By Marguerite Gildersleeve ( Blaisse Herckenrath ) It was early April, 1945, in wartime Amsterdam. The city seemed deserted and ominously quiet. I was sitting on the window seat in my bedroom, huddled in a blanket, looking into the black night. Curfew was 6 p.m. so I could not even cross the street to visit my girlfriend Titia.
I was 15 years old when Holland was invaded in 1940, and after five years of occupation and with the terrible hunger winter just ending, I asked myself if happy days would ever return.
At times an overwhelming rebellion filled my whole being. I wanted to fight, to shout, but I knew I was powerless. Hadn’t my father told me many times that hate and anger would not solve anything, but only weaken us in the end. “You must be brave, darling,” he had said, “they will never break our spirit, we must endure,, because one day we will be a free nation again. You will find love, marry and have a home, and give mother and me wonderful grandchildren”. Such comforting words.
Toward the end of April, hope flared up. The Germans consented to food being dropped by allied planes near the main cities. It was the day my grandmother was laid to rest. And while the family stood around that pathetic cardboard box in the cemetery, planes came low overhead, dropping their precious cargo in nearby fields.
Then on May the 4th, crouched around our illegal radio, we heard the long awaited announcement of Germany’s unconditional surrender. After a moment of stunned silence and disbelief, Father jumped up, embraced us all and cried: “Thank God, it’s over, we are free, the war is ended.” Never, as long as I live, will I forget that moment when Father, his thin face and sunken, eyes bright with relief, told us that now my two brothers could come home again, without fear of reprisals or capture. They were then aged 23 and 25, members of the underground movement and in hiding for the last two years.
On May the 5th, we brought out in all solemnity our hidden Dutch flag. With tears streaming down our faces, we watched that proud red, white and blue flag unfurl in the wind. Then we joined the happy crowds in the street. What joy, what indescribable joy!
But what a strange sensation. Officially it was the end of the war, yet there were still fully armed Gestapo troops all around, with no allies in sight and all food supplies exhausted. The Germans would not surrender to the Dutch underground forces and that caused the tragic events that were to follow.
It was May the 7th and rumours were circulating that Canadian troops had arrived on the Dam Square in the heart of Amsterdam. Titia and I found ourselves in the center of a wildly excited and curious mob of revellers, when all of a sudden several SS appeared with machine guns and opened fire into the milling crowd. We stood transfixed, and looked on in horror as people fell all around us, and the sounds of joy turned into moans of pain and screams of fear and agony.. So close to freedom and yet so close to death. Crawling into an alley, miraculously we escaped the terror, and trembling from the shock we made it home.
And then, Tuesday morning, May the 8th, 1945, I saw the first Canadian jeeps and trucks slowly rounding the church opposite our house and entering into the Vondelpark, which bordered our garden. I could not believe my eyes! These smiling, wonderful Canadians with their blue bonnets and the little pompoms on the top were a sight to behold.
I ran out of the front door, and watched, mesmerized, as the first slow moving trucks came around the church and I hugged the first Canadian who held out his hand and pulled me up on to his truck. At the entrance to the park, all civilians had to get off, and the Canadian MP’s directed the troops into the park as I returned to the house.
Standing by our garden gate, we cheered and waved, throwing fresh cut tulips at these smiling, happy soldiers, who had come from so far to help liberate our country. Then Father told me to walk to the area where the vehicles were parked and try and speak to someone, anyone, and bring them home so we could thank them personally!
Shyly, I went over to a very tall, handsome looking soldier. He smiled at me, and I introduced myself, and told him of my father’s request. He held my hand while he called to his friends, and so, surrounded by 20 liberators, I arrived back home. It was hard to tell who was more pleased: we, who could not thank these men enough, or they, who seemed so happy to be in a home again, alive, and survivors of long, hard years of war. It seemed like one big, warm family reunion.
That evening, quite exhausted from all the emotions, we heard a knock on the door, and there stood two Canadian officers of the Seaforth Highlanders, Lieutenant Dave and Lieutenant Wilf, whom I had met earlier in the park, now dressed in kilts and battledress, their arms loaded with fresh bread, ham, butter and candles. They spread their gifts on the table, our eyes popping out of their sockets with surprise, and they urged us to eat. This was all the more extraordinary in that the food we had saved for this occasion was by now inedible. Laughing and crying, we started in. They lit the candles, and watched us in silence. The tall officer, Wilf was his name, 29 years old, seemed so kind and peaceful. He called me Marguerite and I called him Sir.
Those first few days of liberation went by in a blur. Each day I hoped that Lieutenant Wilf would visit again, but of course, he had his daily duties, like the rest of his comrades, restoring order in the city.
