The search for my mother’s “missing thousand days” during World War Two began this summer again, in earnest in a breezy, light-filled second floor apartment in Amsterdam, overlooking the Singel canal. I have come to this cosmopolitan European city with my twin brother, Victor Spicer from Edmonton, to attend the unveiling of an international art exhibit of Canadian war brides who left their Dutch families behind after the Second World War, to follow their hearts.
Our mother, Agnes Pfeil, (as she was known then) is among 22 Dutch war brides painted on plywood salvaged in a Calgary lumber yard, and now hanging together for a six month run at the 1944-45 National Liberation Museum, in Nijmegan, 90 minutes by train, outside of the capital city.
Mom traveled by “bride” ship to Canada with the Dutch women, but she was not Dutch. She was a Russian Red Army soldier who’d spent most of the war years behind barbed wire in the concentration and POW camps of Nazi Germany.
In Mid-1945, the Canadian troops attached to the British liberation forces liberated my mother and at least 5000 other slave labourers and POW’s in the German spa town, Bad Salzuflen. She fell in love with one of those Saskatchewan boys, Private Jack Pfeil from Bruno, who’d managed to miss most of the war by lying low back on the family farm. The RCMP eventually “recruited” him at the end of a rifle, and, after a brief stint in England, he found himself in Northern Germany in 1945, along with the other boys with the Regina Rifles.
They met in a raspberry patch.
Three prairie boys with the Regina Rifles, (“They looked so goddamned stupid with their rifles hanging!”), and three young women who’d seen too much of life, death, and every depravity in between. And yet, there they were, free, at last, under the early summer sun, their fingers stained with the juice of ripe berries, and their hearts beating once again, as any 23-year olds.
Except of course, how could they be? Those three young women had had their youth stolen by war, hunger, and unspeakable cruelties. At that moment, only a few weeks after the Liberation in May of 1945, none of them knew what the future would look like, especially my mother. She could not go home. To return to Russia, to surrender to the embrace of her own mother (who’d perished in the gulags, never knowing the fate of her daughter)… none of it was possible. The risk was palpable. Rosa Butorina, (her real name) would be put behind barbed wire once again, this time by her own country.
In Stalin’s eyes, she was a traitor.
Some of the former Red Army soldiers who did return to Russia after the War spent up to 25 years in the Stalin’s gulags as punishment for working for the enemy Third Reich. As if any of them had a choice. Stalin showed no mercy, even for his own son who’d been taken prisoner.
How much of any of this did the 23-year olds know that afternoon in the raspberry patch? I can only speculate. Rumours were rife among the liberated POW’s. Gossip, if you could call it that, was a lifeline in those treacherous days of revenge killings that scarred the first days and weeks at the end of the war.
But somehow, in the midst of it all, in the summer of 1945, Rosa (Agnes) found love.
They could only communicate in German. Mom did not yet speak English, and Jack sure in hell did not speak Russian.
But this roguish prairie boy came from a posse of German-speaking Austrians who’d migrated to the Canadian prairies after the last World War. Perhaps it explains his reluctance to sign up to fight the Hun. German was their first language back in Saskatchewan. He had seven brothers. It was the language of the farm. And now, it was the language of courtship. Mom mastered German as a schoolgirl in Russia ( back when Germany and Russia were pals. She remarked once to me, that it was her ability to speak flawless German that saved her life during the War.)
Like all Canadian soldiers who fell in love in Europe, Private Pfeil had to ask his commanding officer for permission to marry.
“To hell with that. I’m going to marry her with or without your permission,” Private Pfeil declared, risking censure, even court martial from his senior officer.
Why was permission initially denied?
Because the British Army (and therefore its Canadian attachment forces) had promised Stalin, their ally, that they would turn over to the Red Army, any Russian forced labourers or ex-POW’s they discovered in their zone of occupation.
Whether it was officially known at the time or not, the Red Army took custody of these Soviet citizens to return them to the Motherland for ” resocialization”. It was all double speak for imprisonment in filtration camps or the notorious gulags of Russia.
Private Jack Pfeil saved my mother.
Somehow, he succeeded in getting permission to marry the Russian girl he’d met picking raspberries while out with his army buddies. How? It is a detail lost in the maelstrom of a chaotic time. I do know, they became engaged in August, after a two-month whirlwind romance.
But now, they had to escape the Red Army troops rounding up its former soldiers and Russian refugees chocking the roads of post war Germany.
They had to make a run for it.
A mystery Anglican priest from Edmonton, along with a couple of his army buddies, “borrowed” a Canadian army uniform from the barracks in Bad Salzuflen, and told her to put it on, and keep her head down, her hands hidden as they all piled into the covered jeep. They headed North to Holland, through the medieval city of Oldenburg and then onwards to freedom.
