Heather Killen email@example.com
Published on October 30, 2015
MIDDLETON - Growing up near the Bay of Fundy, Mona Parsons probably realized a rising tide would raise all boats.
Parsons, who was born in Middleton and later became a resident of Wolfville, is an unlikely - and mostly forgotten - war hero. If leading men into battle and confirmed kills are marks of heroes, Parsons is best remembered as a creature of peace. Parsons’ courage is marked in the gestures of compassion and hope that lifted others.
Wendy Elliott, a member of the Women of Wolfville, is among those determined to save Parsons from becoming forgotten by history.“Both my father and aunt knew her; it was a given that I would help,” she said. “There are so many stories about Mona - people still remember her.”Little known locally until recently, little was recorded about Parsons’ wartime efforts. When author Andria Hill-Lehr first became intrigued by the story, there wasn’t much to go on.
For nearly 20 years, she has been trying to rescue Parsons from the obscurity of time and the terse and banal description on her tombstone:“Mona Parsons, 1901-1976, wife of Major General HW Foster, CBE, DSO.”
Parsons was born in Middleton in 1901. Her father, Norval Parsons, owned a hardware business on the spot where the town’s Pharmasave now sits.As a child, she attended the Macdonald School and the Baptist church. In 1911, her father’s hardware business burned and the family moved to Wolfville. Her teenage years were lively and full of social activities. Blessed with a lovely voice and natural grace, she enrolled at the Conservatory of Music and Fine Arts, where she developed a flair for drama and theatre.“Mona firmly believed that not only should a woman be able to move with confidence, grace, and ease, but that she should also learn to express herself well,” wrote Hill-Lehr.
Parsons freely shared her knowledge and talent, whether it was teaching the basic steps of popular dances or the best-kept secrets from her favourite recipes.
After graduating from Acadia Ladies’ Seminary, Parsons headed off to New York, where she earned a spot as one of the Ziegfeld Follies. A few years later, she was introduced to Willem Leonhardt, the Dutch millionaire she would later marry. The couple moved to Holland and, for two years, enjoyed a jet-set lifestyle of parties, vacations and luxury.
On her second wedding anniversary, the Germans invaded Poland and Parsons wrote a letter to her father, who was still living in Nova Scotia. “Billy (Willem) is still ill—poor thing—and we are most unhappy over the world news. Of course, I don’t go to Canada now. My place is here.”
She had other opportunities to escape wartime Europe: her husband had arranged her safe passage back to Canada, but she refused. While they made no obvious moves against the Nazis, Parsons and her husband quietly joined the Dutch Resistance, helping allied airmen evade capture in a secret closet hiding spot behind Parsons’ shoes.
The soldiers who evaded capture told stories of midnight escapes, driven in the couple's luxury cars, through near misses at countless checkpoints.
The Leonhardts’ social status initially offered some protection, but, ultimately, they were betrayed by the Nazis. Leonhardt made a run for it when he learned the Gestapo was coming, pretending to be away on a fishing trip. Parsons stayed behind, partly to stall the Nazis and hoping to safeguard their home and two dogs.
Parsons was taken into custody and sentenced to death, but her dignity in facing the tribunal curried favour and her life was spared. She was sentenced to life in a labour camp. For four years, she lived in squalor, disease and hunger, sleeping alongside murderers. Some prisoners recount Parsons’ kindness: how she gave them scraps of food or clothes and entertained them with fantastic recipe ideas that she cooked up as food for their souls. “To those who do have not food enough, such descriptions were almost enough to fill the stomach — and reminded us that we had something to look forward to when we regained our freedom,” recalled fellow prisoner Wendelien van Boetzelaer in the book.
While working in a bomb factory, Parsons deliberately miswired weapons. When she finally escaped the prison camp with van Boetzelaer, the daring move was straight out of a Hollywood movie.
Unfortunately, Parsons’ last years in Wolfville were not so sunny. Left penniless after Leonhardt's death and later widowed from her second husband, her health began to decline. Suffering from emphysema, post-traumatic stress and other ill effects of the war, she gradually became bedridden and increasingly isolated. She had safeguarded many treasures from her Holland home — opera glasses, couturier dresses, a mink stole, fine silver, and crystal – but never completely erased the scars of the war. Her hands were gnarled from hard labour and a watermark stained the top of her rare piano. The muddy rings marked the spots where the German officers carelessly left their glasses when they occupied her home.
While both U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower and RAF Air Chief Marshal Lord Arthur Tedder recognized Parsons for wartime bravery, local efforts to memorialize the woman have fallen short.
When she returned home to the Annapolis Valley years later, it seems Parsons' larger than life personality was somewhat out of place in a small town. Some remember an elegantly dressed, gracious, frail lady; others recall an over-the-top, older woman with funny hands and crazy stories of being with the Dutch Resistance.“They told me, she drank,” confides Hill-Lehr in a stage whisper that Parsons would have appreciated.Elliott’s father, Robbins Elliott, was instrumental in helping Hill-Lehr unearth the finer details of Parsons' life for her biography, Mona Parsons: From privilege to prison, from Nova Scotia to Nazi Europe.
Women of Wolfville have been working on Parsons’ behalf to officially recognize her with a memorial statue celebrating her spirit and wartime heroism. The group is fundraising to purchase a larger-than-life memorial created by artist Nils Prem de Boer and wants to have the piece installed in the town square. “We’ve raised about half of what we need,” said Elliott. “This has taken a lot longer than we expected. Dead heroines don't seem to inspire donations.”Hannah Rose, of Middleton, has been hooked on Mona’s story ever since she picked up Hill-Lehr’s book. She wants to start a similar group in Middleton to commemorate Parsons in her first hometown. “We’ve all walked in her steps,” she said. “I can imagine her going from her house along Main Street and across Commercial Street to the Macdonald School. She may have grown up in Wolfville, but she belongs to us, too. We are the beginning of this free spirit.”
Hill-Lehr’s book, Mona Parsons: From Privilege to Prison, from Nova Scotia to Nazi Europe is available at Nimbus.