“They are immortalized at the moment of their greatest joy, their eyes brimming with optimism.”
My mother, Agnes Spicer, is part of an extraordinary art exhibit of 22 remarkable Canadian war-brides ‘going home’ to Holland. In August, 1946, on board the RMS Mauretania, she traveled with the Dutch war-brides departing on a foggy morning in Liverpool, heading to Halifax, Nova Scotia and a new life.
Almost 70 years later, she is joining the girls again, thanks to Calgary artist Bev Tosh whose exhibit “One Way Passage to Love” opens on June 6 National Museum of Liberation in Nijmegen, Holland.
On the anniversary of the Canadian liberation of Holland, my twin brother, Victor and I have made the trip to see our mom once again, in the moment of her greatest hope for a chance at happiness, joining half a dozen other Canadian families of war brides.
Tosh captures her subjects in oil on individual sheets of plywood: their eyes brimming with optimism, their faces full of hope for a life free at last of hunger, mud, bullets, and war. The Dutch war brides return in spirit to the place where they fell in love and took a gamble on those handsome, brave men in Canadian uniforms. Tosh’s wooden pallets will be uncrated in a country that never forgot the Canadian soldiers whose boots echoed through their cobblestone streets, liberating the tiny country from Nazi occupation in May, 1945.
“Shabby-looking we were,
With dresses made from curtains and old bedspreads,
Shoes, more holes than soles,
An empty stomach,
A lonely heart,
And a big basket of flowers for our Liberators
Speechless we were, when we saw the Army truck roll
Into our towns and villages…” Olga Rains
The hopeful brides smiling on plywood scavenged in a Calgary lumber-yard, are brought to life through the alchemy of an artist’s touch.
I first met Bev Tosh, on her home turf, behind the red door of an obscure brick building in the city’s industrial east end, home to Alberta’s oldest artists’ coop, the ”Burns Visual Arts Society of Calgary”.
Six months ago, on a Sunday morning, the city streets bleached with sun and snow, the artist previewed the exhibit for our tiny delegation of Spicers’, leading my two brothers, Harold and Victor and niece Claire, to the end of the second floor corridor, she shares with twenty other artists. She unlocks the door.
Rows of demure young women seem to beckon us in.
The panes of painted plywood propped against the walls, create an impression of ethereal and timeless faces, peering hopefully through cathedral windows onto a future they cannot imagine.
I seek her face among them. A tsunami of longing, memory, and emotion overwhelms me, as my eyes finally meet those of my mother. Eyes I have not seen for four years. For an instant we are locked once again, in each other’s grip, smiling at each other. She stands in the corner, where the two walls of painted images of war brides meet each other.
Agnes Spicer is in good company.
“Sisters in kind?” The artist in the paintsplattered cranberry cotton shirt muses. Bev Tosh shares a debate she’s been having with herself these days. What name best suits the exhibit of women united in life and death, by a shared and extraordinary history?
Eleven of the war brides are still alive, mostly scattered among the villages, farms, and cities of Alberta and Saskatchewan. One lives in BC and two, in Ontario., the youngest being 84, while the eldest turns 92 in March.
“I speak to them on the telephone, as much as I can,” Ms. Tosh sweeps her arm now, towards the plywood painting of a bride in long white dress, grasping the hand of unseen groom.
“The town came out in throngs. The couple couldn’t get to their own wedding! They had to call a policeman to clear the crowd, “ Tosh explains. “The first local girl to marry a Canadian soldier The next year, she gets off the ship in Halifax, an ill twin under each arm, a pair of suitcases, to begin a life on a farm in Saskatchewan. Just imagine that!”
Tosh is breathless with admiration, and, dare I say, with love, for her subject matter. All the women arrived in Canada alone, sometimes waiting up to a year before their husbands were demobilized and could join them.
On that December day, she offers Christmas mandarins, chocolates, and a hint of a 12-year obsession that began with her own mother, Dorothy, whom she painted as a young war bride emigrating in the other direction, from Canada to New Zealand. (That monumental portrait hung in the entrance to the National War Museum in Ottawa and later, as part of Tosh’s touring exhibit, “One-Way Passage”). I know all about obsession. I have been grappling with my mother’s story my entire life, as a daughter and as a documentary filmmaker.
“A different story,” she explains, “just like your mother’s. Each painting is driven by ‘story’. That’s what it’s all about.”
A white gossamer, imprinted with fifty charcoal grey words in vintage typewriter font, flutters gently, almost imperceptibly beside the face of each war bride: a thumbnail description of a life’s turning point.
“Many years after the war, her mother told Nell that she had unwittingly been working for the underground. As a teenager, Nell had repeatedly bicycledacross town to deliver a suitcase containing her mother’s handmade sweaters to a man who gave her wool in return. Concealed in the suitcase were guns.” Petronella (Hilversum).
