John Brink was four-and-a-half years old when Canadian troops liberated his part of Holland.
Nearly eight decades later, Brink’s memories remain vivid of seeing those friendly faces arrive in the final days of Second World War.
The soldiers brought relief and an end to nearly five years of war in the Netherlands. They set up a Red Cross distribution centre in the schoolyard close to the house in Sappameer where Brink lived with his mother and older brother and sister and for the next month those 25 Canadians were there to hand out food and bring an end to the suffering.
“They would give us bread and the cheese and butter was bigger than the bread, and we called everybody Johnny,” said Brink. “Obviously, we couldn’t speak the language but in a real sense we did. One of them gave me a rucksack and I got to know them quite well. I knew from that point forward my dream was to go to Canada and go to the land of my heroes.”
The Canadians came on May 12, 1945, right after the ‘hunger winter’ that brought brutal cold and starvation to parts of the country where food and fuel supplies were blocked by the retreating German army. An estimated 22,000 Dutch people starved to death until the famine was ended by food drops to the most affected towns.
For Brink and his family, the war brought ever-present anxiety, malnutrition and the misery of separation that divided them. The father he had never met was missing and presumed dead after he left in the spring of 1940, months before John was born, to join the Dutch army trying to defend Rotterdam. It turned out he survived the Rotterdam bombings that killed 1,000 people. To avoid capture he fled to join the Dutch resistance movement as an underground soldier but the family did not know that until the war was over.
Brink and his siblings would spend their days gathering food and looking for fuel for the stove that kept one room of their duplex heated. Their town was 20 minutes from the German border, not far from the North Sea flight path, and Brink says he will never forget the sight and sound of 300 planes flying overhead on their way to and from bombing missions. They often watched the flybys from the flat roof of their duplex. Somehow it made them feel safer to be outdoors. For John, seeing all those planes flying in formation instilled his lifelong fascination with aircraft and flying.
As he writes in his autobiography, Against All Odds, “It was a life without luxuries, but it was bearable – after all, it was all I knew. What was infinitely more difficult was the worry generated by living under occupation. My mother was a lovely, generous soul, but the war had pried open a Pandora’s box of anxiety, which, not surprisingly, she passed on to us. Don’t stray too far. Please be quiet. Go to the root cellar and don’t make a sound. When we weren’t dealing with the trauma of the bombers, we were trying to stave off malnutrition. It was all about survival.”
The Groningen region in the extreme northeastern part of Holland was one of the last parts of the country to be liberated. By March 1945, the people of Sappameer started hearing rumours Canadian troops were closing in on the German occupiers and when it came time for them to leave they blew up bridges to slow the Allies advance.
One of those bridges was 50 metres from the Brink house. John was outside playing near the bridge when the German soldiers pulled out two large cylinders with wires protruding to set the explosive charges. His mother had heard the trucks arrive and gathered her two oldest children but John was nowhere to be seen. He was by the footings of the bridge on the opposite side of the canal trying not to be seen when his mother grabbed him from behind, clasping her hand over his mouth so he would stay silent and took him back up the ravine into the house. The family went into the root cellar crawlspace to take cover while the dynamite was detonated with a crack that made their ears ring for hours afterwards.
Although he was so young, Brink saw things no child should have to see – a neighbour being shot in the head, a wagon hauling tarp-covered bodies with arms and legs dangling from the cart – and it left him damaged.
“I carried the war through my life as surely as a foot soldier carries a backpack full of rations,” said Brink. ”It was my great weight, one that has never fully eased.”
He never asked his siblings how they were affected by the war but he knows they were, just as his parents were.
“My dad would never talk about it and neither would my mom,” said Brink. “He was gone from the family for five years and that meant their relationship was never the same again, because everybody had changed. If you have to go through survival and extreme circumstances where people are dying all around you then it changes you as an individual.
“My dad was nearly killed a couple times and had a helmet with a bullet right through it. So he became a different guy.”
The impact the Canadians made on Brink never left him. He wanted to immigrate to Canada as a 17-year-old but his parents denied permission. He was then drafted and served two years in the Dutch Air Force as part of the special forces military police before coming to Canada at age 24. Driven by his ambition to own his own sawmill, Brink arrived in Prince George in 1965 with $25.47 in his pocket and worked his way to the point where he could start his business. Ten years later he opened Brink Forest Products in Prince George and its finger-jointed lumber mill, which, with the addition of value-added mills in Vanderhoof and Houston, he’s turned into one of the largest forestry companies in the province.
Brink, who celebrated his 82nd birthday Nov. 1, realizes the importance of Remembrance Day, especially to remind the younger generation of the sacrifices our soldiers made to preserve the freedoms we often take for granted. He’s telling his story to a school assembly of 700 students today in Surrey and plans to speak to Prince George students Thursday at Duchess Park Secondary School and Beaverly Elementary.
“I’ve always felt an obligation to talk about it, what the Canadians meant, why we have two minutes of silence, because it can change so quickly,” said Brink. “All the stuff we take for granted tomorrow it can all change and it can change your whole life. For me, its still emotional.
“It’s happening today in the Ukraine. I thought Putin would never do that but he did. The same things are happening there and it will affect those people for the rest of their lives. Some of us get the impression that when it ends tomorrow they will all go back to normal. No, that is not going to change tomorrow. It may not change for a year, two years, three years or five years and it may never change. That’s why it’s important to be proactive politically, become involved and to remember.”