Jack and Agnes married in Amsterdam, in a Catholic Cathedral I’m here to find 65 years later, as part of my detective work.
There are at least two dozen possible candidates. I don’t have time to visit each one.
My only clue is a pair of photographs and the stamp of the studio of “Fritz Karbasch”, on the back of the original postcard-photograph Mom sent to her only sister in the Russian Ural Mountains after the War.
I’m studying the architectural detail in the black and white postcard of their wedding day in February 1946. Four men in top hats. A white horse. A small crowd of onlookers, as yet unidentified. A very good image of who? Is he the doorman, a wedding usher? The most striking feature of the photograph however is my mother’s radiant smile. She is happy. Unedited joy.
It is an expression of radiance in a fading photograph that survived 60 plus years in the back drawers of my aunt’s cabinets, excavated only last winter during my last trip to the edge of Siberia. (This is the same Aunt Nela,” The last living witness“, I must interview this summer in Russia before her precious memories are lost to infirmity or the grave).
But first, in The Netherlands with only five days, I need to break some new ground.
As 30-year veteran TV journalist, I know I will have to do some old school gumshoe investigation, oh yeah. Nothing beats the basic legwork. But with the help of my more cyber-savvy pals, I want to get the hang of these new powerful investigative tools on the Internet. I’m on a mission. I’m taking tips and pointers wherever I can find them (including you. I’m all ears!)
As a novice in social media, I launch the first missive in cyber space, posting the photograph on Twitter, and wondering, “Hello? Is anyone really out there?”
Within an hour, some stranger from Indiana writes that the soldier’s uniform belongs to the Dutch soldiers in Indonesia. Sorry, friend. Wrong war. Another writes, not enough detail in the architecture. But a Dutch woman, identifying herself only as a 53-year old mother, gives me the first tangible lead, an address. A famous theatre.
Commandeering a bicycle-taxi ( any guilt I felt over using the Dutch variation of a rickshaw overcome by fact the ‘taxis’ actually have little motors to augment peddle power!) my twin, Victor and I dash to the site to see with our own eyes. Could our mother have stood on this cobblestone road in a fairy tale wedding dress, kissing the man she expected to spend the rest of her life with?
My heart pounded as we approached the theatre. The facade had changed. As the mystified Hungarian “taxi” driver sucked his Gauloises, Victor and I excitedly snapped some shots, took a little video, and then, looked at each other.
Was this the mystery location captured by Fritz Karbasch in February, 1946?
A lump in my throat, and then the sudden sensation of my eyes watering up behind my sunglasses. It isn’t very Journalistic. But it felt right. This had to be the place. One of the few places in post war Amsterdam not soaked in the tears of mourning, loss, and terror of the Nazi occupation. This was a place of love. Optimism. And a future.
We twins. We feel things in unison sometimes. I look over at Victor, bouncing in the rickshaw as the driver took us next to one of the legendary brown cafes of Amsterdam. Past the almost naked woman (save the sailor’s cap), beckoning the strangers to come take a closer look at the wares for sale behind the curtain. Past the throngs of gawking tourists elbowing each other at the introduction to the legendary red light district of Amsterdam. We disembark.
There’s no chance for a debrief.
A rather large, rumpled man lumbers into the cafe. He’s talking Donald Duck.
“Is he ok?”, I ask the cafe owner, who doesn’t blink at the appearance of one of her apparent regulars.
“Oh yes, he comes in often. We give him coffee.” She whispers.
One of the crazies, I think. Hallucinating. Talking Donald Duck style, a walking cartoon character in wrinkled khaki pants, a wild mane of grey hair, all askew. What the hell. Why not? That’s Amsterdam. Room for everyone .
But suddenly, “Donald” takes a seat, impromptu, right in between the twins, and asks, Duck-style, “What do we have here?”
We laugh. The tears well up in our eyes. The awkwardness of strangers is broken and there we are, the three of us laughing with abandon.
“Donald” proceeds to engage us, the Canadian twin children of a war-bride married in Amsterdam, with stories from the front lines: the new front lines of Iraq, Israel, and the Middle East. He is Stan Van Houke: One of Netherlands most revered authors. A war correspondent. A grandfather who enchants his beloved grandchildren with those imitations of Walt Disney’s beloved Donald Duck.
He asks for our story…which becomes his story too, as he is also a child of World War Two parents who never spoke of their experiences. We connect. It is a universal bond. As he leaves, he takes the details of this website/ blog. The ink is hardly dry. And within an hour, he posts the same mystery photograph with a brief description on his own web/ blog in Dutch and English, reaching out to thousands of readers over two decades of professional journalism.
Did “Donald Duck” trump “twitter”? We shall see.
Another comrade joins my quest to discover the “missing thousand days” of my mother’s life.