Since the liberation of the Netherlands by Canadian forces in 1945, the Dutch and Canadian people have shared a special bond. Nowhere is this bond more beautifully encapsulated than in a simple, handmade coat that profoundly changed the lives of two people.
In the winter of 1944-45, the Dutch were starving to death due to endless combat, Nazi blockades and harsh weather. Tulip bulbs and sugar beets became a common and desperate food source. The old and the young were particularly hard hit. Around 20,000 Dutch citizens died during the “hunger winter.”
Canadian forces fought tirelessly to liberate the country and bring much needed food and supplies to the Dutch people. Over 7,600 Canadians lost their lives in the Netherlands and never returned home. Many remain buried there to this day.
In the midst of this death and chaos, the seeds of a simple act of kindness would flower several decades later.
After escaping the Nazi authorities with only the clothes on their backs, 10-year-old Everdina (Sussie) Cretier and her family found work in the Allied-occupied portion of Holland. The family befriended many of the Canadian soldiers stationed there, including a 19-year-old Albertan named Robert Elliott.
“Sussie loved to sit up on the tanks, even when we were firing at the Germans across the river,” remembers Elliott. “Poor Sussie wasn’t very well dressed, but she was everyone’s favourite.”
As a Christmas surprise for Sussie, the soldiers had a winter coat and matching trousers sewn from an army blanket and fastened with brass buttons from their own jackets. The presentation of the gift brought tears of joy to the family. After the war, the Cretier family and Elliot kept in touch.
In 1981, Elliot returned to the Netherlands and paid a visit to the family 36 years later.
“I thought the Dutch were there to greet Canadians when the tanks came rolling in and we will be there to greet him in the good times, too,” Sussie said. “At the airport I thought, my God what if I don’t recognize him? But sure enough I turned around and there he was — I said ‘Bob?’ and he screamed ‘Sussie!’”
While there, Sussie and Robert fell in love and soon married.
The couple later donated the coat to the Canadian War Museum, where it is now proudly displayed as a symbol of the cherished relationship between the Dutch and Canadian people. It stands as a reminder, much like a tulip flowering in the spring after an unforgiving winter, that even in the midst of the violence and horrors of war, there exists the possibility of new beauty and love.
We love sharing this incredible story with groups we take to the Canadian War Museum on our See Our City tours.
To learn more, we recommend Alan J. Buick’s The Little Coat.
Photo credits and inspiration: