Nova Scotia·Photos

Dartmouth woman begins to unravel mystery behind grandfather's old war photos

Elaina Gaetan's grandfather returned from the Netherlands after serving in the Second World War with several photographs that have long fascinated her. Now, she's connected with the people in the photos and is learning their stories.

Thanks to the quick work of a researcher, Elaina Gaetan has been in contact with families in the photos

Elaina Gaetan has held onto her grandfather's photos for years, and recently connected with the families from the Netherlands. (Robert Short/CBC)

When Elaina Gaetan's grandfather died, she was 15. She inherited a stack of his possessions, including postcards and photos going back more than 75 years.

The Dartmouth, N.S., woman's grandfather, Gerald (Larry) Larson, was a gunner in the Royal Regiment of Canadian Artillery during the Second World War, fighting in the Netherlands, as well as Belgium and France.

Two of the photos from his belongings have long inspired curiosity in Gaetan.

One shows siblings, three girls and a boy, standing in a garden. Another is a professional portrait of three other siblings, two girls and a boy, formally dressed.

From the writing on the back of the photos, Gaetan guessed the photo of the three girls and a boy were siblings named van der Pasch, and they lived in a town called Vught in the Netherlands. The other was the Schults family, living in Tilburg, which is 18 kilometres southwest of Vught.

This is one of the photographs that has long fascinated Gaetan. (Robert Short/CBC)

"I always wondered who these people were, and how my grandfather came to have the photos," Gaetan told CBC's Mainstreet. "Why did he keep them?"

In November, Gaetan heard a piece on Mainstreet about In Our Fathers' Footsteps, a project that aims to take descendants of Canadian soldiers to the Netherlands in the spring of 2020 to celebrate the 75th anniversary of the liberation of the country from German forces.

She immediately got in touch with the organizers, asking if they could help connect her with the families in the photographs.

The writing on the back of this photograph identified the Schults family, living in Tilburg, the Netherlands. (Robert Short/CBC)

Within 24 hours, a researcher had reached members of the two families, and Gaetan has been communicating with them by email in the weeks since.

She discovered the boy in the photo of the four van der Pasch siblings died shortly after the war. He picked up a loaded German rifle and it discharged, killing him and a boy standing directly behind him.

Gaetan learned the boy in this photo died shortly after the war when a rifle he picked up discharged. (Robert Short/CBC)
The daughter of one of the families emailed a photo of Gaetan's grandfather that her mother received in the mail from him in 1945 after he'd returned to Nova Scotia. (Submitted by Elaine Gaetan)

Gaetan said the boys' story is well known, and the family has been trying to have their names added to the Second World War monument in the town.

"In the case of the other family, I've been in touch with a daughter of one of the girls in the photograph, but she doesn't speak English very well," said Gaetan, who's been using an online translation app.

The woman's mother, who was 18 years old in the photo, is now 92, and her memory isn't very sharp. The process of communication has been slow.

"I haven't really been able to learn a lot, but both family members that I've been speaking with are very curious about this connection," said Gaetan.

The daughter emailed a photo of Gaetan's grandfather that her mother had received in the mail from him in 1945 after he'd returned to Nova Scotia. It shows him standing in front of what's likely his home in Halifax, wearing his uniform.

"So, not only did he come home with photographs, but very soon after the war, he sent a photograph of himself back to the family," said Gaetan. "I think maybe we might be able to read between the lines. She was 18, he was in his early 20s ... These soldiers were young, vivacious men, and we sometimes forget that when we see veterans."

Gerald (Larry) Larson was a gunner in the Royal Regiment of Canadian Artillery during the Second World War. (Robert Short/CBC)

Gaetan will be joining the group of Canadians going to the Netherlands in April and May. She's hoping to meet members of both families in the photographs.

"I hope I get answers to some of my questions," she said.

Thanks to a researcher with In Our Fathers' Footsteps, Gaetan was able to get in contact with the families in the photographs. (Robert Short/CBC)

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With files from CBC's Mainstreet

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