The Brass Pitcher: A Story Lost and Found

Nobody remembered the fascinating history of a humble brass pitcher owned by this Canadian family, until Brenda Blair of Calgary discovered that it was once a prized souvenir of Holland’s liberation by the Canadians.

This guest post is by Brenda Blair of Calgary.

                                                By Brenda Blair

Growing up, I knew I had Dutch roots. I had an Opa and Oma instead of a grandfather and grandmother. I liked my black licorice salty, not sweet. We rang in the New Year with oliebollen dusted in icing sugar, not champagne. I drew the line on pickled herring!

My parents and their families emigrated from Holland (Netherlands, if you are a local) to Canada in the 1950s. My Dad was born at the beginning of World War Two, and my mom was born a year after the end of World War Two.  They were eleven years and four years, respectively, when they came to Canada.

My father was from Brielle, not far from Rotterdam; and my mother grew up in the small city of Assen, in northeast Holland. Here’s a photo of Assen today.

Neither one of them knew or experienced much of what happened during the war, when Holland was occupied by the Nazis for five years. The Nazis ruled with force and terror. Stories about the war were not commonplace in our family. In fact, the war was not talked about at all.

But my father-in-law, after retiring, decided to take up family genealogy as a hobby. After asking me questions about my family that I was embarrassed that I could not answer, I asked my maternal grandmother, Oma Meyer.

As she began to describe my ancestors, she slipped into memories of the war – her fiancé (my grandfather) being shipped off to Germany to work in a labour camp, the scarcity of food, and the Nazis thinking she was Jewish because of her dark eyes and hair. I told myself that one day I would write her stories, but the years quickly slipped by and my Oma Meyer passed away in 1995.

Then, through lunch with a colleague, I had the opportunity to work on a project on the liberation of Holland by Canadians in the Second World War.

One of the objectives was to engage the Dutch community by gathering stories and artifacts. Naturally I turned to my own family first. Both sets of my grandparents had long been gone, so I started with my parents. I asked if they had anything that my grandparents had brought with them from Holland.

My mother said that there was a brass pitcher and a cigarette holder from her side of the family.  I was familiar with brass objects in Dutch homes. They came in the form of decorative plates with 3D images, tea pots, curio boxes and plant holders. They also came with hours of polishing to have them shiny for when company came over – a chore I was very much familiar with!

The cigarette holder was round, with a miniature diamond design punched in the outer casing, and ornamental silver on the top of it. The pitcher was less intricate and even a little crude in design. The photo at the top shows both the brass pitcher and the cigarette holder.

As I examined the dulled exterior of the pitcher, the misshapen handle and mouth, I felt slightly disappointed that neither of these items would be of any significance for the project -- until I turned the pitcher upside down and saw the bottom. Stamped there was 75mm, Lot C.B. & C. CO., 1943.

I almost dropped it! I had done enough research by this point to know that the pitcher was made out of a shell casing!

A shell casing is the container that holds the explosive shell, and when the shell is fired from a weapon, the discarded casing falls to the ground. When I asked my Mom, she had no idea where it came from, just that it was something her mother had brought from Holland. She suggested I contact her Dutch cousins to see if they could help.

My maternal grandmother came from a family of six children: two boys and four girls. My grandmother`s youngest sister, Tante (Aunt) Jannie, at the age of 95, is still alive. She knew the story.

Over the miles and translated from Dutch to English, an account of what the liberation of Assen looked like for my mother’s family was pieced together.

This is what she remembers:

The Canadians were coming! All through Holland in the spring of 1945, the citizens were abuzz with the news that the Allied Forces were on their way. Similar news reached the Nazis as well. In Assen, on April 13, 1945, my family knew something was up when they saw the enemy forces setting up dynamite on the Groninger bridge near their home, shown in this photo.

It was quickly decided that the safest course of action would be to take shelter in the basement of their home. There were other families in the same building, and in order to make room in the tiny space, the stairs were removed.

For many hours they heard shooting, and through the small window they saw soldiers’ boots running back and forth.

