Thursday, February 22, 2024

Mona Parsons: The Hero that Few People Know About

Mona Parsons

We Canadians are a modest bunch, much given to self-deprecation.  We do not celebrate our heroes enough, particularly our female heroes.  That is why I have chosen to write about a woman who was a hero in every sense of the word.  To be honest, I had never heard of Mona Parsons until I saw her image on a Canadian postage stamp recently.  I don't remember her ever being mentioned in any of my studies at school.  Mona's story is largely unknown in her own country, despite the fact that she was the only Canadian non-military woman to be imprisoned by the German army during World War II.

Mona Louise Parsons was born in Middleton, Nova Scotia on February 17, 1901, the youngest (and only daughter) of the three children born to Colonel Norval Parsons, and his wife, Mary.  When Mona was ten years old, the family moved to Wolfville, Nova Scotia. a move precipitated by the loss of her father's business in a fire.  Mona's father, a commanding officer during World War I, eventually became a successful businessman.  He owned and operated Parsons and Elliott Home Furnishing, located on Commercial Street in Wolfville.

While in her teens, Mona enrolled in the Acadia Ladies' Wolfville, where she excelled in artistic pursuits.  After graduating in 1920, Mona attended the prestigious Currie School of Expression in Boston, after which she taught elocution for two the Conway Central College in Conway, Arkansas.  She then returned to Wolfville, where she attended Acadia University and involved herself in campus drama activities.  

As an aspiring actress, Mona Parson's dream was to become a star on Broadway.  In the 1920s, she moved to New York City and appeared as a chorus girl in the Ziegfeld Follies.  However, she was unable land the kind of dramatic roles she coveted, and her stage career failed to gain traction.  In 1927, when her mother become ill, Mona went home too Nova Scotia to tend to her.

After her mother's death in 1930, Mona returned to New York City to study nursing  After graduation, she secured a position as a private nurse in the Park Avenue offices of a specialist from Nova Scotia.  Mona was an independent career woman in the Big Apple during the Great Depression, but by the late 1930s, her life would take a dramatic turn.  

In 1937, Mona's brother Ross introduced her to a debonair business associate named Willem Leonhardt.  Willem was a wealthy Dutch entrepreneur based in Amsterdam.  He and Mona were married on September 1, 1937, after a five-month romance.  In 1938, the couple built a sprawling estate in Laren, about a half hour drive from Amsterdam.  They called their estate "Ingleside." and they lived a quiet and privileged life there until May of 1940, when the Nazis invaded the Netherlands  

Since September of 1939, when Britain declared war on Germany, Willem had been been greatly concerned about Mona's status as a Canadian citizen and a British subject.  He felt she would be more vulnerable than he, should the Netherlands come under Nazi rule.  However, in the spring of 1940, when the Germans occupied Holland, a defiant Willem staunchly refused to leave his home  He and Mona decided to just go on with their lives.

Willem and Mona joined the Dutch Resistance.  Their private estate, with its long driveway and extensive grounds. became an ideal hiding place for Allied airmen being smuggled out of the Netherlands.  Mona and her husband built a secret apartment in the attic of their home where they could safely harbour British airmen who had survived being shot down over Holland.  Unfortunately, a Nazi informer betrayed them to the Gestapo in 1941.  Willem went underground, assuming that the Nazis would leave Mona alone because she was a woman.  He was wrong.  Within days, Mona was captured and jailed.  On September 29, 1941, she was sent to Weteringchans Prison in Amsterdam.

On December 22, 1941, Mon Parsons was found guilty of treason by a Nazi tribunal in Amsterdam.  She was sentenced to death by firing squad.  Yet, despite the harsh sentence, Mona did not sob and plead for mercy,  As she started to leave the courtroom, the judge congratulated her on her composure.  He was so impressed by her dignified manner, that he suggested that she appeal her sentence and that he would recommend it.  In 1942, Mona's sentence was commuted to life in prison with hard labour.  She worked on an assembly line where she often became ill and lost a great deal of weight.

In February of 1945, Mona was sent to Vechta Prison, a former reform school, where she was put to work peeling potatoes, knitting socks and repairing uniforms.  She was locked in a tiny cell with four other inmates who slept on a bed of straw.

