Remembering the life of a Canadian soldier, 70 years after his death

Sarah Penton and her father, Glen Laubenstein, travelled to the Netherlands to lay her great uncle to rest, 70 years after he died in WWII. She recalls the emotional experience of seeing how much one soldier's life can mean so long after his death, and experiencing the gratitude of the Dutch people.

CBC journalist Sarah Penton travelled to the Netherlands to bury her great uncle, who died in WWII

We laid my great uncle Albert to rest this week. He died 70 years ago in a snowy, muddy delta in a brutal battle during the Second World War. 

But this is not a story of closure. It is a story of the discovery of a life that had all but been forgotten. And the realization of how much the sacrifice of one man's life is still so appreciated, decades after his death.

When I got the call last year that the remains of my great uncle Albert Laubenstein had been found in the Netherlands, nothing could have prepared me for the life-changing experience I was about to have.

A burial service was to be held in a Canadian war cemetery in the Netherlands. My father Glen Laubenstein and I arrived in the picturesque city of Bergen op Zoom with a couple of days to spare before the service.

The city was beautiful, the people warm and welcoming.

On our second day there, we toured Groesbeek Cemetery and saw the thousands of headstones. Underneath each one, a young man who died too young.

The inscriptions were heartbreaking. 

"Sleep on, dear son and be at rest. We miss you most who loved you best."

"In loving memory of my dear son. A day of duty done, a day of rest begun."

Each one of those men could have been my husband, my brother, my son.

Glen Laubenstein and his daughter Sarah Penton lay a wreath at the grave of Pte. Albert Laubenstein in the Canadian War Cemetery in Bergen op Zoom, Netherlands. (Phil Nijhuis/Associated Press)

It is here that my great uncle's name is inscribed on a memorial wall full of names of Canadian soldiers who died in battle, but whose bodies had never been found.

I have seen the images, the videos of these cemeteries before. But being there in person, seeing the rows upon rows of headstones, made the enormity of the loss of so many lives so much more real to me.

That afternoon, we went to see the battlefield where Albert died.

Twelve hundred men lost their lives over five weeks. It was a terrible battle. Cold, muddy, windy.

Most of the soldiers had frostbite. There was scant cover, the land a boggy delta with only a few dikes to hide behind. 

Albert was buried in a field grave, but the location was lost. And it was there, 70 years later, two amateur historians uncovered his remains.

One of them, Govert de Lorm contacted me after news of Albert's upcoming service was announced. Meeting Govert and his friend, Corné Leijtens, was one of the highlights of my trip.

Every time I thanked them for the respectful manner in which they handled their discovery, for reaching out to me, they responded with only gratitude for what Canadian soldiers had done for their people so many years ago. 

Pte. Albert Laubenstein died at the age of 30 in the Netherlands during WWII. His remains were discovered in 2014 and he was laid to rest in May of 2015 in Bergen op Zoom, Netherlands. (Veterans Affairs)

Another highlight of the trip was meeting the Dutch army recovery and identification unit.

Three people, tasked with uncovering and identifying the remains of 6,000 people still missing in the Netherlands after the Second World War.

Astonishing dedication

The commitment they show to each and every case is astonishing. It can take upwards of a decade to identify remains and track down surviving families.

They have gone as far as placing ads in Australian newspapers to try to find relatives of those who have died. They get to know the history of each soldier they find, who they were, their service records.

They lucked out with Albert. Thanks to extensive dental records kept by the Canadian Army and Albert's distinctive gold fillings, they were able to find out who he was that same day.

Hearing the excitement in their voices as they retold the moment of discovery was telling of the attachment they have to each case.

"That's my Albert," they would say. It was because of their work we found out he did not die at Normandy, as we had been told.

He survived Normandy. He fought in and survived the horrors of Dieppe. He was even upset that he had been reassigned from the artillery to fighting with the infantry and wrote a formal letter of complaint to his superiors.

And every time I thanked them, told them how amazed I was at their dedication to finding out who these men were who died so long ago, I was met with words like: "It's not amazing, it's a debt of honour," and "We will do anything to find these families, and it is our privilege to do so." 

Members of the Dutch Army's Recovery and Identification Unit receive a Governor General's Medallion for contributions to remembering and respecting those who have fallen in war on Dutch soil. From left, Patric van Aalderen, Sarah Penton, Geert Jonker and Elizabeth Schiltmans. (Keith Black)

The service itself was breathtaking. High-ranking soldiers from Canadian and Dutch armies were there, along with members of the Lincoln and Welland Regiment, the regiment with whom my great uncle served when he died.

They carried his coffin with military precision, training for months to prepare for the service. Those soldiers did him proud, carrying him through the driving rain to his final resting place, alongside the men with whom he served and died.

Hundreds of civilians braved the wind and the rain, conditions likely similar to when Albert died.

And then, just as my dad and I were given the honour of laying the final wreath, the sun came out. It was a beautiful moment that I will treasure always.

The Dutch have cultivated a culture of gratitude. Gratitude to Canadians for liberating their country from German occupation. But now it is my family's turn to be grateful to the Dutch people, something that I will ensure is passed on to my children.


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