Born in the Maritimes
Mona Louise Parsons was born on February 17, 1901, in Middleton, Nova Scotia. The youngest of three children, Mona was the only daughter born to Mary Parsons and Colonel Norval H. Parsons, the commanding officer for the 85th Battalion during the First World War. At two years old, Mona and her family moved to Wolfville, Nova Scotia, where she attended the Acadia Ladies’ Seminary, excelling in music, painting, and expression.
An Actress, a Nurse, and a Sign of What’s to Come
In 1920, Mona graduated with aspirations of becoming a serious dramatic actor. She attended the Currie School of Expression in Boston, Massachusetts, and proceeded to teach drama for two years in Arkansas. Mona eventually moved to New York, where she worked as a chorus girl in a touring production of the Ziegfeld Follies. In 1927, Mona returned home to Wolfville after receiving news that her mother had fallen ill. Mona did her best to provide care but her mother eventually died. Through this experience, however, Mona developed an interest in nursing. She promptly returned to New York to attend the Jersey School of Medicine, and graduated with honours in 1935. Mona went on to work as a private nurse in the Park Avenue offices of an otolaryngologist who, coincidentally, was originally from Nova Scotia.
In February, 1937, Mona’s brother Ross introduced her to a millionaire Dutch businessman named Willem Leonhardt. Willem was touring New York and in need of a guide. The two fell in love and, five months later, were married in Laren, Netherlands. For two years, Mona and Willem enjoyed marital life together until September 1939, when Nazi Germany invaded Poland.
Although Britain and France declared war on Nazi Germany shortly after the invasion, the Netherlands remained neutral. The Dutch government hoped for a repeat of the First World War, when their neutrality remained intact for four years. Nevertheless, Willem feared for his wife, a British subject, should the Nazis invade. He encouraged Mona to sail for Canada but she refused to leave even as tensions grew during the Phoney War, a period marking limited military activity on the Western Front.
On May 10, 1940, Nazi Germany launched its invasion of France, Belgium, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands. Dutch forces fought hard, but their small military could not withstand the German assault. The Dutch military began surrendering on May 14, although some Dutch soldiers fighting alongside the French and the Belgians continued to resist until May 17. Queen Wilhelmina and the Dutch royal family fled to England and established a Dutch government-in-exile. The Queen also sent her heir to the throne, Princess Juliana, to safety in Canada.
Back in the Nazi-occupied Netherlands, Mona and Willem remained determined to support an Allied victory. They quickly connected with a growing resistance network assisting downed airmen. Willem arranged safe houses and helped supply the airmen with food, civilian clothing, and money. Soon, Mona and Willem were offering their own home as a safe house. “Ingleside”, near Laren, was well suited to the task. It was a private estate at the end of a long driveway and surrounded by trees. The house had a servant’s quarters in the attic and an emergency hiding spot in a cramped nook behind a bedroom closet.
On September 19, 1941, Mona and Willem visited the Brouwers, family friends in Amsterdam. The Germans rationed gasoline in the Netherlands, but Willem had added an extra gas tank on the roof of his car to make the most of their allotment. When they returned home that evening, Mona and Willem’s vehicle had two extra occupants in the back seat: William Moir and Richard Pape, the flight engineer and navigator from a downed Royal Air Force bomber.
Arrested and Death Sentence
Moir and Pape stayed at Ingleside for six days before returning to the Brouwers’ home. The visit passed without incident, but as the airmen got closer to their extraction point the danger intensified. The goal was to get them to a British submarine. But a couple in the town of Leiden betrayed the airmen to the Nazi secret police, the Gestapo. From this point, the resistance network to which the Leonhardts belonged began to unravel.
Hoping the danger would pass, Willem visited a cousin in Hengelo to avoid his Amsterdam office. Mona, confident in her acting abilities, opted to remain at Ingleside to avoid raising further suspicions. If the Nazis came calling, she planned to play innocent. Little did she know that the Gestapo had infiltrated the early Dutch underground network and would have all the proof they needed without a confession.
In late September, the Gestapo arrested Mona at Ingleside. They transported her to Weteringschans Prison in Amsterdam, where she was interrogated and deprived of food and water over several days. Mona maintained her innocence and attempted to buy time for Willem. Unfortunately, Mona had given Richard Pape a card with her name and address to pass on a message to her father through friends in England. Pape neglected to destroy this evidence, sealing Mona’s fate.
On December 22, 1941, the Germans drove Mona to the Carlton Hotel in Amsterdam. There Mona received a sham trial and a death sentence based on Adolf Hitler’s Nacht und Nebel (“Night and Fog”) decree to imprison or murder political activists and resisters of Nazi authority. Understanding little about Nazi justice but clearly understanding her sentence, Mona was determined to make a show of strength. As she left the courtroom, Mona faced the judge, clicked her heels, bowed, and said, “Guten morgen, meine herren.” (“Good morning, gentlemen.”) Impressed with her composure, the judge followed her out and advised that she appeal the sentence.