Then they heard something they had not experienced before – tanks! 

The fighting grew more intense, and so did the noise. They sang hymns to drown out the terrible sounds. A young child from one of the other families that had developmental disabilities laughed as the volume of the fighting increased around them. A space that was already full seemed even smaller with the additional racket outside.

Then silence.

My great-grandfather, Jan Pilot, climbed out of the basement and opened the front door. There, in front of him, eye to eye, were Canadians!!

The Canadians had been successful in driving back the Germans and reclaiming the city. The Sherman tanks that my family heard belonged to the Canadian Fort Garry Horse armoured regiment, shown here.

The Canadians handed out cigarettes, chocolate and white bread that, according to Tante Jannie, tasted like cake to them.

My great-grandmother Romina Pilot, who was not too far behind Jan, wanted to show her gratitude by giving the Canadians some cheese that Jan made in his role as cheesemaker at the local milk factory.

In her euphoria of being liberated, she forgot that the stairs to the basement had been removed and she fell and was badly hurt!

Once Romina’s injuries had been attended to, it was time to see what other damage had been done. The Groninger bridge was still there, and this had allowed the tanks to come through to secure victory in Assen.

The home where the family took refuge is the two-storey white building shown at the left in this 1947 photo. Standing in front is my grandmother's sister Dirkje.

And here is the same house today, having survived at least one world war.

The other obvious impact of the fighting was the number of discarded brass shell casings strewn everywhere – in the street, on front porches and in back gardens.

Jan grabbed a casing and took it to the metalsmith down the road, where it was turned into a vase in the shape of a pitcher.

Every Sunday in the home of my great-grandparents, this held flowers to honor the Canadians who liberated them, and to remember the Canadians who lost their lives in the strife.

Following the war, my grandmother Baukje Meyer (Jan and Romina’s daughter) with her husband (Albertus Meyer) and two small girls (Hilda and Romina) decided to come to Canada to start a new life. Somehow it was decided that Baukje was to take the brass pitcher with her.

The Pilot family is shown in this photo dated November 25, 1931. The three small children in the front are Jannie (who remembered the story of the pitcher), Dirkje, and Bram. Seated at the left is their mother Romina. Standing left to right are Dieuwke, Eelke, and Baukje (who later became my grandmother). Their father Jan is seated at the right.

I remember the pitcher being in my grandparents’ home, but I don’t remember flowers in it. Nor did my mother. In two generations, the significance of the pitcher was not merely forgotten, but almost lost.

Now it sits as part of the exhibit: The Maple Leaf and The Tulip – The Liberation of Holland in the Second World War at The Military Museums in Calgary.

After many decades of silence, the pitcher is once again a reminder of what many brave Canadians did for the Dutch people.

While in Holland, I took my family to some of the War Cemeteries. In particular, I took them to Holten because I knew that some of the Canadians that had died in the Liberation of Assen would be in that cemetery. 

I walked around the cemetery with my children and pointed out the names of the soldiers that died on April 13, 1945 – the day Assen was liberated and my great-grandparents and grandparents were free at last! I wanted my children to know at what cost freedom comes.

Here’s a photo of Alyssa and Steven Blair at the Holten Cemetery.

Thank you, Brenda, for this inspiring memory and photos of your family treasure. Brenda shared another family story a few weeks ago. To read it, click here and scroll to the bottom of the page: How Adolph Hitler Saved My Grandfather.

And for those of you who live in the Calgary area, the exhibit at the Military Museums in Calgary runs until August 16, 2015 and is well worth a visit.

                     About the Author

Brenda and her husband have their own business, Cafewall Solutions Inc. in Calgary, Alberta. Brenda works with various organizations to improve their operations and manage events. She has been involved with aviation, non-profits, museums and educational institutions. In her spare time she dabbles in writing about her own personal history.

                                                         * * * * *

                      The Little Coat

                                              By Elinor Florence

Here's another story called The Little Coat that connects Calgary, the Fort Garry Regiment, and the Netherlands. My brother Rob Florence drew it to my attention after reading a book by the same title.