“Catharina was not welcomed in British Columbia by her husband’s family. They lied to her and told her to go back to Holland, but when she replied that she did not propose to their son, they seemed surprised she could speak English. Although she was always afraid of them, she wrote: “our love concord (sic) all”. Catharina (Tilburg).
“This one took me the longest to get it right, “ Tosh says, as she turns towards the painting of the Alberta woman “Anna” who stares out from the jagged, scarred background of plywood created by a kitchen knife, in the midnight hours of an artist’s sleepless night. The iridescent aqua-blue eyes seem to transcend all that they have witnessed and endured, at least in that moment of happiness and optimism for a new life in Canada, captured and immortalized by Tosh’s brush.
“Anna was betrayed by her Dutch roommate for refusing to hang a picture of Hitler in their clothes locker. She was arrested, imprisoned, and survived three and a half years in Bergen-Belsen and Buchenwald. After liberation she married a Canadian soldier.” Anna (Amsterdam)
(Anna’s daughter and grand-daughter are among the Canadian families on the art exhibit’s opening on D-Day, June 6th. I look forward to sharing stories of growing up under the yoke of the complex powerful histories of our mothers.)
In Tosh’s Calgary studio, our family approaches the portrait of our mother, silently , reverentially.
“Agnei, a Russian captured in the Ukraine and taken a slave labourer to Germany during the war. Later she was saved from the post war Soviet ‘filtration camps’ by being smuggled into the Netherlands. She wore the Canadian army uniform of the soldier she married in Amsterdam in 1946. “Agnes” sailed with the Dutch war brides in 1946 en route to Canada.”
There’s no space on the translucent milky gossamer to describe forced marches or cattle car transports to camps in Ukraine, Lithuania, Poland, and finally to Germany before she and the others were liberated by the Canadian army.
21-year old Hetty Wear stands alongside my mother’s portrait, as though they had been life long friends.
“Hetty’s father was imprisoned for being friendly with the Jews. The truth was that the family was hiding them. After the Liberation, Hetty was presented with a water-lily by a very wet Canadian soldier she had met at a dance. You couldn’t get a wedding dress in Holland ‘for love or money” said Hetty whose dress was sent from Alberta by the groom’s family.” Hetty (Gornichem)
Was it just a coincidence that two girls, Hetty and Agnes, stand beside each other in this collection of twenty-one women?
Ms. Tosh smiles, and says, “They found each other”.
NINE DEGREES OF SEPARATION: AN EXTRAORDINARY ENCOUNTER
A chance encounter between strangers in newly-liberated Holland, 1946 provides new clues to a daughter’s search 67 years later.
Weeks earlier, Tosh had phoned the elderly war bride in Edmonton to share my mother’s story and then to send her a photograph. Mrs. Wear told the artist, that she recognized the face. She thinks they actually met in Holland, exclaiming, “Well, how many Russian war brides were there? I don’t think, there were too many!”
Could it have been that in the spring of ‘46, in the newly-liberated Holland, that the paths of these two war brides actually crossed for a single afternoon?
After our visit to Tosh’s studio, I had to find out. I drove to Edmonton to meet Heddy in person. Elfin and exuberant, the 88-year arrives, meticulously turned out in a scarlet wool jacket. Before I can utter ‘hello’, she declares, “Oh, you look so much like your mother!”
And for the next three hours, in that café in Edmonton, she held me in her spell, describing an afternoon that she remembers in detail. An afternoon in 1946.
The chance encounter of four war-brides began in the back seat of an army jeep, south of the Hague, as a Canadian soldier escorted them to a seaside hotel to await the next step in their respective voyages to Canada. Hetty was one of the passengers. Was my mother another?
“She was very petite, with red hair, feisty, and, a smoker.”
The description fit. I could hardly breathe as the 88-year old woman went on.
“Well, she could not speak English. And so we spoke German. ‘Ich wurde oft geschlagen’. I was beaten many times.” Hetty translated the words of the Russian girl that had stayed with her for 65 years. She shakes her head, ever so slightly, sipping tea in an Edmonton coffee shop.
“I couldn’t understand, why they would beat such a pretty, petite woman?“
She apologizes for not remembering more. But for me, it is another piece in an on-going quest to discover the woman who was my mother.
Mom never spoke of the camps.
Hetty recounted her own war-time stories. Hiding a family of Jews in the attic. Distracting the Nazis from searching the house. Curfews. Escape along a roof top into the neighbour’s second floor window. Memories cascading out of memories, things she had forgotten that suddenly percolated to the surface.
By the end of the afternoon in Edmonton, we had forged a fast friendship: the bonds created through the power of story and memory that had all begun in an artist’s studio with a stroke of oil paint.
Had this woman indeed met my mother on that spring afternoon in 1946? Was there a chance encounter in the land of windmills, cobblestone streets, and raspberry patches, where, against the odds, love triumphed amidst the rubble and chaos of post-war Europe?
After three hours, sharing anecdotes, comparing details, in a kind of emotional archeological dig, how we both wanted it to be so.
Next: Social media promises new leads on the path of ghosts.