When Mona's brother, Ross and his wife, Mary visited Holland in the early 1950s, they were shocked by the change in Willem, whom they reported did not come downstairs for breakfast and, when he rose later in the morning, would begin to drink. Even Mona wrote that Willem seemed to be "sadistic", though she gave no details. Evidence of problems within their marriage can be found in a small notebook that was still among Mona's possessions when she died in 1976. On December 31, 1953 she wrote "New Years' Eve 'thuis - alleen 9" ("home alone"); and the following day: "Jan 1/54 'thuis alleen 9".
In April 1956 Willem became gravely ill and was hospitalized in Amsterdam, where he died. In the days following Willem's funeral, Mona would be devastated to learn that, as early as June 30, 1950, Willem had changed a life insurance policy for 50,000 guilders from the name of his former wife, Marion Manus, to that of Pam Houtappel, wife of his best friend, Piet Houtappel. Further, on March 26, 1954, Willem had visited his notary - a Mr. de Lange - and changed his will, stipulating that 300,000 guilders (one-quarter of his estate) be given to Pam Houtappel-Kuynder.
While Mona was reeling from these blows, she was informed that Willem's son from his first marriage was legitimate. His name was Bernard Willem Leonhardt, and under Dutch law was entitled to three-quarters of his father's estate. That left Mona with nothing other than the things she owned: her clothing, her jewellery, some furniture and shares in Peck & Co., her husband's company.
Mona had clear title to Ingleside - Willem had at least granted her that - but without funds to maintain it, she was forced to sell it. She left Ingleside for the last time on May 5, 1957 - the twelfth anniversary of the end of World War Two in Europe - moving into rooms at the Hotel Jan Tabak in Bussum.
Although Mona hired a lawyer, and resolved to contest the will, she became disillusioned and embittered with Holland. On December 8, 1957 she sailed back to Halifax, taking up residence at the Lord Nelson Hotel. She looked for a suitable apartment while she waited for her effects to arrive from Holland. She settled into apartment 6 at 56 Inglis Street, where she found that one of her neighbours was an old friend, Major General Harry Foster. Harry had seen Mona at the Canadian General Hospital in Nijmegen, and a few times after the war, in Holland, while he was served with the Commission for Canadian War Graves in Europe. Harry was retired, and divorced, and the two happily got reacquainted. They married in June 1959. The first few years of their marriage, Harry fully supported Mona's legal battle, and was supportive when finally, in 1961, she lost the battle. Only three years later, she lost Harry to cancer.
On her own again, she continued to live in their house at Lobster Point, near the Chester Golf Club. She sold the house but continued to live in it as a tenant, investing the proceeds so that she had funds for activities in Halifax, and to travel. In March 1966 she decided to return to Europe - the first time since leaving it in 1957. She renewed friendships and laid some old ghosts to rest.
A car accident on icy roads just before Christmas in 1969 caused her to reconsider her living arrangements. Mona was getting older and living in a rural area that didn't offer public transit. She considered moving to Halifax before finally deciding to return to Wolfville. Although she'd not lived there in many years, she'd made many happy memories there. While a prisoner of war, some of the few letters she'd been permitted to write to Willem had mentioned moving back there.
She found an apartment on Main Street in the summer of 1970, within walking distance of shops and the university, where she thought she might take courses. A cinema and offerings by the Acadia Performing Arts Series would provide stimulating entertainment. A few of the older generation knew who she was and what she'd endured during World War Two. To a new, younger generation, however, she seemed to be a likeable, though eccentric old woman who told fantastical stories about being a prisoner of war and escaping from the Germans.
Her health declined significantly over the next few years. She developed emphysema and had a series of small strokes that affected her memory and her ability to speak. Some attributed her unsteadiness and slightly slurred speech to a drinking problem and judged her harshly. On New Year's Eve 1970, she wrote to Wendelien, whom she'd not contacted since her trip to Europe in 1966:
"I have been, and am still 'permanently ill' and it has to do with communication, especially with letter writing. This, my specialist, forbids. I have had 26 'strokes' besides the big one with two blood clots, and what the doctor calls a very serious heart attack. Also emphysema. So you see, I'm really a 'cracked crock'. Two years ago I gave up alcohol (even sherry), coffee, and salt except for on eggs & potato. I gave up all social life, too, and now I'm an awful bore to myself. I even had to give up my dog as I could not look after him properly. My only recreation is very poor 'tele' as I cannot read properly since the strokes and attack."
