Our COVID struggles have been compared to a “wartime” situation. Well, this week marks the 75th anniversary of the liberation of The Netherlands from five years of Nazis occupation. I wrote this story with notes from a biography written by Jordan Slump, at age 13, about his great-uncle Gaele entitled “A Hero’s Story.” Follow the Tulip Festival in Ottawa remotely here from May 8-18.
My wife’s great-uncle, Gaele Visser was born in Haskerhorne, Friesland in 1920 and emigrated with his family to Millgrove, Ontario in 1930. He grew up a bright, talented young man, a big hockey fan, and able to play guitar, violin, and mouth organ. He attended First Christian Reformed Church in Hamilton and took some courses at the Guelph Agricultural college.
When his friends left to train for war in Europe, he decided to follow in 1942, hoping to help free his country of origin and the extended family he had who still lived there. It seemed the honourable thing to do, and he knew Dutch, French and German—a valuable skill on the front lines.
This appears to have been an ethical quandary for him. His mother apparently said at the time, “Gaele is not a man to kill, he is so soft.” His sister Jennie Visser reported that he tried to be transferred to First Aid so that he might avoid having to kill another human being. But no, he ended up in the fighting. Family brought him one day to Hamilton Central Railway Station, said good-bye to this soldier-boy with his military pack. They never saw him again.
He wrote back home, sparing little of the horrors of war. He recounts tragic accidents in training, the shock of what lie behind the wires a concentration camp in Germany, and how a sniper just missed him and instead hit the German prisoner he was escorting.
He wrote home April 16th 1945, just weeks from the end of the war in Holland. “I am back deep in enemy territory… If I get a pass, I’ll go to England. I should get time off in two weeks… We move along blood-soaked ditches at night. The soil is soggy, and it’s hard to move. If God wills, I’ll write a little more next time. Until then, under his wings my soul shall abide.”
On April 23, 1945, great-uncle Gaele and his officer were pushing the Nazis back near Wilhelmshaven, Germany. On that day he stepped into a building in front of his officer, and it was on that threshold that he was gunned down by enemy fire. One week later his fellow soldiers ended their combat service, and two weeks later the Nazis would fully surrender to the Allies.
He was first buried in Germany but later his body was moved and re-buried in the Holten Cemetery, in Overijssel, the Netherlands, surrounded by fellow Canadian soldiers. He was both a Hollander and a Canadian, and he died so that others might live.