War has not touched Canadian soil for more than 100 years but it continues to leave its mark on millions of Canadians.
While a decreasing percentage of citizens have experienced combat, and seen colleagues and friends killed and wounded, many have supported war efforts, both in the Second World War and in more recent operations in Cyprus, Iraq, Kosovo, Bosnia, Afghanistan and elsewhere.
And in this nation of immigrants, even many of those who have not been directly connected to the military effort often bear family histories intertwined with the conflicts that dominated the first half of the 20th century.
Marinus Van Prattenburg has such a story.
For Van Prattenburg, the wars were never far from conversation at his family home in a tiny village in the middle of the Netherlands. When Van Prattenburg was born in February of 1944, a company of German soldiers had already been making their home in his parents’ home and furniture shop for a couple of years. The Van Prattenburgs, whose shop was located on the edge of the town square – which provided room for the Germans to repair their equipment and cover from aerial bombardment – were not particularly happy with this development. Not only were the Van Prattenburgs sympathizers and facilitators with the Dutch underground, but when the Germans commandeered their home and decided to set up shop, the soldiers and officers downstairs unwittingly began sharing a building with a pair of Jews hiding in the building’s attic.
The Van Prattenburgs had months earlier opened their home to a pair of goldsmiths seeking protection. The arrival of 20 Germans in their own home then, was worrying for all involved.
The perilous situation was aggravated by next-door neighbours who collaborated with the Germans.
For some time – Marinus can’t quite say how long or the dates involved – the awkward living arrangement continued.
“My dad told them, no one would expect that you are here,” Marinus said. But the Jewish houseguests became more and more nervous, and were also growing restless, having been confined to the same rooms for months on end. They were eventually spirited out of the home, the German troops none the wiser. The Van Prattenburgs never heard from the two men again, and Marinus doesn’t know whether they were able to escape the horror being levelled on the Jews by the Nazis.
“It was better not to know.”
A few months after Marinus was born, the allies invaded Normandy and, as the occupying Germans began to lose ground, the living conditions for residents in the Netherlands deteriorated.
“In the end, there was no food,” he said. “There was absolutely nothing.”
One day, all the soldiers took off on a second’s notice. With the Germans gone – the Van Prattenburgs would later learn the Battle of the Bulge had begun – Marinus’s father got his own little piece of revenge: a telephone connected to the downstairs wall.
Later, when another set of Germans arrived at the village, they were told that the group that had just departed had left with their phone. All that remained was a wire sticking out of the plaster.
“Stealing from the Germans was perfectly all right,” Marinus said. “They didn’t call it stealing; they called it organizing.”
Someone would ask: “How did you get that?” and the inevitable response would be, “Oh, I organized it.”
Memories were long in that part of the world. Growing up, Marinus would hear much about another German who had taken up residence in the town. In 1918, as the First World War came to a close, a train rolled into town carrying the exiled Kaiser of Germany. He would live for two years in a castle opposite the home where Marinus would later be born. It was in that castle that the Kaiser would sign the act abdicating his throne.
Years later, Marinus would hear tales of the local barber making the long walk up to the castle to meticulously trim the beard of the former monarch.
Eventually, Marinus decided to move to Germany in the late 1960s, a decision that garnered him some flak from his family.
“Some of my folks were not too happy about that.”
There, he would hear from many who still felt a sense of responsibility about Europe’s deadliest cataclysm. Later, he would move to Canada, where he married and sold electronics. He would later move to Abbotsford, and build built a name for himself as a meticulous rebuilder of fine pianos.
Still, like many, those stories of the wars remain embedded in his family lore. Years later, he sits in his living room, where a painting of that castle hangs prominently. It reminds him both of the drama of war and its injustice.