Shortly after arriving at Vechta, another group of prisoners were brought in, among them a 22-year old Dutch baroness named Wendelien van Boetzelaer. Intrigued why Wendelien was separated from the group and immediately put in solitary confinement, Mona resolved to find out more. While working in the kitchen, she slipped a cooked potato into a secret pocket in her prison apron, and smuggled it to Wendelien in her cell on the top floor of the prison. Had she been caught, the consequences would have been dire. Wendelien recalled years later that when she saw Mona's hand poke through the door, holding a potato, she knew she had a friend.
Although some of the guards were drawn from Nazi ranks, the director of the prison was a civilian who showed as much compassion as she deemed safe. Mona begged her to let Wendelien - housed in a cell in a century-old prison, with no heat, in the middle of winter - to join the rest of the prison population. After several days, Wendelien was permitted to move to the main floor and to take part in exercise in the prison yard. Although permitted to walk only in a circle in one direction and forbidden to talk to one another, Wendelien managed to convey to Mona that she intended to escape, as she had done a few other times. This time, she intended to take Mona with her.
The morning of March 24, 1945 was sunny despite the frosty chill. Although Allied planes had flown overhead over the previous several days and had been chased off with anti-aircraft fire, the skies were quiet as the work details went about their daily chores. Without warning, the skies were suddenly filled with Allied planes. This time, however, they carried deadly payloads. The air was filled with smoke, bursts of anti-aircraft fire and the sound of bombs exploding. For a moment, the female prisoners stood frozen in horrified silence as a bomb struck the men's prison next door, killing all inside. The director of the women's prison scramble to throw open the doors of her prison. Many had realised for some time that the war was close to ending. She decided to let her prisoners take their chances, rather than face certain death inside the prison walls.
Without hesitation, Wendelien grabbed Mona's hand and raced out of the gates, through the smoke, gunfire and bombs, uncertain of exactly where they were heading. They only knew that they had to put some distance between them and the prison, finding safe refuge along the way. They ran towards the airfield, intending to make their way along the periphery towards the forest at the other side. Dropping into pillboxes along the way, they rested there until the smoked cleared enough for Wendelien to cite another pillbox.
Once certain they were free and not followed, the women stopped to consider their next steps. They'd been permitted to have sweaters, which they still wore, and had shoes which, though falling apart would carry them over the frozen countryside for a few kilometres. They removed as much of their garb that marked them as prisoners and buried it in the mud on the roadside.
Wendelien spoke German fluently and proposed that she play the part of Mona's niece. Although Mona also spoke German, they realised they couldn't risk having her speak, as her Canadian accent would give her away. Mona decided that, given her training as an actor, she could convincingly play the part of someone with a cleft palate who was also intellectually challenged. It would be the role of a lifetime.
For the next three weeks, they walked across Germany, even after their shoes gave out and they were forced to walk barefoot. They begged food and lodging at farms along the way, offering their physical labour as payment. They were nearly caught on a couple of occasions, but finally reached the village of Rhede on the Dutch-German border.
They sought shelter through the burgomeister, who wanted to know where they were from. Wendelien said they were refugees from Dusseldorf. When he asked for their identity papers, Wendelien told him they'd been lost in their flight from the city. Satisfied with her story, he gave them new papers and arranged lodging at two separate farms.
Mona felt a bit panicked at the news they would be separated. Continuing her act had been difficult enough, but now she would have to do it without Wendelien's support. The farm Mona was taken to was filthy, home to a poor farmer, his wife, and their six children. Mona had to share the bed of the eldest girl, who was 12 years of age. Believing Mona to be mentally challenged, the children tormented her. She was helpless to resist or discipline them.
During the first few days, Mona could hear artillery fire in the distance, but went about the farm tasks assigned to her. One morning, the artillery fire moved closer until it was all around them. The farmer ordered the family and Mona into the cellar. Mona, who vividly recalled her times in solitary confinement, refused to go. She and the farmer remained on the main floor, watching soldiers scurry through the farmyard, setting up machine gun nests and returning fire as the Allied soldiers moved closer.
At one point there was a lull in the fighting. The farmer took a plate of food to a young soldier near the house. As Mona watched, a huge plume of smoke and dirt engulfed them both as she heard the shell burst. Without waiting for the smoke to clear, she bolted to the cellar with the others. When the fighting moved away and the family emerged from the cellar, the eldest girl bolted outside and began screaming. Her mother and Mona followed, and found the two men - the farmer and the young soldier - dead in the ditch, the young soldier still clutching the sausage the farmer had given him.
