Looking for fathers

ROBERT COLLINS April 19 1999

Looking for fathers

ROBERT COLLINS April 19 1999

Looking for fathers



For the first 45 years of her life, Marjo van Tienhoven often puzzled over the differences between her two brothers, three sisters and herself. She was bookish and introspective; they were not. They, in varying degrees, resembled their father; she did not Eight years ago, she finally found out why: he was her stepfather and they were her half-brothers and sisters. Her biological father was a Canadian who helped liberate her native Holland during the Second World War.

Maijo, 53, now a widow and professional translator living in Ellecom, near Arnhem, has been searching for him ever since. She is one of at least 4,500 Dutch children of Allied servicemen who left pregnant women behind them after the war. Thousands more may be in Belgium, France and Germany. Veterans’ groups re-visiting the

region have been gently approached by middle-aged people bearing placards that read: “Are you my father?” On continental Europe, only Holland has an organization, Vereniging Bevrijdingskinderen (Association of Liberation Children), founded in 1984 to help search, as Maijo puts it, “for pins in that enormous haystack of regiments full of soldiers.” Britain’s ODAC—Our Dads Are Canadians—also helps its wartime offspring find ex-servicemen fathers.

When Allied armies fought their way through western Europe in 1944 and 1945, young women—like all the liberated people—were ecstatic and grateful. The liberators brought freedom, chocolate, cigarettes, soap and romance. They were mostly young, fit and good-looking—the uniform flattered the most ordinary man. Instant love affairs sprang up everywhere, has-

tened by the bleak possibility that some of the men might die the next day.

For some troops fresh from Canada’s rigid mores, it was a fantasy come true: easy sex with no responsibilities. For others it seemed like true love until they were posted home to reality. Some married their lovers; thousands did not. Some knew they had left pregnant women behind but rarely considered the consequences or the heartache.

Maijo’s mother was 19 when she met her Canadian at a dance in September, 1944. From what Maijo has been able to learn, he was “a decent boy from Montreal and a wonderful dancer” with dark brown wavy hair. Maijo’s mother knew his Christian name; his last name, which she never saw in writing, could be one of several variations. Often they met at her brother-in-law’s bakery in Arnhem, where she worked. When she told

him she was pregnant, he denied the baby was his. Hurt and outraged, she refused to see him again. She left home to give birth in a clinic among strangers. In 1940s Holland, as in Canada, an unwed mother was deemed a “loose woman.” Later, she married a Netherlander and had five more children, but vowed never to tell her firstborn the painful secret. When a cousin let it out in 1991, the mother was furious, but reluctantly gave Maijo the sparse details.

Soon, Maijo joined the association in Apeldoorn, which currently has 260 members, mostly aged 52 to 54, searching for biological fathers. Seventy per cent of the fathers are in Canada (Canadian regiments remained stationed in Holland for up to a year after the war ended) ; the rest are in Britain and the United States. The quests, associa-

Hundreds of Dutch war babies are searching for their Canadian roots

tion members say, are not about revenge. The liberation children, more forgiving than the generations before them, simply want to find their roots. “Why blame any man or woman for finding solace with each other in wartime?” asks van Tienhoven. “They did not choose to have children, it just happened.” But, as the veterans age and die, she begs those who may have left babies overseas to come forward and not “deliberately ignore possible children who are desperately searching.” In Canada, the searches are restricted by the Privacy Act, which forbids the exchange of personal information about the former servicemen without their permission. But Carol Wilson of ODAC in Manchester wishes governments would at least permit liberation children to determine, confidentially, whether the fathers passed on any hereditary illnesses.

About 850 Dutch liberation children have already found their fathers. Catherine (Tiny) Oosterhoff of Shertogenbosch began seeking hers when she was 12, sending fruitless letters to Canadian government agencies. She knew only that he was a “Smitty” Smith—hardly a hot clue. Finally, she struck gold on a 1982 trip to Ontario. Netherlanders John Boers and his wife, Harmina, Canadian residents since 1957, overheard Oosterhoff s children speaking Dutch to each other in a souvenir shop. When Tiny (pronounced Teeny) explained her quest, Boers, then working for a Guelph steel company, offered to help. In his spare time he began wading through city directories, phone books, archives, and regimental records.

His dogged research paid off: in 1990, he found “Smitty” in London, Ont. The veteran

had married after the war, had three Canadian daughters (two by his wife’s earlier marriage) and was willing to meet Tiny— but his wife was dead-set against it. Only one of the daughters, Wendy Livingstone, welcomed her new half-sister with a letter and a photo of their father. The Oosterhoffs promptly flew to Canada to see her. The genetic bond was quickly evident: on their first meeting, Wendy and Tiny wore identical blouses in their favourite blue and white. Each loves to sing, dance and play the accordion. “Catherine looks just like my Dad and has his humour and a lot of his mannerisms,” Wendy adds. The half-sisters now visit via transatlantic phone at least once or twice a month.

