An emotional pilgrimage

The purpose of our pilgrimage to Holland in May 2005 was to pay tribute to the thousands of brave Canadians who lost their lives in the cause of freedom for an enslaved people and ultimately for the continued freedom of our own people – Canadians. We wanted to do something extra on that trip that would be meaningful.

We remembered that on our trip to Normandy in June 2004 to mark the 60th anniversary of the invasion of Europe, we had discovered on one of the Canadian soldiers’ graves a child-made Canadian flag with a heart-rending message signed by a grade-school child from Quebec. This tribute had such an emotional affect on us that we decided to ask a schoolteacher for help with our Holland project.

In the end, our son-in-law, André Doiron, took up the project, and his Grade 3 class at Father Joseph Venini Catholic School in Oshawa, Ont., created flags with messages. André explained to his class the events that led to these young Canadians losing their lives on foreign soil and why we must always remember them for what they did.

In Holland, we visited three of the Commonwealth war cemeteries where most of the Canadians are buried and another cetery at Reichwald over the border in Germany.

At the large – mainly Canadian – cemetery at Groesbeek, we randomly placed our message flags on graves, saying a prayer at each and then taking a photo. We sent the photos to André so each child could have a picture of his flag in front of a soldier’s monument.

But the story doesn’t end there.

Our 138-person tour travelled in three buses, without much communication between them. Few people in the other buses knew about our special activity. Five days later, on the last day of our tour, all three busloads came together for a farewell dinner. Speeches were made and finally one Canadian veteran from Quebec stood up.

As nearly as I can remember, he said, with tears in his eyes and a quiver in his voice, “I was very interested in visiting the grave of my very best buddy in the army who was buried here at Groesbeek. When I found the grave, I found that someone had already put a Canadian flag on his grave. I said to myself, ‘That flag looks odd. It looks like it may have been coloured by a child.’ I reached down and turned it over and found a message on the back. I read the message signed by Patrick, Grade 3 student, Oshawa, Ont. I was so touched that a Canadian child would send such a wonderful message to my buddy, my fallen comrade, that I just stood there and cried. Then I thought, ‘I don’t think my buddy would mind if I just exchange this wonderful flag with a regular Canadian flag.’ So I took it away to be the only tangible evidence of my fellow comrade, a memento that I will cherish for the rest of my life.”

With a catch in his voice, he read the message aloud: “Dear Canadian soldier. I am writing to thank you for sacrificing your life so that others could be free. You gave your life for people you did not know, in a land far from home. Canadians will always be proud of you. Sincerely, Patrick, Grade 3 student, Oshawa, Ont.”

The whole room burst into a thunderous applause.

We never met this man, and he does not know how this flag arrived on his buddy’s grave. We decided not to tell him nor reveal his name.

Next page: Walking in remembrance

Walking in remembrance
The parade at Appeldoorn took one hour to walk, its two-kilometre route lined with more than 200,000 people.

The children of Holland are taught the history of their country’s liberation. I have never before seen so many smiling, shining faces saying, “Thank you, liberators, for our freedom.” All along the route, they thank the veterans and hand out flowers, gifts and little mementos. I will always cherish the rose I received with a heart-shaped message attached, which reads: Thank you very much. You fight for our freedom. From Rose and An and their children and grandchildren, much love.

I was touched, my hands shaken, and I was even kissed by people along the route. One very moving moment stands out: I noticed a lady staring at me. She had a picture of a lovely young woman pinned to her lapel and several copies of the photo in her hand. When I asked her what it was all about, she said, “This is my mother and I’m trying to find my father.”

I have since found out that the Canadian Army left 7,000 fatherless babies in Holland.

Although that parade at Appeldoorn was the highlight of the trip, other events were very meaningful, some like the visit to Anne Frank’s hideout were sad and heart-wrenching, others happy and uplifting, like the multitude of pictures in the museums showing the outpouring of affection for Canadian liberators as they liberated town after town in 1944-45. Even now, 60 years later, there is still that joyful fondness for our Canadian veterans.

One of our most moving experiences was to be part of the silent walk honouring all the brave military people who gave up their lives in the cause of freedom (and the many Dutch civilians who also perished). Every year on May 4, a completely silent walk of great solemnity begins all over Holland. Flags are lowered to half-mast and the bells of churches toll from 7:45 p.m. until just before 8:00 p.m., when “The Last Post” is played, followed by two minutes of silence and then “Reveille.” In Baarn, this was followed by a choir and the singing of the Dutch national anthem and then wreath laying.

The veterans were given special seating. The area was surrounded by a multitude of people who were completely silent throughout the entire ritual. When it was over, the Dutch populace swarmed around the veterans, anxious to make personal contact. A young woman with an older lady in tow came up to me and said, “This is my grandmother. She’s one of the girls who kissed the Canadian boys back then!” I replied, “Canadian boys still like to be kissed.” I took her in my arms and planted a kiss on each cheek and she did the same. (I didn’t tell her I had been in the Navy and didn’t get to Holland.)

It was an emotional pilgrimage and we are left with this comforting thought: We are proud, so proud to be Canadian.