The Canadian headquarters was set up at the Colonial Institute, and it was there that I had my first dance in five years, escorted by Wilf with my father’s permission. I travelled in a jeep for the first time of my life and was transported into a world of gaiety and music. Wilf was so kind and attentive, I felt so safe and at ease. Yet this sudden change from our dismal and frightening existence to this carefree abandon was emotionally draining, and I felt tired and confused. I asked Wilf to take me home, and not to visit for a while, so I could sort out my feelings and emotions.
A few days later he phoned to ask my mother if he could come and visit again. He came that night, bringing me a bottle of eau de Cologne. We sat in my room and talked about our dreams and hopes for the future. I realized then that his friendship for me had serious overtones, and that I too felt more drawn to this man than I would admit to myself. My parents also were noticing that a warm relationship was developing between this Canadian officer and their daughter.
My mother had taken Wilf to her heart, but my father, who was terribly weakened by the lack of food and the strains of the war, was loathe to even discussing the subject. Instead, he quietly sought information about Wilf from the commanding officer and the chaplain of his regiment. Perhaps it could be said, he was disappointed that nothing derogatory came from these sources.
Evening after evening we spent together either walking in the park, or sitting in my room talking, and quietly discovering our growing love for each other. Wilf felt that he wanted to discuss his plans for us with my father and, in so doing, lay his cards on the table. I had my doubts as to any favourable results and tried to dissuade him.
But time ran out. Wilf was among a hundred Seaforths who had volunteered for service with Canada’s Far East Force and was due to leave Holland on June the 6th. So the fateful meeting between Father and Wilf took place a few days before his departure. I could not stand the tension, and visited Titia across the street. Two hours later, when I ventured home and asked Mother if she had any news, she hugged me and said: “It is going well. I just brought some beer into the study, they are still talking.”
Shortly after, Father joined us, alone. Wilf had left. “Well,” he said, looking at me, “this man loves you very much and wants to marry you once his military commitment is finished. I was fighting for my daughter,” Father said, “but Wilf was fighting for his wife.” I sat very quietly while Father explained that he had asked Wilf to meet three conditions to make this marriage possible. These conditions had to do with sharing the same faith, finding steady employment, and building a home in which to live. If he fulfilled these conditions, he could come back to Amsterdam in a year and claim his bride.
I realized that this year would be a severe testing period of my love for Wilf, and I prayed that our letters would keep the flame alive. Then, too, there was the unspoken fear that Wilf might become a casualty, and never return. The sixth of June we made our sad and fond farewells. It was hard for me to believe that so much had happened in my life in these four incredibly short, emotion filled weeks. Wilf trained for several weeks with the American forces, but then, with the sudden ending of the war in the Pacific, he immediately returned to Vancouver and received his discharge from the army.
Wilf had arranged for us to correspond through army channels. He would write to the Canadian leave center in Amsterdam, I would receive special air forms there, and pick up his mail. Civilian mail between Europe and Canada was non-existent at that time. We wrote faithfully, our love growing stronger as the months went by.
At Christmas we became officially engaged. A beautiful diamond ring arrived by mail and was put on my finger by my father, thereby confirming his faith in our love for each other. Six months later, a year to the day he left Holland, Wilf arrived in Amsterdam, having fulfilled the three conditions set for him a year before.
We now shared the same faith, he was employed in the timber industry, and our house was built on a site overlooking the sea and the mountains. With the way now cleared, a busy week of preparation began. The wedding date was set; we collected sufficient textile coupons to obtain the material for my wedding gown.. We were married in that beautiful old church overlooking our first meeting place in the park. The morning of the wedding, in my bridal gown and my mother’s veil, I went to Father’s bedside where he lay, too ill to give his only daughter away in marriage. After an emotional embrace with both of us in tears, I walked down to the front door with my mother.
On my grandfather’s arm, and with Titia as my bridesmaid, we walked to the church. Looking up the aisle, I saw Wilf standing there in dress uniform, flanked by my brothers, waiting for the moment when we would exchange our wedding vows. After a beautiful double ring ceremony and a crowded reception at my home, we left for a short honeymoon on the Dutch coast.
A week later I left my beloved Holland and my family, not knowing if I would ever see my father again and I followed my husband with faith in the strength of our mutual love. I carried with me a poem that my mother gave me as I was leaving.
Love the one who loves you and be happy in him
You who were our treasure, now become his
Go my child from one family to the other
Bring your happiness and leave us the night
Just as we are trying to keep you here, you are desired over there
Girl, wife, angel, our child
Leave us your regrets and give them your hope
Go out with a tear, and enter with a smile.
We sailed from Antwerp on a twelve passenger Norwegian freighter, through the Panama Canal to Vancouver, Canada. Wilf carried me over the threshold of our very own home, a house and home that we still shared some forty years later. It is there that we started our new life together to fulfill our dreams and hopes begun on Liberation Day.