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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
Mona Parsons
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
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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