Smitty wouldn’t meet his Dutch daughter on that trip for fear of further antagonizing his wife. Finally, in 1994, Tiny had a happy

and emotional 90-minute rendezvous with him in a London shopping mall, arranged by a sympathetic Canadian uncle. A year later, Smitty died. Tiny reached his bedside in time to say goodbye. She kissed him; he squeezed her hand. “Now I can close my book,” she says. For her mother, the book may never close. “She knew my father for only nine months, but she always loved that man, and still does,” Tiny says. “She sleeps with his picture under her pillow.”

Since meeting Oosterhoff, Boers, now 65, has become something of a supersleuth. He has since tracked some 200 other liberation fathers and devotes about 30 hours a week to new searches. It is often frustrating. "I get a lot of ‘noes,’ ” he says. He charges no fees, but the association and clients pay some of his expenses. “Some men take up fishing after retirement,” he says. “I fish, too—for people.”

He uses two computers, a scanner, a Web page (, a database of Canadian regiments that served in wartime Holland, stacks of Canadian telephone books and more on CD-ROM, and reams of lists from 1945-1946 newspapers reporting the names, regimental numbers and ships of homecoming servicemen. He regularly visits Ottawa’s National Archives (a six-hour trip each way by bus). He studies obituaries and cemetery records. Once, he found a missing father’s name among the next of kin in a death notice, and ultimately united him with his Dutch daughter.

Then, as always, Boers served as middleman until both parties were willing to meet. He never reveals names without consent. Veterans need not worry about liberation children laying claims to their estates, he adds: ‘They have no inheritance rights.” Anyway, says Maijo van Tienhoven, “Finding one’s biological parent is a matter of the heart, not of the pocket calculator.”

A few fathers flatly reject their liberation children. Others, when they and their wives get over the initial shock, are warm and welcoming. “I’m one of the lucky ones,” says Henk Mostert of Apeldoorn, who learned years ago that his father was Canadian Paul Hughes. “My mother told me I was the result of a beautiful love.” Before Hughes left Holland, he did the best he could at the time: he gave her all the money he had and could borrow. She hoped to join him in Canada, but he met and married a Canadian girl. In 1985, Henk found him in Sidney, B.C., through the RCMP (Hughes gave permission to release his address and readily acknowledged his paternity). Since then, they have met six times in Holland and Canada. They share, Henk says, at least three characteristics: stamp collecting, bowlegs and big ears. ‘We met as friends and stayed friends,” adds Hughes. “His stepfather, who was extremely good to him, will always be his father.”

Even if the veteran has died, his liberation child sometimes gains an extended family. One Dutch woman, her father long deceased,


went to Calgary where his widow welcomed her gladly, arranged a family photo with the newcomer in it, and sent her home with gifts—including one for the mother, her late-husband’s wartime lover.

Ton Schoften of Nijmegen likewise never saw his father but got “close enough.” He was about 7 when he discovered his true parentage: his Dutch stepfather shouted “Canadian’s whore!” at his mother during a quarrel. As an adult, Schoften began his search—for a Donald Cameron, Royal Canadian Artillery veteran, originally from Hamilton—through the Canadian Embassy and the Red Cross. No luck. He wrote to every Cameron in the Hamilton phone book. No response.

Finally, the indefatigable Boers located Cameron’s grave in Stony Creek, Ont., and a surviving daughter in Calgary. In 1989, Schoften visited Calgary, Denver, Hamilton and Ancaster, Ont., where two half-brothers and two half-sisters greeted him warmly. He saw his father’s grave. He learned that, although Cameron had a wife and three children in Canada during the war, on returning home he admitted he’d left a pregnant woman in Holland. His wife ordered him out of the house but they patched up their marriage two years later. Schoften, proud that his father, unlike many, owned up to his past, says: “I have a very good feeling about him.”

And Maijo van Tienhoven? In 1998, she sent 180 letters of inquiry in English and French to Canadians with various spellings of her father’s name. In October, a Quebec City man with the right name replied: he remembered the Arnhem bakery. “Imagine my excitement!” she recalls. “I did not sleep much that night!” Eagerly, she sent a photo of her mother and followed up with a phone call. The conversation was disappointing; a stroke had impaired the man’s speech. Still, he sounded friendly and said he recognized the woman in the picture. Marjo was exultant. She sent her own photo and birth date. Then came his crushing reply by mail: “I have a hard time realizing how we can be related since I went home two years before you were born.” This could not be true: no Allied troops had even arrived in Holland by April, 1944. “Later, I realized it must have been the shock,” she says of his apparent aboutface. “Others of our association have had the same treatment; the men are shocked first and answer by denial. Afterwards, they get curious and finally are glad to have been found.”

Now, she waits apprehensively while Boers discreetly pursues the investigation. Time, she knows, may be running out. “My worst nightmare,” Marjo says, “is that I should die when I still don’t know the man whose genes I carry, and pass on to my children.” □