It was at Vechta that Mona met 22-year-old Baroness Wendellien van Boetzelaer, whom she would later describe as her "companion and guardian angel in a memorable flight for freedom."  The two women plotted s daring escape plan, and they were faced with a sudden opportunity to put it into action.  On March 24, 1945, Vechta was bombed by the Allies.  The men's prison took a direct hit and none of the occupants survived.  Meanwhile, the women were taken outside.  The warden, who was the former principal of the school, allowed them to choose between Allied bombs and German bullets.  

Mona and van Boetzelaer made a run for it through the open gates.  For three weeks, the two women walked 125 kilometres (almost 78 miles) through Germany before becoming separated at the Dutch border.  The pair posed as refugees from Dusseldorf, with 44-year-old Mona using her acting skills as she played the role of  Wendellien's mentally challenged aunt.  Wendellien spoke German fluently, but Mona feigned a speech impediment to conceal her accented German

In the final months of the war in Europe, an emaciated Mona meandered about Nazi Germany ss a fugitive.  With the assistance of a Dutch farmer, Mona eventually reached the safety of a Canadian battalion from her home province - the North Nova Scotia Highlanders.  She was provided with food and medical the Canadian Army Rear Headquarters in Oldenburg, Germany.  By the end of May, 1945, Mona was able to return to her home in the Netherlands by way of the Canadian General Hospital in the Dutch port city of Nijmegen.

About a month after her return to Laren, Mona was reunited with her husband, who had been liberated from a Nazi prison camp by the Americans.  Willem, however, never completely recovered from his imprisonment.  His health had greatly deteriorated and he had become a semi-invalid.  Mona nursed him until his death in 1956.

Following Willem's death, Mona learned that he had kept a mistress and that he had fathered a son, of whom she had not been aware.  One quarter of his estate was left to his mistress, and the rest to his biological son.  A legal battle ensued, which Mona lost.  She was left with no inheritance from her late husband.

In 1957, Mona returned to Canada and took up residence in Halifax.  Back in Nova Scotia, she became reacquainted with Major-General Harry Foster, a childhood friend from Wolfville who was widowed and had retired from the military.  They wed in 1959 and lived in Lobster Point, Chester, Nova Scotia until Henry passed away from cancer in 1964.  After her husband's death, Mona moved back to Wolfville, the community where she was raised.  Mona remained in Wolfville until her own passing on November 28, 1976.

Mona Parsons was 75 years old at the time of her death.  She had suffered from pneumonia and had been plagued by nightmares. When she died, the childless widow's possessions were auctioned off.  Mona's incredible story was virtually ignored until 2000 when Andria Hill-Lehr wrote her biography, Mona Parsons: From Privilege to Prison, from Nova Scotia to Nazi Europe.

On November 13, 2023, Canada Post unveiled a Remembrance Day postage stamp of a young Mona with a photograph of infantry soldiers of the North Nova Scotia Highlanders entering the Netherlands in the background.  The stamp was designed by Larry Burke and Anna Stredulinsky of Halifax's marketing boutique, Burke & Burke.

Mona's amazing story should be heard in schools, colleges and universities in Canada and around the world. It is a story of unwavering bravery and bold determination.  It is heartening that she is finally getting some recognition.


* A few months after the war ended in Europe, Mona Parsons received commendations from British Air Chief Marshall Lord Tedder of the Royal Air Force and General Dwight D. Eisenhower, commander of the Allied Expeditionary Forces.  The citations was given in gratitude for assisting Allied airmen in evading capture by the Nazis.

* In 2005, Historica Canada released a Heritage Minute, one of a series of 60-second public service vignettes focused on Canadian history.  The Heritage Minute about Mona depicted her arrest and eventual escape.

* A bronze stature was erected in downtown Wolfville in Mona's honour.  It is titled The joy is almost too much to bear.  It depicts Mona celebrating her and the Netherlands' liberation on May 5, 1945.  The sculpture was unveiled on the grounds of the Wolfville Post Office on May 5, 2017.

SOURCES:  The Canadian Encyclopedia; Canadian History magazine, "Remembering Mona Parsons," by Andria Hill, March 14, 2017; Historic Nova Scotia (, "Mona Parsons (1901-1976)," by Andria Hill-Lehr with research support from the Wolfville Historical Society, Wikipedia

- Joanne

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