Mona helped the farmer's wife carry the farmer's body into the house and lay it on a sofa. Before they could do anything else, panicked neighbours burst through the door with news that the Poles were advancing, urging them to gather what they could and flee into Holland.
Mona helped the farmers wife load onto a cart what they could, and guide it across a marshy patch into Holland.
Mona later wrote that they spent a cold night in a hay mow in a field, amid barking dogs and crying babies. In the morning, a Dutch farmer collected them and took them to his home. Once sure she was back in Holland, Mona dropped her disguise, telling the farmer that she was a Canadian married to a Dutch national, and that she had to find British troops immediately. She had not been able to contact her father through the Red Cross since October 1943, and she could think only of a getting a message to him to let him know she was still alive.
The Dutch farmer and his wife bandaged her badly damaged feet and gave her a pair of wooden clogs to wear. Then they packed her a lunch, and the farmer's brother took her on the back of his bicycle to what he thought were British troops.
Mona couldn't have known of Operation Wehrwolf, a last desperate attempt by the Nazis to slow the Allied approach, encouraging women to befriend Allied soldiers, stealing their food and weapons, and even killing them if they had the chance. So when Mona approached a group of what she thought were British soldiers loading a truck and identified herself, she couldn't understand why their greeting wasn't warmer. The soldiers regarded with suspicion the filthy woman before them. Where once she had worn designer clothes and adorned herself with jewels, her 5' 8" frame now carried only 87 lbs and was draped in rags, her hair matted with dirt. Their suspicion mounted when she told them she was Canadian. One soldier finally asked guardedly where she was from.When she replied that she was from a small town in Nova Scotia's Annapolis Valley - a little town called Wolfville - he swore and nearly dropped the box he was holding.
This is "My name is Clarence Leonard. I'm from Halifax. We are the North Nova Scotia Highlanders ."
Mona was treated for the badly-infected sores on her feet before being removed to Oldenburg - practically where she and Wendelien had started - for further questioning by Intelligence personnel. When a British officer, a Major Bridges, heard that she claimed to be from Wolfville, Nova Scotia, he went in search of a Canadian officer, Captain Vincent White, whom he knew had attended Acadia University. Perhaps he knew of this Mona Parsons. White, with whom Mona had acted in productions at Acadia in 1928, was stunned to learn of her presence in Germany. He told Captain Ralph Shaw, who had family in Wolfville and also knew Mona.
At this point, Mona was being housed in a former labour camp for Polish women. They consulted the surgeon in charge of a nearby clearing station, Captain Kelly McLean, another old friend of Mona's from 1920-21. He arranged for her to be transferred to a residence for Canadian nurses. While at the residence, she met up with Captain Robbins Elliott, whose father back in Wolfville had been the Parsons family physician until the Parsons moved away. Mona wrote to her father, describing Robbins as "a fine looking young man." In turn, Robbins wrote home to his father, telling him the incredible tale of his former patient.
Mona was moved to #12 Canadian General Hospital in Nijmegen because, although she was Canadian, she had Dutch citizenship and was considered a "displace person". As such, she had to go through the process of repatriation before she could be permitted to return to her home in Laren. While at the hospital in Nijmegen, she was given a pen and as much paper as she wanted. She set about writing a 34-page letter to her father and step-mother - her first communication with them since 1943. She wrote the letter over a few days, and the May 3 entry includes the following passage:
…. It's Heaven to be with my own race again. I go to sleep to the lusty singing of 'Sweet Adeline' (which comes from the Canadian soldiers in the tents outside my window) and I awaken to the equally lusty rendering of 'Pack Up Your Troubles'. It does my heart good. The food, I might say, does my stomach good too - but I'll have to be careful if I want to preserve a slender line….
…. The news these past three days is simply thrilling. Perhaps this week will see the finish of this horrible and wicked war. Thank God food is now going into Germany occupied Holland. Conditions there were appalling. All our friends and family have been suffering for they all live in this section. It will be so unbelievably wonderful to get in my own house again. I'm wondering what is left of our things - but that didn't really matter. People often lose their all in these dreadful days and the thing that really matters is that one lives, is healthy and can soon be reunited with one's loved ones….
…. Prison was a hard, nasty, cold, hungry & demoralizing life. We were always associating with criminals. That never should have been. Political prisoners should have been kept apart.
