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New Qualicum residents discover old Balkbrug Liberation Day ties

Reacquainted after nearly sixty years

Tags: Excerpts from the Windmill

QUALICUM BEACH, British Columbia – A short encounter between a Canadian soldier and a 17-year old Dutch girl in the Overijssel village of Balkbrug in April 1945, resulted in a much longer sequel half a world away over fifty-five years later. The two met again at a senior’s facility in their new hometown where both had settled with their spouses.

Canadian war veteran Dick Crawley who had moved to the Vancouver Island community of Qualicum Beach from Manitoba in 2001 and wanting to make new friends, one day walked into a senior’s facility for coffee. Seeing only one other man there, he pulled up a chair and introduced himself to former Montreal resident Bill Kritsch who had been in Qualicum Beach since 1992. Soon talk drifted to family and overseas Dutch friends.

Kritsch casually mentioned to Crawley that his wife Gerda was Dutch and had come from a small village called Balkbrug. Surprised, Crawley immediately responded, “Is her name by chance Gerda Oosterhuis?” Kritsch’s eyes almost popped. Once he recovered from his shock, he cried out, “How do you know her name?”

The war veteran’s guess had been right on the mark and was the start of renewed friendship and much reminishing. Crawley who on April 6, 1945 – the day before Liberation Day of Balkbrug when he came through it with his reconnaissance unit – saw the girl leaving a building where she regularly helped refugees from the southern provinces. He warned her that it was not safe out on the street with German soldiers still hiding in nearby woods so he accompanied her home where he was warmly received by her parents. After his short visit at the postmaster’s home, she wrote her name on the back of a picture, which Crawley kept all those years.

How unsafe Balkbrug still was, became obvious that night when the Germans, tipped off by a collaborator, raided a house, then hauled out nine people and executed them. When they finally left the following morning, they blew up the bridge across the Dedemsvaart. In contrast, when the Canadians departed, Balkbrug had an emergency bridge crossing the canal again.

Crawley returned to his farm in Manitoba after having spent eleven months in the Netherlands and married Donnie, a local teacher. Gerda married Jan ten Kate and in 1951 immigrated to Gravenhurst, Ontario. They had two daughters. In 1964, while living in Belleville, tragedy struck. Jan was killed in a railway accident. Eventually, Gerda married Bill Kritsch and lived for over twenty years in Montreal where she sold real estate.

Gerda Kritsch volunteers at a local church, at the senior’s centre and at the local museum. The centre still is frequented by Dick Crawley, who relishes playing improvisations of wartime tunes on the piano. And yes, Balkbrug still plays its part in the lives of the two couples!