Canada
The 'kissing couple' bride: A remarkable war story remembered

Married in 1945, this photo of a Canadian soldier and his Dutch bride — Leonard Johnson of Port Stanley, Ont., and Josephine, a Holocaust survivor — was published across Canada, an icon of the fresh start Canada offered after its soldiers liberated the Netherlands during the Second World War.

DEBORA VAN BRENK | QMI AGENCY

Josephine Johnson's remarkable life was filled with privilege and poverty, enviable comfort, unimaginable horror, countless new beginnings.

And hope, always hope.

In the wake of genocide, she became the embodiment of resilience. With most of her old life exterminated by war, she and her husband Leonard became, literally, the poster couple for post-war starting-over in Canada.

"She was an extraordinary woman," says Peter Johnson, the youngest of Josephine's three sons. "One could either crumble, or become strong and become intensely optimistic towards the future."

His mother chose the latter.

Josephine Johnson died March 12 in London - having cultivated that optimism for 92 years plus one day.

One of her grandfathers was the founder of consumer products giant Unilever; her father was head of the De Vries textile company in the heart of Amsterdam.

As a child, Josephine knew hard work, yes. But it was also true that a chauffeur drove her to within a block of her school each day.

Her higher education took her to Switzerland and England to study clerking and languages.

War, horror and love

The night of her coming-out party, in May 1940, the German army invaded the Netherlands.

Josephine joined the Dutch Underground, ushering other Jews to safe harbour.

But her family was in the spotlight. Her parents were arrested one night, their freedom later traded for some steak. The Gestapo carted away her grandfather, who was freed after his enterprising wife arranged for delivery of some Rembrandt etchings to high-placed German officers.

One time, the family lay hiding for three days beneath the floorboards of a house while German soldiers conducted interrogations in the rooms above them.

Then in 1944, the family was captured, jailed and trucked to Westerbork, a Nazi-run internment camp in northeastern Holland.

Every Tuesday, trainloads of Jewish prisoners were sent from there to the infamous death camps of Auschwitz-Birkenau, Sobibor, Bergen-Belsen and Theresienstadt.

Josephine was on one of those trains in March 1945, en route to Bergen-Belsen, when it was bombed by British fighter planes. Pierced in her head by a shard of bone from another prisoner, she was sent back to Westerbork with the wounded German guards. The shrapnel was removed without anesthetic; the uninjured continued their journey to their deaths.

She became one of only 5,000 prisoners of Westerbork to survive the war: 100,000 others perished.

Then in May 1945, the Germans disappeared from the camp and Canadian and Polish soldiers appeared. Josephine, fluent in four languages, was hired as a translator for the Canadian liberators.

Leonard Johnson was an Elgin County boy with blaze-red curly hair, an artillery captain recovering from wounds he'd suffered in Italy. A buddy told him he'd do well to recover in the Netherlands, where the Dutch women were beautiful and friendly.

Josephine was in the officer's mess when she spotted the Canadian from across the room. "That's the man I'm going to marry," she told friends.

They wed five weeks later, on June 30, 1945.

An army photographer snapped a photo of their passionate kiss, she in white and he in uniform and both oblivious to anything but each other. That photo raced back to Canada to dominate the front pages of every major Canadian newspaper the following day.

The photo became symbolic of post-war spirit, the lingering bond between the Dutch and their Canadian liberators and the flood of European immigrants who found new beginnings in Canada.

With a university degree in agriculture he'd earned before the war, Len settled with his bride to farm near Port Stanley.

But for this Jewish survivor of the Holocaust -- a woman from cosmopolitan Amsterdam, whose family influence had once stretched far enough that the couple briefly had the use of Dutch Prince Bernhard's personal car -- farm life in the homogenous and often-closed circles of rural Ontario was an awkward fit.

After one season when their home burned down and the crop was hailed out, they took that as a sign to move to London.

Leonard became a conservationist and then a professor at the University of Western Ontario and Josephine raised the family at home.

"She never looked back"

Peter Johnson would have remembered his mother's war stories if she'd mentioned them during his childhood. But it wasn't until she was in her 80s that she began to tell his wife Leslie some of her experiences.

It wasn't in her nature to mourn her losses or hardships, he recalls.

"She never looked back. She always looked forward," he says.

Her sparkling green-blue eyes always smiled with the rest of her face.

"I think she was much happier here in a family environment. She was happy to forge a new life."

Josephine became an exceptional cook, with Dutch dishes and a mouth-watering ginger butter cake her specialty. (One day, decades after arriving in Canada, she declared to her family that she would stop serving roast beef and cabbage every Sunday dinner. She had thought that was what all Canadian wives served their husbands, but had since discovered differently and, besides, she said, she hated even the smell of cabbage.) She and her friend Alice Munro made wooden puppets, around which they told fairy tales in live shows and on their own weekly TV show. Josephine always played the villains of the pieces.

In later years, she was a volunteer with the University Women's Club and Meals-on-Wheels.

Her children remember her sense of fun. She once attracted the misdirected condolences of one worshiper during a United Church service when she dissolved into tears of laughter as one of her young sons lovingly played with a parishioners's fox stole.

She doted on her children and, later, her grandchildren, whom she said had the ability and responsibility to achieve anything they wanted to work for.

They have gone on to careers as doctors, a lawyer, post-doctorate researchers.

Icon

When the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa opened its exhibit, "We'll Meet Again," in 1997, it chose the kissing-couple photograph as its icon and as a promotional poster.

Len died at age 95 in 2009, only a few years after Josephine was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease.

Peter Johnson says his mother continued to be graceful and grateful to the end.

In 1990, she was interviewed for a Stephen Spielberg project remembering Jewish experiences during the war. After describing her escapades and narrow escapes, her meeting with Len and the fullness of family life that followed, her refrain on the video is this, "... And here I am. I was lucky, lucky again."

Asked then what message she had for her grandchildren, she said, "I believe that there's one God and we are all his children. Therefore there should be no prejudice because we are all the same."

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