Toronto Star, Nov 7, 2015, Nieuwdorp, Netherlands: When Kees Traas was a kid of about six, his uncle gave him a Canadian soldier’s helmet he’d found near their village in western Holland. “’You can play with it, I picked it up on the causeway,’” he remembers his uncle telling him.
“That was the start of it,” says Traas.
Since that day in the mid-1960s Traas, 57, has collected about 40,000 objects from the Second World War—everything from a pair of Sherman tanks to a couple of hand drawn battle maps. About 2,200 of the artifacts, from that Canadian helmet to an arsenal of weapons, are on display at the Liberation Museum Zeeland in Nieuwdorp, about an hour and a half from Rotterdam. You drive through a pretty little village of about 200, down a quiet country lane past chickens, cows and horses in the fields.
It was not so tranquil at the end of 1944 during the Battle of the Scheldt, a fierce fight over the waterways from the North Sea to the port of Antwerp. The Allies had secured the port, but the Nazis controlled the water leading to it—the Scheldt Estuary. After five hard weeks, the Allies won control but suffered heavy casualties. Nearly 13,000 were killed, wounded or missing—half of them Canadian. When all was said and done, 5,000 Canadians died in Canada’s largest single battle of the war.
The Scheldt is sometimes referred to as “The Forgotten Battle.” Indeed, when the British held a party to celebrate the first (Canadian) ship to arrive at Antwerp, they didn’t invite the Canadians. But the people who live in this area have never forgotten the Canadian 1st Army. Over sticky buns and strong coffee served by his wife, Traas talks about growing up “imprinted with the stories of the war.”
More than 70 years later, the stories—and the artifacts—keep coming. “Every week people visit and bring something of the war with them,” he says. It seems Zeelanders find things almost every day. An “emergency” white cross for a dead Canadian soldier turns up in a farmer’s shed. Bits of glass from cockpits that were turned into jewellery or used in barn doors. Helmets that farmers converted into shovels. “People were poor, they used everything” says Stef, Trass’ son and the only employee among the 100 or so volunteers who run the museum.
When people bring in artifacts, everyone is carefully catalogued along with the story of how it was found (the museum highlights stories with an “Object of the Month” on their website). Traas delights in telling the story of a local millionaire who lent them 75 thousand Euro to buy a Buffalo amphibious troop transporter from a Belgian collector. After he saw it, the wealthy man forgave that loan and another for 45 thousand to buy a second Buffalo.
We hop into the back of a Dutch troop transporter for a tour of the property where a huge expansion is underway. We drive over a portable Bailey bridge developed by the British. We go past workers reconstructing a little church the Canadians built to replace the one the Nazi’s bombed. With a big warm grin Traas points out a trailer that used to transport tanks that the museum still puts to good use.
When the expansion is complete in 2018, the Liberation Park Zeeland will have a tunnel with a bunker and a lot more room to display the collection Traas started and donated to the museum a decade ago. “The best thing I ever did in my life to make something good for the people who come after us,” he says. “I like it more than when I was a collector.”
Inside the museum, his collection lines the walls. Downstairs—next to a fake outhouse—you can watch a short but powerful video about the war. Upstairs, you can recreate the Battle of the Scheldt on a slick screen that’s a couple of metres from the mannequin wearing that Canadian helmet that started Traas’ collection.
“We think we owe this to those who liberated us,” Traas says. His mom was 15 when she and her sister ran out to greet the Canadians rolling up their road. When the soldiers heard artillery fire, they threw the girls under their tank. The sisters never forgot the sound of shrapnel hitting the tank. “If the Canadians didn’t do that,” says Traas, “I wouldn’t be here.”