Celebrating the wartime heroism of Nova Scotian Mona Parsons

Article / October 22, 2020 / Project number: 20-0132

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By Moira Farr, Army Public Affairs

Ottawa, Ontario — During Women’s History Month, we remember the accomplishments of women in wartime, including the extraordinary Mona Parsons.

She distinguished herself during the Second World War as part of the Dutch resistance against the Nazis, survived years as a prisoner of war in Germany, and eventually returned to Nova Scotia, her courageous actions largely forgotten or unknown until many years after her death.

Parsons was a colourful, independent spirit from an early age. The daughter of Colonel Norval Parsons, himself recognized for his distinguished service during the First World War as commanding officer of the 85th Battalion, she grew up in Wolfville, Nova Scotia. 

Aspirations to be an actress led her to study and teach drama, and to eventually work as a chorus girl with the Ziegfeld Follies in the 1920s. After her mother’s death, she decided to pursue nursing, and worked in New York City until she met Willem Leonhardt, a wealthy Dutch businessman. They married in 1937 and settled outside Amsterdam at an estate known as Ingleside.

When Germany occupied Holland in 1940, Parsons and her husband decided they had to take action to help Allied Forces. They harboured airmen in their large, secluded home, and helped them out of the country. Eventually, the SS [The Schutzstaffel] became suspicious, paid a visit to the house, and saw through Mona’s efforts to convince them that she was simply a wealthy businessman’s wife with nothing to hide. She and Willem were both arrested and imprisoned in 1941. They would be sent to various German prisons over the next four years, never knowing if the other was alive or dead. Neither would be released until shortly before the war ended in 1945.

Parsons was the only Canadian woman to be imprisoned by the Nazis, and among a small few found guilty and sentenced to death by a German tribunal in the Netherlands. “How a cultured woman known in the best Amsterdam social circles came to be a filthy, shoeless refugee suffering from septicemia and found on a road near Vlagtwedde was the question for which many wanted an answer,” writes Andria Hill, author of Mona Parsons: From Privilege to Prison, from Nova Scotia to Nazi Europe. In her 2017 article, “Remembering Mona Parsons,” in Canada’s History magazine, Hill notes that years of torture and deprivation in German prisons took a terrible toll on Parsons, but she exhibited courage and resourcefulness throughout the ordeal.

Reunited finally with her husband at Ingleside after the war, she received commendations for bravery from General Eisenhower, commander of the Allied Expeditionary Forces, and Air Chief Marshall Tedder of the Royal Air Force, for her Resistance activities.

Parsons nursed her husband, whose health had been severely damaged by his time in German captivity, until his death in 1956. A year later, she returned to Canada, remarried, and re-settled in her childhood home of Wolfville until her death in 1976.

Writes Hill, “When she told young people stories of her life in German prison camps, they were inclined to think of her as a cultured, refined, but rather senile old dear. After all, what Canadian civilian — and a woman no less — had endured Nazi prison camps?”

That would be Mona Parsons, whose brave and remarkable life was not fully appreciated until many years after her death. Her story is now part of Canadian history curricula. A statue, “The joy is almost too much to bear,” designed by Dutch Canadian artist Nistal Prem de Boer, was unveiled in Wolfville in 2017. Her war experience became the subject of a Heritage Minute in 2005.

For more details of her fascinating story, go to Project44.ca, “The Defiance of Mona Parsons”

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