She was a celebrated actress, a nurse, the wife of a millionaire, and also a resistance fighter who fought against the Nazis during the Second World War, proving herself to be capable, brave and someone to be reckoned with. Her name was Mona Parsons and while she is not as well remembered today, she did more in her life than most of us will do in five.
Born on Feb. 17, 1901 in Middleton, Nova scotia to N.H. Parsons and Mary Parsons, the only daughter they would have.
Her family were decently well off considering the time, with her father Norval operating the Parsons and Elliott Home Furnishing business. Her father was the former commanding officer for the 85th Battalion, where he had the rank of Colonel, during the First World War.
She would attend the Acadia Ladies’ Seminary in Wolfville where she earned a certificate in elocution, which is the study of formal speaking.
After her graduation, she attended the Currie School of Expression in Boston, and then came back to Nova Scotia and attended Acadia University where she began acting in local theatre productions. After some time in Arkansas, she would study acting and move to New York City in 1928 so she could become one of the legendary Ziegfeld Chorus Girls in the Ziegfeld Follies. Her career in acting did not progress much beyond that point, so Parsons would turn her attention to bettering herself through schooling. One reason for this was that her mother fell ill in 1927, and Mona would return home to nurse her mother. Her mother would sadly die three years later.
During her time in New York City, she would attend the Jersey School of Medicine, graduating at the top of her class as a nurse. She was then employed in the New York office of a doctor who had come from Nova Scotia as well.
In 1937, Parsons was introduced to Willem Leonhardt, a Dutch millionaire and the couple would marry on Sept. 1, 1937 in the Netherlands, where she began to live a life of privilege in a huge house. For their honeymoon, the couple travelled around Europe by car.
Despite her wealth and her ability to come back to Canada as a Canadian citizen, she would join the Dutch Resistance with her husband in May of 1940 when the Netherlands were invaded by the Nazis. One of the most notable ways she helped was by providing sanctuary to Allied airmen who had crashed in the Netherlands. When the Germans first invaded, she dismissed the servants from her home so that the top floor could be used to shelter airmen. For times when the Nazis searched the home, she would put the airmen in a hiding spot behind the closet in the master bedroom to protect them. Due to the fact that their home, which they called Ingleside, was a large property with a long driveway, surrounded by trees, it was a perfect place to hide pilots. The pilots would then be taken by the Dutch Resistance to boats that allowed them to rendezvous with British submarines and return to England. The last airmen to be housed in her home stayed for six days in September 1941, before they were caught by the Gestapo during transport to the coast after an informer told the Nazis about Parsons and her husband.
The story goes that on Sept. 19, 1941, Mona and Willem visited with friends in Amsterdam and upon their return back, they had two men, William Moir and Richard Pape, with them, two crew members of a downed Royal Air Force bomber. Due to the informant, the two men were arrested when they attempted to get out of Denmark.
Soon after, on Sept. 29, Parsons was arrested by the Gestapo and sent to prison. Interestingly, in my research I found stories that stated Parson’s husband was arrested with her, but others stated that he went into the underground on the assumption the Nazis would not prosecute Parsons due to the fact that she was a woman. In that story, she told the Nazis that her husband was on a fishing trip, and she was promptly arrested. In this story, her husband was found three months later, after which Parsons went on trial.
Initially, Parsons attempted to play innocent over the whole affair but Pape had a card with her name and address on it, that she wanted him to pass on to her father through friends in England. This was all the proof that the Nazis needed. They would threaten her in prison, and offer her the ability to return to her home if she gave information, which she never did.
Parsons would wait for several months before her trial on Dec. 22, 1941. Her counsel in the trial was a young German soldier who spoke neither Dutch nor English, and Mona spoke no German. The prosecuting attorney seemed to have a deep hatred of Parsons. She would say later that he, quote:
“typified the arrogant Nazi officer seen in Hollywood movies. He was a tall, repulsive man with cold, pale blue eyes, stringy colourless hair and heavy thick glasses. He could have had a monocle. He seemed so full of hate, I doubt if he was even pleased with himself. He appeared to have a grudge against the whole world and his immediate target was me. My answers and my determination not to display any emotion plainly infuriated him. When he became overly abusive, the judge calmed him down.”
Found guilty of treason, she was sentenced to death but due to how she responded to her sentence, described as with a dignified calm, the judge permitted an appeal and a sentencing to life with hard labour. According to sources, rather than break down at her death sentence, Parsons proceeded to walk out of the court room, then turned, clicked her heels and said “Guten morgen meine herren” or “Good morning gentlemen.”