Survival in a German Prison
With the help of a network of connections who reached out to a German General in the area, Mona successfully appealed her sentence from a death cell in Amstelveenseweg Prison. Although saved from execution, Mona had to serve her new sentence in Nazi Germany. On March 6, 1942, Mona was about to be moved to Anrath Penitentiary in the Rhineland when German officers escorted Willem into the prison office. The Germans had captured him on the day before her trial. Mona and Willem embraced and briefly exchanged words before the guards wrenched them apart. They would not meet again until June, 1945.
Mona remained at Anrath until September, 1944. She slept on a straw-filled mattress in a tiny, poorly lit, cold, and damp room. She had to use a bucket for a toilet and eventually shared a similar room with three other inmates. Many of the prison inmates were common criminals rather than political prisoners like Mona. Mona’s appearance began to change drastically. She lost her hair through shaving or malnutrition. Some of her teeth fell out due to poor food. The German guards permitted Mona to write letters to Willem and friends in the Netherlands, but those letters could only be composed in German. She bolstered her spirits by recalling passages of her favourite English literature and by sabotaging the knitting she had to do for German soldiers.
On September 23, 1944, as Allied troops advanced rapidly through France and into Belgium and the southern Netherlands, the Germans sent Mona to Camp 3 at Wiedenbrück. She and 200 female prisoners worked in various factories supporting the German war effort. Naturally, Mona continued her sabotage activities whenever possible. In early February 1945, Mona found herself in a cattle car headed north to Vechta Prison, a former reform school for girls. Here she met two allies, a Dutch baroness and a lesbian prison director.
A Daring Escape
The prison at Vechta provided labour for local German hospitals, a Luftwaffe airfield, and the local railway network, which was constantly under Allied air attack. Mona peeled potatoes to help feed wounded German soldiers. She often stole from the kitchen to supplement her own meagre diet. Mona made friends with Wendelien van Boetzelaer, a 22-year-old Dutch student arrested for resistance activity who had already twice escaped from German prisons. The pair began plotting their escape. Mona asked the women’s prison director for her sweater and shoes, which had been confiscated on arrival. The prison director was sympathetic and detested the Nazis for their treatment of homosexuals. She handed the shoes and sweater over without question.
Meanwhile, there was heavy fighting between Allied and Nazi forces to the southwest. On March 23, 1945, Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery’s forces crossed the Rhine River in a massive assault. Air activity in the region became intense. On March 24, the Allied air forces attacked Vechta’s airbase and railway network. Bombs fell on the men’s prison, which was engulfed in flames. The women’s prison director threw open the gates and told her charges that they could take their chances with German bullets or Allied bombs.
Wendelien and Mona decided on bullets over bombs. They escaped and built a cover story that made use of Mona’s acting skills — she would pretend to be the baroness’ mentally challenged aunt to cover up her poor German accent. The women moved north and then east, heading for the Dutch-German border. They travelled over 150 km in the cold and wet, avoiding pockets of heavy fighting, before they became separated. By the time Mona crossed the border, her feet were infected, and she was missing two toenails. Near Vlagtwedde Mona revealed her identity to a Dutch farm family, who informed her that the Canadian army was playing a key role in liberating the country. A member of the family took her by bicycle to the Canadian troops stationed nearby. The soldiers were members of the North Nova Scotia Highlanders, a regiment from Mona’s home province. It was mid-April,1945, and Mona was finally free.
By the end of May, Mona returned home through the aid of the Canadian General Hospital in Nijmegen. She was eventually reunited with Willem following his liberation from a Nazi prison camp. At the end of 1945, Mona was presented with citations from American General Dwight D. Eisenhower, commander of the Allied Expeditionary Forces, and Air Chief Marshall Arthur Tedder of the Royal Air Force, in gratitude for helping Allied airmen evade enemy capture.
By the 1950s, Willem’s health deteriorated as a result of his injuries sustained during the war. Mona remained at his side but he eventually died in April,1957. Although their relationship appeared loving and steadfast, the war created challenges for Mona and Willem, which put a strain on their relationship. Shortly after his death, Mona learned that Willem had left one quarter of his estate to his mistress, with whom he had a son. Willem’s son became the beneficiary of the remaining three quarters of his estate under Dutch law. Mona, therefore, received nothing from Willem’s estate. She started legal proceedings, which lasted several years and followed her when she returned to Canada to live in Halifax. It was here where she reunited with her childhood friend, retired Major-General Harry Foster. The two married in 1959. Foster died in 1964 of cancer, and Mona moved back to Wolfville, where she spent the rest of her life.
Mona never fully recovered from the trauma of her wartime experience, but her resilience ensured her ability to carry on. In 1976, Mona fell ill with pneumonia and died on November 28, at the age of 75.
- Mona Parsons: From Privilege to Prison, From Nova Scotia to Nazi Europe by Andria Hill-Lehr (Nova Scotia: Nimbus Publishing, 2000).
- Article “Remembering Mona Parsons” by Andria Hill (2017), from Canada’s History.
- Article “The Remarkable Courage of Mona Parsons” by Patrick Watson (2013), from The Canadian Encyclopedia.
- Article “From Privilege to Prison” published by Veterans Affairs Canada.
- A history of Mona Parsons from The Canadian Encyclopedia.
- “Mona Parsons” in Heritage Minutes.
- A history of Mona Parsons, presented on an informal historical hobbyist website.