The first year I was ill a lot, weighed only about 94 pounds & was green - night sweats, coughing & diarrhoea every day for 3 ½ months & often vomiting. Tears have run down my cheeks for hunger. When the diarrhoea got better I was given a pint of soup extra - made from turnip & potato peelings - every day for 6 months & my vitamin tablets which I had been allowed to keep with me. There were no medicines to be had. We slept four in a tiny cell built for one. In all the years of imprisonment I slept always on a straw sack on the floor.
I was in solitary once for two weeks, for writing a letter in English. Fortunately no one could read English, otherwise another prisoner might have been involved. I got out of it by saying it was only a little story I was writing to amuse myself. We were not allowed to have pencil or paper. Practically 4 years of isolation. During my first contact with people - after throwing off my half-witted act - I felt only half conscious of all that went on about me. My body was shaky - my brain seemed quite numb - thoroughly incapable of absorbing what was said to me. My head spun. It just seemed too much, all of a sudden. We'd had literally no brain stimulation all these years - we were forbidden to talk during our 12 hour working day - at night too tired to do anything but crawl into bed. Even when we weren't too tired to talk - we'd have little to talk about. We heard no news scarcely. We were not even allowed to have books.
But now all that's finished. Now there's so much to do, to read, to hear, to learn. One wishes every day were 48 hours. I'm feverishly trying to catch up on the overwhelmingly great number of events of these last - to me - quite wasted years. My brain is a veritable whirly-gig. For the last three days I've felt quite rested & normal. The reaction to all I'd been through had given me the jitters & my renewed contact with civilization had disarmed me in a way I had never believed possible. I've got to get used to life again & normal people. It's all very strange.
Then, on when the surrender was signed at the hotel in Wageningen on May 5, 1945, she scribbled this hasty post-script:
Holland has capitulated - thrills & heart-throbs! I can scarcely believe it, & today I'm going to try to arrange to get transport back home. What heaven to be there again. How sweepingly & rapidly everything has gone this week. The joy is almost too much to bear.
A few days later, her friends arranged a day-visit to Laren for her in a staff car. Along for the ride to cover the story for the Toronto Telegram, was Alan Kent, a war correspondent originally from Halifax. Mona was overjoyed to see friends, who were somewhat thinner than they'd been when she'd last seen them, and enjoyed a tearful reunion with her dog, Brick, who survived the war.
Uppermost in Mona's mind was her husband's fate. Several days would go by before her brother-in-law, Georg, confirmed that Willem had been liberated from a camp by American soldiers, and that his services as a translator had been engaged by the American military. It would be July before Mona and Willem would be reunited in Laren.
In the early months following the war's end, Mona received two citations. The first, signed by Air Chief Marshall Lord Arthur Tedder of the Royal Air Force, was on behalf of the British people, thanking her for her role in aiding members of the Allied forces to evade capture. The second was signed by General Dwight Eisenhower, expressing the gratitude of the American people. While certainly proud and honoured to receive them, the citations were yet another reminder of a chapter in Mona's life which she wished to consign to the scrapbook. Life, she had learned, was even more precious than she had imagined. It were as though she had been given a second chance at it, and she was intent on embracing it fully. Both Mona and Willem worked at regaining their health, but Willem struggled. He became withdrawn and sullen, and began to drink heavily, eating little. Even trips to the Bircher-Benner clinic in Switzerland didn't help much, nor did a cruise to New York with friends help his spirits. They visited Nova Scotia in the spring of 1946, and the interview with local papers reported that both were in good health, but that appears to have been a front.Willem suffered a bout of 'pleuritis' in November 1952 and underwent surgery to repair an aneurism in April 1954. Mona tried to encourage Willem to follow the diet they'd been given at the Bircher-Benner Clinic - lots of fruit, vegetables, and yogurt, and very little animal protein - but her efforts were to no avail.
As her health and memory declined, she began to experience nightmares and flashbacks, particularly at night once she was hospitalized in the fall of 1976. She would waken in the night, terrified, believing herself to be a prisoner of war once again. On Sunday, November 28, 1976, Mona Parsons Leonhardt Foster surrendered - probably for the first time in her life.
She is buried in Willowbank Cemetery, in a family plot.
Her epitaph reads:
Mona L. Parsons
1901 - 1976
Wife of Major General Harry Foster
There is no mention of the citations she received for brave service during World War Two. The CBE and DSO belong to her third husband, Harry Foster, who is buried with his first wife in Kentville, about sixteen kilometres away. And although Mona Parsons was recognized by the British and American militaries for her assistance in helping Allied flyers evade enemy capture, she has never been recognized by her own country.