(He still farms the wartime airfield purchased by my father after the war near North Battleford, Saskatchewan. You can read more by clicking: Growing Up With Air Force Ghosts.)

Canadian soldier Bob Elliott enlisted in the Second World War in Calgary when he was fifteen years old -- after telling them he was twenty.

Bob became a tank commander and was fighting the Nazis in the Netherlands, near Alphen en Maas, when he met 10-year-old Sussie Cretier.

Her real name was Everdina, but her younger brother called her Sussie – which means 'sister' in Dutch – and the nickname stuck.

Her father, Willem, was a mechanic involved in the Dutch Resistance and had been passing information to the Allies. Unfortunately, the Germans discovered him in the winter of 1944. Sussie and her brothers didn’t understand their father’s role in the war, but they were old enough to recognize the fear on their mother’s face as they watched the Germans hunt for their father.

Her family was also hiding a young Jewish girl, which put their family in even more danger. They had to flee or risk being executed. The family fortunately escaped to Alphen, with only the clothes on their backs.

Sussie’s family was protected by the Canadian soldiers. Sussie was a feisty little character and she quickly became an adopted little sister and a good-luck charm for the soldiers of the Fort Garry Horse regiment.

They gave her a beret covered with their regimental badges, and also sewed military stripes on the sleeves of a ragged old coat. Bob and his fellow soldiers found her presence (along with her singing and laughter) a welcome antodote to the difficult realities they faced.

They decided to give her a Christmas gift. Sussie had a threadbare winter coat, so they took a woollen Canadian Army blanket and asked a seamstress in that Dutch village to make the blanket into a coat for Sussie. The soldiers took buttons from their own tunics for the seamstress to use on Sussie's coat.

Bob Elliott, who was already Sussie's hero as the leader of this particular troop, presented the gift to Sussie on Christmas Day 1944.

That coat was the most precious gift she had ever received. Here’s a photo of Sussie in her little coat.

The war ended, and Bob returned to Canada while Sussie carried on with her life in the Netherlands. Almost thirty years passed.

Then, in 1981, Bob travelled to the Netherlands to visit several Dutch families he had met during the war, including Sussie's parents. Bob and Sussie reconnected as adults, and fell in love!

She still had her little coat. She brought it with her to Canada and married Bob. This photo shows them in the 1980s with the precious little coat.

The Elliotts lived in Hamilton, Ontario for many years, then moved to Edmonton, Alberta where they lived for another twenty years before moving to the Netherlands permanently so Sue could be close to her ailing mother. 

While in Canada, Sue became a member of the Royal Canadian Legion and, alongside Bob, participated in numerous Remembrance Day ceremonies.

Every year on VE Day in Holland, Bob and Sue would don their uniforms and honour those who had sacrificed so much for the freedom of others. This photo was taken in the Netherlands in 2009.

 

Before they left Canada, Bob and Sue donated their special coat to the Royal Canadian Legion branch in Olds, Alberta, where Bob lived as a child. The Legion put the coat in a case and hung it on the wall with other war memorabilia.

Alan Buick, a carpenter and singer/songwriter living in Pense, Saskatchewan, was performing one night at the Olds Legion when he started asking questions about the coat. He was delighted to learn that not only were the two people behind the coat alive, but they were married and available to be interviewed!

He wrote a book about this wonderful couple titled The Little Coat: The Bob and Sue Elliott Story.

This was published by DriverWorks Ink in Regina, Saskatchewan, and can be purchased here for $19.95 by clicking: The Little Coat

The little coat itself now hangs in the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa.

                                                       * * * * *

               STAR WEEKLY AT WAR

The Star Weekly was a Canadian newsmagazine published by the Toronto Star. During the Second World War, a colour illustration with a wartime theme appeared on the cover each week. Here’s an image showing a Canadian tank in England. To see my entire collection of Star Weekly covers, and I'm adding a new one almost every week, click: Star Weekly At War.

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During my research into Canada’s wartime past, I uncovered some fascinating facts and anecdotes. I’ll share them here and welcome feedback and stories of your own.

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