a view of the gardens and
access to same for fresh air and exercise. And in the event of a
surprise visit and search of the house by the Gestapo, a small room
behind Willem's bedroom closet provided a secret hiding place.
The day after their guests had arrived, the Leonhardts were
shocked by news that the entire family of a network member,
Frederik Boessenkool, a local teacher, had been taken in by the
Gestapo for questioning. They realised that they could not risk
moving Moir and Pape, so kept them at Ingleside for an
unprecedented six days, during which time Boessenkool's family
was released, re-arrested and released again. On the sixth day, a
driver went to Ingleside to pick up the British flyers to take them
on the last leg of their journey to Leiden, where they were to meet
a fishing boat.The Leonhardts bid them goodbye and breathed a
sigh of relief, but the calm was not to last long. More arrests
followed. The Leonhardts decided that Willem should go into hiding.
Mona would remain behind to care for their two dogs (who were
like children to her) and in the hope of averting suspicion.
Returning on September 29, 1941 with her chauffeur, de Boer, from
a shopping trip and a dental appointment, Mona was surprised to
find Dirk Brouwer hiding in some bushes outside her house, and
alarmed by the urgency in his voice. Several others had been
arrested and Brouwer was certain it was only a matter of time
before the Gestapo arrived at Ingleside. He urged her to leave at
once. Convinced that her acting abilities would carry her through,
Mona assured him that she couldn't leave her dogs and that she
would be able to throw up a smoke screen that even the Gestapo
wouldn't be able to penetrate. He spent a few precious minutes
trying to change her mind, telling her that Bep had told him that
the Gestapo had already visited the house twice earlier in the day.
They might appear at any minute. If Mona had any second
thoughts, she didn't budge. She told Brouwer to leave through the