Left: Front door of Nijmegen house in 1945 with the Van der Veen family children and maid along with Canadian soldiers. Author’s father George Lawrence is on the right. Photo credit: T. M. P. van der Veen. Right: Same front door in 2023 with Fiel and Don. Photo credit: Emily Lawrence
By Don Lawrence
Living in northern Ontario in the mid-1960s, there was no Internet and only a handful of TV channels. In the evenings we went to bed with our transistor radio which, on a clear night, could pick up stations from as far away as Buffalo. That was cool until one day I received a letter from over 6,400 kilometres away – a boy from Holland wanted to be pen pals. That was super cool.
Although this letter was from someone I didn’t know in a place I hadn’t heard of, it wasn’t exactly random. The boy had in fact met my dad before I was born. During the winter of 1944-45, my dad was among the Canadian soldiers who liberated the city of Nijmegen in Holland.
During this time, men rotated out of the line and were billeted with local civilians. My dad was assigned a room in a house on Hermelijnstraat in Nijmegen along with three other soldiers. Their M4 Sherman tank was parked out front. While there, the soldiers helped celebrate the birth of the Van der Veen family’s new baby son, who years later at the request of his mother to practice his written English, became my pen pal.
As the young soldiers returned to Canada, the baby boom began, of which I was one. My dad spoke little about the war but when he did, he had fond memories of his Dutch hosts. When the boy’s letter arrived, I welcomed it with awe and curiosity, especially when little drawings were included. We wrote for many years but our letters gradually tapered off.
Until this summer, which was 55 years later.
In May, I began making plans with my daughter to visit Holland for an art and war tour. I wondered if my pen pal still lived there. Through a quick Google search I tracked down his contact information. It turns out he had a successful career as an illustrator and painter, now calling himself Fiel. I sent him a message but wondered if he would even remember me after so much time had passed.
He responded: “What a nice surprise Don, after 50+ years, it would be nice to meet.” And so we did in August. We first had dinner in Amsterdam, visited art galleries in his hometown of Haarlem, and went to Nijmegen to visit his childhood home, the same one where my dad stayed during the war.
Andree, who was currently living in the house, agreed to let us visit as he was also curious about the house’s history. Fiel led a tour of the house, which was mostly the same as in 1945. Though only a baby at the time, he recalled stories of the war told by his parents and older siblings.
Andree’s son, who was about the same age as I was when my pen pal friendship began, learned that his bedroom was where the four soldiers had been quartered. There were 10 people living in the house then: Fiel’s dad and mom, who was pregnant with him, his two sisters and a brother, the maid and the four soldiers.
Fiel’s mother felt sorry for those young soldiers, but also for their mothers and fathers who didn’t know how their boys were faring in a war far away. She persuaded them to write every week to their families. One of the soldiers was my dad, George Lawrence, who would continue corresponding with the Dutch hosts for years after the war.
After our visit, Fiel wrote this to me: “When I was 12 or 13 years old, my mother suggested I could write to the son of George Lawrence. So, I wrote in my best English a letter to Donald Lawrence. He answered within a short time and the correspondence kept going through our teenage years, but as I got older and started a career our interests and writing faded away in the mist of time.
“Meeting Don 55 years later was quite the delightful surprise for me and became an emotional excursion.” As we went our separate ways after dinner in Nijmegen, Fiel’s departing words had been: “We should write.” I agreed. And so, our pen pal connection starts again.