For five long years, Willemyngje “Willy” (Slot) Kalt survived hardship after hardship in Nazi occupied Holland.
From strict curfews and restrictions on what could be read or heard, to scrounging for what little food was available, the citizens were in a constant state of turmoil.
That's why the night the news broke that the Second World War was over is still so vivid for the 87-year-old Windsor resident.
Laying in bed that night, Kalt recalls winding up her little crystal radio that was hidden in her pillow — an offense if it was ever to be discovered by Nazi soldiers — to listen to what was on the news.
“I heard in French — and my French was not all that good — that the war was over,” she recalled, her voice still tinged with excitement. “It was 11 o'clock. I went outside and three soldiers came by and we said the war is over and they chased us inside.”
The next morning, there were no Germans left in Blarcum, her hometown. It was the victory they had been waiting for.
Kalt had been working with the Dutch underground during the final two years of the war.
“The war was terrible, and when I was around 18, I joined the underground,” she said. “I was a courier. I brought messages over and anything that came along, you know? It was very hush-hush, because you didn't have your same name, you didn't know anybody.”
She said they were “entrenched with people that were hiding Jews, that were hiding pilots when airplanes were shot down.”
The risky work that was carried out by the Dutch residents greatly assisted the Allied forces.
“We were in no man's land when the war ended,” she said. “We had a house that was quite high on a hill, and if I looked out of an attic window I could see the Germans on one side and the Canadians on the other side. And we were just waiting.”
Kalt's sister's boyfriend was caught carrying a newspaper that was from the Allied forces. The only news the Dutch were allowed to read was from Germany. The boy was never seen again.
“They killed him. They put him first through to the concentration camp. He was a very short time there — only three months — and he was dead,” she said.
“The place where I used to live was a small place and there were a lot of artists there. They were Jewish. Not one came back. Not one of them came back,” she said, shaking her head.
One such family was the Rosenthals.
“The father and mother were very little people. I saw them being brought up by the Germans. They were holding hands and a German was behind them with a gun — a rifle... and threw them in the back of a truck,” said Kalt.
The Rosenthal's daughters were also taken away to a concentration camp. One of those daughters gave Kalt her gold watch for safekeeping.
“She said, 'you hang onto it'... She said she was coming back,” Kalt said, trailing off. She never did.
“They were lovely people — such lovely people.”
Kalt said following the war, she learned the Rosenthal family was sent to Auschwitz — a network of concentration and extermination camps where about 1.3 million people died.
“Nothing was for sure. They said that group was brought to Auschwitz and at that time, they lost (their lives),” she said.
Kalt passed the girl's watch down to her eldest daughter, Rita Connolly.
When the war was over and she learned she could adopt a grave of one of the Allied soldiers, Kalt didn't hesitate. For her, it was the least she could do.
“In 1946... we were just free. We had been under the Germans for five years, five 'glorious' years, and after the war there was a thing in the paper that (said) you could adopt a grave of one of the fallen Allies,” she recalled. “For five years we couldn't do a thing, so I thought let's do that.”
She was given the name of an American soldier from Vermont who died while overseas. On Memorial Day, Kalt made her way to the Netherlands American Cemetery and Memorial in Margraten, Holland. That first year, she knelt down beside the grave of U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. Foster Blake, a turret gunner who was killed in April 1944 at the age of 20, and laid tulips.
Her brother snapped a photo of her — the young woman with long braids — and sent it to the soldier's mother.
“I couldn't speak any English — I'm still not good in English — so I could not converse with his mother. Actually, I had somebody in Holland that was helping me with it,” said Kalt from her home at the Kingsway Gardens.
She attended the grave a few more times before leaving Holland in 1949 — the year she got married to Antoon Kalt. They spent six years living on a plantation on the island of Sumatra, with her husband employed as a tea planter. After the contract expired, the Kalts returned to Holland, but soon found themselves on a boat travelling to Canada.
“I always wanted to go to Canada,” confessed Kalt. “I love Canada; I like the Canadians, I like the Canadian stories.”
Antoon and Willy Kalt, and their three children — Tony, Rita and Willy — passed through Nova Scotia's historic Pier 21 when they immigrated to Canada.
“I never regretted it one day,” said Kalt.
The family spent a year in Truro working on a farm before they moved to Halifax and began settling in.
Although her husband was fluent in English when they arrived, Kalt wasn't. She learned by listening to the radio, through communicating with her children who were quick to pick up the foreign language, and interacting with others. It wasn't easy, but Kalt said she did what she had to.
Although there was a language barrier between Kalt and Julia Blake — the mother of the dead solider — when Kalt was a young woman, when the two reconnected in 1964, that barrier was no longer an issue.
That meeting came about quite by chance. In the summer of 1964, the Kalts were vacationing in Vermont when she happened upon a Veterans Affairs building. Knowing Julia Blake had lived somewhere in Vermont, she stopped in to see if the woman was still alive, and living nearby.
“Those guys that are buried or left in Holland, we call them heroes but I see them more as victims of man's inability to live together in peace.” - Willy Kalt
“So they found out the mother was living and it was very close by to where we were camping so we went there and it was really nice,” said Kalt, showing a photo from that visit.
“We became friends, but we never saw each other any more (after that visit),” said Kalt.
Blake's remains were returned to the United States sometime after Kalt left Holland.
War stays with you every day
“The war made me a pacifist,” said Kalt.
“Those guys that are buried or left in Holland, we call them heroes but I see them more as victims of man's inability to live together in peace,” she added.
Kalt said not a day goes by that she doesn't reflect on her life experiences. She often wonders what would have become of those young men and women had they survived the Second World War.
“When I was going to Margraten, there were all those crosses there. People that were 18 years old to 23 and 24 years old. They were the cream of the crop and we killed them. We killed them. There could have been one that would have had the cure for cancer,” she said, her voice trailing off.
Kalt said it's important for people to continue to remember the sacrifices made and be thankful for their freedom.
“The day of remembrance, in Holland, every little kid, you can ask them about it because they know everything. It's a very big thing,” she said. “Here in Canada, you get Veteran's Day and it's big. But for the rest of the year, you don't hear all that much about it.”
Dutch children still tend the graves of the troops who are buried far from home.
She said taking time to understand the war, and working towards preventing future conflicts is something she hopes the coming generations will embrace.
“The war makes a completely different person out of you,” she said, noting the memories of living in occupied Holland are with her from the time that she wakes up in the morning until she goes to bed.
“Some people go around and they don't know that they're living. I knew that I was living,” said Kalt, as she reflected on the places she travelled to and the people she met along the way.
“I'm very happy. I'm old now. I have a lot to think about,” she continued. “I had a marvellous life in a way. A whole lot of ups, a whole lot of downs. I always came out of it.”
Kalt's children all grew up to be successful — something she's quite proud of — and she has two grandchildren. Her eldest child, who is named after her husband, lives in Wolfville and works in Halifax. Her daughter, Rita Connolly, works with her husband at Andrew Connolly Dispensing Optician Ltd. in Windsor. Her youngest daughter, Willy Kalt, is a doctor at the research station in Kentville.