War, Westerbork, and “White Privilege"

The heroes of World War II - and the privileged “Zombies” who dodged the conflict.

In April of 1945, the conflict in Europe was winding down but the peril was far from over for the inmates of the Westerbork transit camp in Holland. There the Nazis kept Dutch Jews before sending them to killing centers in other parts of occupied Europe.

From July 1942 until September of 1944, the Nazis deported 97,776 Jews from Westerbork. A full 54,930 were shipped to Auschwitz, 34,313 to Sobibor, 4,771 to the Theresienstadt ghetto and 3,762 to the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. Most of those deported to Auschwitz and Sobibor were killed on arrival, so a grim fate awaited the 876 Westerbork inmates on April 12, 1945.

That day the “B” Squadron of the 8th Canadian Reconnaissance Regiment approached the camp. The Canadians forced the Nazis to flee and liberated the 876 inmates, saving them from certain death.

The 8th Reconnaissance, motto “First in, last out,” was mostly composed of Canadian prairie farm boys who could shoot straight. One of them was my uncle, James Richard Billingsley, who signed up at 19, when he should have been heading to college. He was wounded twice, once by a Nazi sniper. He was offered the opportunity to enter intelligence work but chose to return to his regiment and fight on.

My father, Kenneth Billingsley, was only 17 in 1941 when he lied about his age to join the Canadian Army. He wound up spending the bulk of the war in the Merchant Marine, where he was in as much danger as troops on the ground. As those troops knew full well, without supplies the Allies don’t win, and National Socialist darkness sweeps over the world.

These men are largely forgotten now, and in Canada “awareness campaigns” are warning of something called “white privilege.” It’s hard to think of how service in World War II during the prime of one’s life translates to any kind of privilege. On the other hand, there were privileged types at the time.

They were those who, though of age and able bodied, declined to fight in Europe during World War II. This mixed bag of pacifists, socialists and communists were known as “Zombies,” and as WorldWARIITALK notes , “the most notable Canadian Zombie was future Prime Minister Pierre Elliot Trudeau.” 

Pierre Trudeau never liberated anybody from any transit camp like Westerbork. Pierre Trudeau

wasn’t one of the 5,000 Canadians who took part in raid on Dieppe on August 19, 1942. More than 900 Canadians perished in that operation, which provided valuable lessons for Allied amphibious assaults on Africa, Italy and Normandy. 

The Canadians’ bravery and sacrifice was lost on defense minister John McCallum, who in 2002 managed to confuse Vichy, seat of the French collaborationist government, with Vimy Ridge, where Canadians fought with great distinction in World War I.  

One of those Canadians was my grandfather, Lorne Henry Billingsley, born on October 25, 1895, in Bracebridge, Ontario, the second of ten children. So it wasn’t much of a privileged existence for young Lorne Henry. In 1914, when World War I broke out, he could have claimed it was a European conflict and nothing to do with him. He opted for a different route. 

On September 25, 1914, leaving family and friends behind, he sailed with the first Canadian contingent for Europe. There he served with the Third and Fourth Field Ambulance and saw action at Armentieres, Ypres, Vimy Ridge, Arras, Amiens and Mons, all scenes of major battles. Lorne Henry Billingsley was one of the first victims of German mustard gas attack, which left him with lung damage. He didn’t return until after the Armistice.

Back in Canada he drove a streetcar in Regina, and when doctors recommended outside work, he took up farming in that province. The World War I veteran was only 51 when he passed away in 1946. By then World War II was over, and from his family of eight children, two sons played a role in that conflict.

My father was only 62 when he died in 1987. Twice-wounded uncle Jim still had shrapnel in his body when he passed away at 94 in 2017. They worked hard all their lives, provided for their families, and nothing was handed to them. So those who prattle about “white privilege” can stick it, as the WWII generation used to say, “where no light shines.” 

For examples of privilege, white or otherwise, check out Trudeau fils, the politically correct Prime Minister who approved a $10 million payment to a terrorist captured in combat in Afghanistan. For examples of bravery and sacrifice, remember those who fought on the beaches, in the air, and on the landing grounds.

Remember the men of the 8th Reconnaissance, who liberated the Westerbork transit camp. On April 12, 1945, 876 Dutch Jews were sure glad to see them.

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