Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 4/6/2016 (1727 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
It is a pilgrimage long awaited. It is the personal and emotional story of one man’s journey to revitalize the memory of a soldier who was killed near the end of the Second World War.
I am that man. And now, more than ever, I understand why people need to travel long distances to pay homage to those who lived in the past, yet continue to impact our present-day lives.
I did not know Lewis Gallant, though his memory has lived with me for virtually every day of my life. He was my grandparent’s only son, my mother’s brother, and my aunt’s husband. He went to war just as I was entering this world.
I was born June 2, 1944. My Uncle Louie — that is the only name I knew him by growing up — was killed in action April 9, 1945.
It is not possible to replace a lost son, but the love and support I received from my grandparents went well beyond that of what most grandparent relationships tend to be.
I grew up in a small town in western Manitoba. In 1950, my grandmother was given six months to live with the then little known Addison’s disease. That prompted a move to Winnipeg, where she would be closer to her doctors. She would not only recover, but live well into her mid-80s.
As a child, I spent every summer and holiday break with them in Winnipeg. I moved in with them upon graduation from high school. I was as close to my grandparents as I was to my parents.
It was apparent Pte. Lewis Gallant was a good man from the way my mother spoke of him. My grandparents, however, never talked about him around me.
I only knew my uncle had been killed in the final days of the war, and he was buried in Holten Canadian War Cemetery in Holland.
Prior to my departure, I received a number of photos and other memorabilia from my 94-year-old aunt, Pauline.
One of the items was a small booklet describing the day-to-day campaign of the Lake Superior Regiment (Motor), from its time in action on the war front starting in July 1944, until its last day: May 4, 1945.
My uncle was killed just weeks before the Allies would begin pulling out of Europe.
Holten is a small picturesque community located in the heart of the Sallandse Heuvelrug National Park. The cemetery is situated on one of the hillsides in the park, creating a visual impact before even entering the site.
My uncle’s grave stands near the front of some of the last rows of Canadians killed during the war. Next to him is buried Pte. John MacDougall, who was killed with my uncle the same day, the only two from the regiment who lost their lives April 9, 1945.
I would stay by my uncle’s grave for a long time, trying to communicate through the decades the wishes I had that he might have lived, for my grandparents, and to be my uncle.
Time erases memories, and I wondered if subsequent generations in Holland understood what the Canadian forces had done for them, in freeing them from the clutches of the Nazis.
After my emotional tribute, I had a chance to talk with Hank Hulsbergen, who was showing another Canadian guest around the cemetery. I asked what this cemetery meant to him.
Hulsbergen quietly responded: "From the time I was young, my father would bring me here and say, ‘This was the price of your freedom.’"
Hulsbergen says he never forgot those words, or what they meant.
Before leaving Canada, I was able to establish contact with Henk Vincent, one of the volunteers of the Holten Canadian War Cemetery information centre. While the Commonwealth War Graves Commission manages all of the Canadian cemeteries, the information centre was built in 2005 with donations from residents in and around the area, with the singular objective of keeping these memories alive for future generations.
Busloads of children from the region and beyond are there on tours almost daily.
I would meet and talk to many people from young to old, all of whom realized and understood the significance of this place, and its sacrifices.
Eleven-year-old Jordy Lansink said: "It is good to know the stories behind the graves, and you can see what happened. It hurt me inside."
Karen Luggenhorst is a young woman who explained the reason she is committed to volunteering at the centre. Her grandfather told her about a particular event that impacted his brother, a village farmer during the occupation.
"He was on the back of his cart doing a delivery to a neighbour’s house when the Germans fired upon him. He ran for shelter. When he returned, the cart was gone, the horse was gone, and so was the house."
The gratitude the people from this area feel is amplified twice a year.
Every May 4, the day before the official Netherlands Remembrance Day, children from the region lay flowers on every grave in the Holten cemetery. Equally impactful is the placing of a lit candle in front of every tombstone by the children each Christmas Eve.
I always thought Uncle Louie was killed in Holland, like so many Canadian soldiers before him. I was shocked to find out from the regimental diary that he had been killed in the small village of Sogel in Germany; about 90 minutes drive from Holten.
In that moment, I made the commitment that I would also visit that community. I needed to try and visualize how and where he might have been killed.
When I told Vincent I had to go to Sogel, he immediately called the chair of the Sogel Information Forum, Bernd Eggert.
To my surprise, he and his associates have made a concentrated effort to research all of the information about the Canadians who "liberated" their village as well.
"It was the Canadian army that liberated Sogel from the Nazi regime. We wanted to bring light to this history," Eggert would later tell me.
Like Holten, Sogel is a small community. Its main tourist attraction is known as Clemenswerth Castle. Not a castle as we might envision, it is a Baroque hunting lodge once owned by a wealthy land owner in the 18th century. The main building is surrounded by eight smaller buildings that would house the landowner’s guests.
These would be taken over by Canadian forces in April 1944. They made one of the buildings a hospital, while the dead were buried in a makeshift cemetery behind it. Today, the property is owned by monks who have created a church out of the hospital, and a quiet garden sanctuary behind the church that belies the days of war before it.
Eggert was able to pinpoint the location where my uncle and Pte. MacDougal were killed, and the approximate burial site where he and others killed in that small conflict were buried until their bodies were repatriated to the Holten cemetery.
This was a pilgrimage for which I am grateful in many ways; for reinvigorating the memory of my uncle’s life, for the opportunity to visit Holten in its post-war prosperity, but also for gaining a greater appreciation of how tenuous the concept of freedom is, and how we have to make sure we, each in our own way, are fighting to defend it every day.
Read Ron’s blog at www.thattravelguy.ca. Listen to Ron’s latest podcast every Tuesday at 7:30 a.m. via his website or on demand on iTunes.
A writer and a podcaster, Ron's travel column appears in the Winnipeg Free Press every Saturday in the Destinations and Diversions section.