Mona Parsons arrested for treason in WWII Holland
Living in Amsterdam with her Dutch husband, Mona Parsons helped rescue downed Allied troops during WWII. But then the Nazis found the safe haven. Sentenced to death for treason, Mona escaped during a bomb raid.
“Meine Herren. Guten Morgen.” The calm, steady voice took the German judge and the Nazi court by surprise. A woman just sentenced to death by firing squad was expected to sob and plead for mercy, but not Mona Parsons. Found guilty of treason in Amsterdam, Holland on December 22, 1941, for hiding Allied soldiers in her safe house, Mona then turned and walked to the prison van.
Mona Parsons Sentenced to Death
The judge was taken by the beautiful 41-year-old woman’s dignified demeanour. On her way out of the room, he suggested that Mona should enter an appeal and that he would recommend it. Her sentence was commuted. Starting her sentence in the Venershen Prison in Amsterdam and was bounced around to different camps throughout Germany and Holland. How on earth did a Canadian find herself in such a state?
Mona Parsons was born on February 17, 1901 to prominent parents in Middleton, Nova Scotia. The Parsons moved to Wolfville after a fire destroyed the family furniture business and when a teenager, Mona became interested in acting. “She was tall, beautiful, graceful and she could really act,” said Patrick Watson in the Canadian Encyclopedia’s entry on Mona Parsons. In 1929 before her 29th birthday, the young woman followed her heart and went to New York to claim her share of fame on stage.
The bright lights of New York City found Mona onstage with the Ziegfeld Follies, dancing in the renowned Chorus Line. It was a good job but Mona saw it only as a stepping-stone to a career in theatre. Competition was exceptionally stiff and no matter what talent and beauty Mona had, she did not find the starlight she wanted. Meanwhile, her mother was serious ill from a stroke. Mona rushed to her side. Only a few days later, another stroke took her mother’s life. Re-thinking her own life and dreams, Mona changed career paths. Training as a Registered Nurse in New Jersey , she returned to Manhattan and found a job in a doctor’s office on Park Street.
Introduced through her brother, Mona met the wealthy Willem Leonhardt on his trip to New York. The pair hit it off and in no time make plans to wed in Holland, Willem’s home country. After a lavish wedding and a luxurious honeymoon, the Leonhardts settled into Ingleside, a house they had built in Amsterdam. Several years passed with upper-crust social activities and lively parties. Before they knew it, World War Two was underway. The Germans entered Holland.
Leonhardt’s Safe House
Allied soldiers and downed pilots needed rescue and safe passage out of Holland. The Leonhardts built a secret room in Ingleside under the eaves, said Patrick Watson in “Mona Watson: Role of a Lifetime” of his book, The Canadians: Biographies of a Nation (McArthur and Co., 2001, pg 3-27) Continuing life as usual, they were able to help a number of men escape imprisonment or death by German soldiers. The covert Ingleside safe haven did not last long.
Willem fled under the guise of a fishing trip, thinking Mona would be safe. She wasn’t. The Gestapo came and arrested her, holding her as bait for Willem’s capture. She was taken to prison. Three months later, Willem was captured on December 21, 1941, and Mona was put on trial the next day. As noted above, her death sentence was commuted and Mona was sent to a number of prisons. But her story did not end there.
Mona Parsons Escaped Prison Camp
Moved to Vechta camp in Northern Germany, Mona was put on kitchen duty. She met another prisoner, Baroness Wendelien van Boetzelaer. The young woman had made several unsuccessful escape attempts. Mona and Wendelien became friends and cohorts in planning an escape.
The Allies made bombing raids on airfields to damage the German installations. On March 24, 1945, Vechta was on the radar. The men’s prison building, across the runway from the women’s, was bombed and destroyed. Unfortunately, hundreds of Allied prisoners were killed. In the wild and fearful scramble of screaming and bombing, Mona and Wendelien saw their chance and took it. They walked out the prison camp unnoticed and then ran.
Holland was 160 kilometres away from Vechta. The two women slept the first night under piles of hay in a barn, frightened of being found. The next day, they approached a farmhouse and found safety. Wendelien spoke German and Mona was not fluent. Ever the actress, pretended she had a speech impediment, said Womyn’s Herstory Canada, unable to speak. Two weeks of trekking across the northern farmlands and the women reached the Allied border.
Parsons to North Nova Scotia Highlanders
The Canadian soldiers were wary of the 44-year-old Mona. They were warned that German spies could try entering the zone, and those spies could well be women. Briefly interrogated, she said “I am a Canadian,” and told the young soldier her name and told him she was from Wolfville, Nova Scotia. It was Mona’s luckiest day – she had run right to the North Nova Scotia Highlanders. Safe, she went to her Amsterdam home at Ingleside.
Meanwhile, Willem was unwell after years in cruel prison camps. When released from internment, he went home to Ingleside. Mona developed lung disease and he sent her for treatment in Switzerland. While she was away, Willem became close with one of their socialite friends. Mona found out about the affair when she returned home. Willem died in the spring of 1956, leaving a quarter of his estate to his mistress. Mona packed and left for Canada in 1957.
Mona married Major General Harry Foster, living again in Wolfville. Mona died on November 28, 1976. She was buried in Willowbank Cemetery. Two citations were given to Mona for her bravery and daring escape, one from Britain’s Air Chief Marshall Tedder and another from President Dwight D. Eisenhower from the United States.
Spirited, inventive, and beautiful, Mona Parsons was a courageous Canadian during WWII. In 2023, Parsons was celebrated with a stamp by Canada Post.
This article first appeared on Suite101.com in March 2010. (c) Susanna McLeod