Parsons would say of the incident, quote:
“I knew all eyes were on me, expecting me to burst into tears. I was determined not to humble myself before any of them. As I left the courtroom, I put my heels together and bowed toward the judge, the prosecutor and my German counsel, who were standing together in a group. Guten morgen, meine herren, I said. My action took them by surprise. They stared at me with their mouths open. After they had stopped gaping, they returned my greeting. The judge followed me from the courtroom and approached with outstretched hand.”
In early January, as she was awaiting transport to prison, she was at a railway station and she saw three male prisoners. One of them turned out to be her husband Willem, who had dyed his hair and coloured his skin to disguise himself. It didn’t work and he had been captured. She ran to him to hug him and exchange a few words before guards separated them.
On March 6, 1942, Parsons was taken to Anrath Prison, and then to Widenbruck where she worked creating plywood wings for small crafts, and making igniters for bombs. Conditions were terrible at the facility she was kept at, and she fell ill several times until she was eventually just tasked with knitting socks for German soldiers. In her work, Parsons would often do a poor job on purpose, as a sign of a minor resistance to her situation.
She would write later, quote:
“The first year I was ill a lot, weighed only 94 pounds and was green. Night sweats, coughing and diarrhea every day for three-and-a-half months and often vomiting. Tears have run down my cheeks for hunger…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.”
During her time in the prison, she would lose hair from malnutrition, and several teeth would fall out as well.
She would remain at the facility for three years until Feb. 6, 1945 when the prisoners were put on a train and sent to a prison in Vechta.
On March 24, 1945, the prison camp was bombed and Parsons was able to escape with Dutch Baroness Wendelien van Boetzelaer. Some accounts state that the warden opened the gates and told the women they could take their chances with the bombs and bullets flying around, other accounts state that Parsons and Boetzelaer fled as the bombs were flying. According to some sources, the warden was sympathetic and would even give Mona her sweater and shoes before she left. The two walked through freezing temperatures wearing just their prison clothes until their shoes finally fell apart. Parsons was fluent in German but she did not speak it out of a worry that her Canadian accent would give her away. Instead, she pretended to be the Baroness’ mentally-challenged aunt would could not speak.
Parsons would say, quote:
The ruse would work, but there were close calls. At one point they accidently hailed an SS policeman while looking for a place to spend the night. He offered to take them to his home, and they knew refusal would invite suspicion, so they went with him.
Another incident occurred when Mona was staying with a family, and they had to take refuge for three days while a battle raged nearby. The farmer at the property went up to see what was happening and was killed by an artillery shell.
The pair would evade capture for three weeks, exchanging work for food and a bed to sleep in. Over the course of those three weeks, they walked 125 km through Germany until they were separated at the border. Parsons continued on by herself, finally reaching the Netherlands where a Dutch farmer took her to the North Nova Scotia Highlanders. By the time she reached them, she was thin, weighing only 87 pounds, looking sickly with blisters all over her bare feet. She was also missing two toenails.
Her arrest and escape would be turned into a Heritage Minute in 2005.
Upon reaching the Canadian troops, her story sounded almost unbelievable and she was taken to the Canadian Army Rear Headquarters to determine if she was a spy or not. Thankfully, she would encounter several officers with the North Nova Scotia Highlanders who she had known back in Nov Scotia and they would vouch for her. One man was Captain Robbins Elliott, whose father was the doctor who attended to Mona’s mother during her final illness.
Following the war, Parsons and her husband were reunited after four years apart. He had dealt with his own imprisonment and he would never fully recover from it, passing away in 1956. Upon his death, Parsons found out that one-quarter of his estate was left to his mistress, and under Dutch law the other three-quarters was left to his biological son, whom he had with his mistress and who Parsons did not know about. In the end, she was left with nothing despite a legal battle that lasted for years.
In 1957, she returned to Canada with nearly nothing but she would reconnect with Major General Henry Foster, who had commanded two Canadian divisions during the Second World War. The pair had been friends earlier in life and upon meeting again, fell in love. They would marry in 1959 and live at Lobster Point, Nova Scotia. Foster would pass away in 1964 and Parsons moved back to her hometown of Wolfville, where she stayed until she died on Nov. 28, 1976.
For the rest of her life, until she died of pneumonia, Parsons would deal with nightmares from her time in the prisons and her daring escape.
For the next several decades, her story was mostly unknown aside from brief mentions in memoirs of the soldiers who knew her.
In May of 2017, a statue of Parsons was unveiled in Wolfville.
For her service during the war with the Dutch Resistance, Parsons would be presented with a commendation from both Lord Tedder, the British Air Marshal, and US President Dwight Eisenhower.
Information comes from Canadian Encylopedia, Heritage Nova Scotia, Wikipedia, Canadas History, Veterans Affairs, Defining Moments Canada,