The Ties that Bind on VE Day

Prior to his christening, Nelson Zandbergen wears a baptismal dress made from a Second World War parachute that his grandfather recovered years earlier as a farmer near Dieren, the Netherlands, not long after Canadians liberated the country.

The Full Nelson

by Nelson Zandbergen

A parachute dropped into the woods near the Zandbergen farm in Gelderland province, Holland, during the Second World War.

Little is known about who or what may have been attached to it. A Canadian paratrooper, perhaps? An allied airman shot down on a bombing run?

Fred Zandbergen Sr. (1911-1988) happened upon the canvas bag while out walking sometime after the very first VE Day. Tucked inside was a white nylon parachute, along with a smaller bag containing disinfectant and emergency medications, according to the memoirs written many years later by Fred’s wife, Joan (1912-2010), longtime resident of Brinston.

Perhaps it was a reserve chute that wasn’t deployed on the descent by an airborne soldier, and the unneeded kit was quickly shed after landing.

In any case, the silky fabric was a product of the wartime environment that for half a decade defined the lives of Fred and Joan, my grandparents, and shaped their ensuing years following Dutch liberation on May 5, 1945. (Although the allies came oh-so-close to reaching their part of the Netherlands the previous September, the Zandbergens lived beyond Arnhem’s famous “Bridge Too Far” and had to wait until spring for their freedom, like the rest of Europe.)

The return to peacetime — officially marked with Victory in Europe Day on May 8 (75 years ago this past Friday)  — created the opportunity for the Zandbergens to immigrate to Canada, Holland’s liberator. In 1952, they crossed the pond by propeller airplane with eight children in tow. Somewhere in their luggage on that lengthy flight was a remnant of the parachute discovered in the woods. An aunt had refashioned it into an infant’s baptismal dress, trimmed with lace taken from a shroud worn by Joan’s mother when Joan and her siblings were baptized.

All of Fred and Joan’s children born after the war were swaddled in that special garment for the sacrament, as were a number of their Canadian-born grandchildren — yours truly included.

In a way, the threads of that shiny material are a tangible connection to momentous events that we never experienced but whose effects touched us before birth and remain interwoven with our lives.

My grandparents weren’t passive observers of the upheaval during the war years, even as civilian farmers trying to raise a young family of their own during the tumult. The risks they took upon themselves — in order to survive and to do what was right — produced enough adrenaline to keep the stories flowing for decades at their dinner table in Matilda Township.

Among their exploits: They hid a family of Jews and sheltered a variety of other people while Nazi soldiers simultaneously commandeered the use of their barn; Fred used a two-way radio, sometimes kept under the family bathtub, to notify the Resistance about a collaborators’ camp he uncovered, which the allies bombed three days later; Joan successfully stood her ground against a German soldier, refusing to turn over one of the last cows the family owned because she needed the milk to feed her children; and a V-1 flying bomb crashed into a neighbouring farmhouse, killing the occupants and sending a piece of the jetsam through a wall of the Zandbergen home without causing injury — even taking out the headboard on the bed where Joan was resting.

A particularly poignant story concerns something else that fell from the sky — a Polish airman. Fred and Joan gave safe haven to “John,” as they called their guest, during the final eight months of the war.

When Canadian soldiers finally drove by the Zandbergen place on Liberation Day, John happily ran out and hopped on the hood of one of their trucks. Not long afterward, he was shot and killed by enemy troops hiding in the area, despite the supposed end of hostilities. A tragedy among millions in that war, John witnessed the liberation but still lost his life.

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… the Germans we had staying in the barn did not appear in their normal place. Then the kids came in and said that in a little side road there were other soldiers who had given them bread and jam and a chocolate bar. It was not long before a couple of trucks came. Here were the Canadians. They took the Germans and stood them against the house with their hands up. After they took their weapons, they offered them cigarettes. Two buses came and took them away….

Suddenly there were Orange flags and arm bands which the people of the Resistance wore. The collaborators and the N.S.B. [Dutch Nazis] all got picked up and put in a camp….

The night of the liberation people were dancing in the street, and at eight o’clock the next morning we had a thanksgiving service in a half-ruined church. I had never been at a service like that, and never after, either. It was so moving!

— Joan Zandbergen, recalling the Dutch liberation in her 1995 memoir, “Our Story: Fred and Joan Zandbergen”

This article was originally published on the 65th anniversary of VE Day a decade ago, when Joan — then 96 years old — was still alive to see it.

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