June 20, 1930 – December 11, 2021
Dad was born on 20 June 1930, and raised in the village of Tjerkwerd, in Friesland, The Netherlands. It was the Depression and life was hard; it was about to get even harder when the Second World War began, and The Netherlands was occupied.
Between going to school and milking cows, Dad was kept busy helping his father with resistance work during the war: finding hiding places for Jewish citizens, moving caches of weapons and gasoline, passing on contraband leaflets, hiding forbidden radios and forged ration cards. Owing to his tall, blond, athletic physique, Dad was offered membership in the Dutch Hitler Youth, something he pretended not to understand. Looking blankly at the recruiter, he’d shake his head trying to look as simple and backward as possible. The recruiter finally gave up in frustration. In reality, Dad was often tasked by his father to ferry important documents from one resistance household to another. Papers hidden in his shirt, he’d politely wish the German soldiers at bridges and checkpoints a cheerful good day as he was waved through. The consequence of being caught cannot be understated. At war’s end, the family learned that they had been betrayed to the Gestapo. It was only the timely arrival of the Canadian Army that saved them from an awful fate.
After six long years of war, Dad chose to come to Canada, looking for greater opportunities and a more prosperous future. He was joined soon after by our mother, Greta, who supported his gregarious, adventurous nature, and with whom he raised a family through many transitions. To make ends meet, he worked three jobs, pumping gas, fixing cars, and delivering milk. He kept a bowtie in his back pocket so that he could work evening shifts at the Dominion grocery store, and as often as possible, tried to pick up hours working as a stevedore at the docks in Halifax. Dad’s letter home to his brother, George, in Friesland, is on display at the Canadian Museum of Immigration, Pier 21, Halifax, Nova Scotia. It reads “George, Canada is a land of milk and honey, but you have to find your own cows and bees.”
In 1958, he joined the Canadian Army. He served with the Canadian Provost Corps initially, and then transferred to the RCEME (Royal Canadian Electrical and Mechanical Engineers) as a Vehicle Technician, which he was especially proud of. There wasn’t a vehicle Dad couldn’t drive or repair, including a 1961 Ford Taurus M engine, which he tore apart in the backyard of our PMQ. He replaced the camshaft amongst other things, and then put it back together, reinstalled and running like a top. A born traveller, Dad’s military career took him across Canada from the East coast to the West, and overseas to postings in Soest, Germany, AFCENT HQ in Brunssum, The Netherlands and Canadian Forces Base Lahr, Germany.
A pragmatic man, Dad never held wartime experiences against the German people. In fact, he loved his military time in Germany, making friends wherever he went. Dad’s perfection of the German language was so good that he was sometimes used as a translator by the Canadian Forces. On one occasion, he was asked to translate at a Canadian military vehicle course at Mercedes Benz when their own translator fell ill. So much for the blank stare!
Dad was a member of the ICCS (International Commission of Control and Supervision) created in January, 1973 following the signing of the Paris Peace Accord. Deployed to South Vietnam in January 1973, with 339 other Canadians, he loved recounting his adventures, muzzle flashes directed at the helicopter he was hanging out of over the Vietnamese jungle. Our Mom was never happier when he returned home six months later.
Dad’s last posting was to Comox, where he and Mom were finally able to settle down into their own home, a Bavarian-style split level, something he was incredibly proud of. He was also very proud of his Dutch heritage, and he instilled in his kids the value and importance of hard work. In his later years, he reflected on his many adventures, his glory days and many close calls with danger; but he recognized how important family was throughout, particularly the love and support of our mother: “She was my life”.
We are going to miss our Dad and all his wonderful stories. Here’s to you, Dad, and may the next big adventure be the best one of all.
Dad died on 11 December 2021. He is predeceased by his wife, Greta, and parents, Sjouke and Anna. Lovingly remembered by two sons, Robert Zwaagstra (Joanna) of Steinbach, Manitoba, and Jeffrey Zwaagstra of Courtenay, British Columbia; two daughters, Wendy Zwaagstra (Christian) of Vancouver, British Columbia, and Jane Schuell (Gary) of Stirling, Ontario. Also by five grandchildren, Michael (Angela), Mark (Bronwen), Christine (Matthew), Keveren and Kyle; and seven great grandchildren, Andrew, James, Morgan, Alan, Penny, Chase and Cooper. And by two brothers, George (Geraldine) of Halifax, Nova Scotia, and Jerry (Colleen) of Bethlehem, New Hampshire.
We would like to express our thanks and gratitude to Dr Asmaa Abdulkader; all the Home Support Workers at VIHA; the Nursing staff at North Island Hospital, including the OT, Rehab and Physio staff; Angela at Comox Valley Hospice; April, Hospital Liaison Nurse; Yurii, Dad’s footcare nurse; the Royal Canadian Legion, Branch 160; and the staff at Quality Foods, Comox, especially Linda; as well as Dad’s friends and neighbours, Susan, Brian, Liz, Sara and Cole. Your kindness, care and compassion are most appreciated.
Donations to the Food Bank would be appreciated in lieu of flowers.
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