Finding the beauty in war

How the Second World War positively affected the life of a modern Canadian musician

Courtney Dickson, Arts & Entertainment Editor Ω

“I’m a musician and I wrote a song about my grandfather. His life was saved by your grandfather.”

Menno Versteeg, Canadian band Hollerado’s frontman, called up a man he knew very little about in order to give his fans a greater understanding of a song he wrote that is very close to his heart.

This journey all started in 2011 when Menno and the band were working on their new album in New York. While working, Menno learned that his grandfather Karl Versteeg had passed away. As an artist, Menno was compelled to write about his grandfather to honour his life and the relationship they shared.

“He was definitely one of my closest friends,” Menno said.

Most of the memories Menno has of his grandfather involve Karl telling him stories about his life. One story in particular stood out: a story of friendship and war.

“It was one story [my grandfather] really stood for,” Menno said.

From that story came the now-popular song “So It Goes.”

* * *

Germany invaded Holland in May 1940. Karl was living there at that time. In less than a week, Holland surrendered their country to Germany and the Germans took over. Rotterdam, in South Holland, had been destroyed. The Dutch resistance formed, and Karl was eager to join. He posed as a veterinarian so he could move around the country with ease. However, he had no experience with veterinary medicine and the Germans eventually caught on. Karl was captured and meant to be executed. Instead, he was handed over to a German officer. They spoke about Karl’s situation, and by putting himself in another’s shoes, the German officer’s emotion led him to cancel the execution. Karl was put into solitary confinement for two years.

After the war, the German officer was on trial, with his life at stake. Karl went to the trial and testified. That testimony, made by a person who by many would have been considered to be the enemy, saved the officer’s life.

* * *

Though the lyrics of “So It Goes” provide listeners with an upbeat account of what times were like for Karl, Menno felt fans still didn’t understand the weight of the story he was trying to tell. He had to make a music video, and it had to be powerful.

“He was difficult to track down,” Menno said, “I didn’t even know his name.”

Hollerado flew out to Holland to track down a relative of the German officer that saved Karl Versteeg’s life.

In order to find who they would later learn was the officer’s grandson, Menno had to share the detailed story of what had happened to his grandfather with an official from the Dutch government archives. She was able to help him find exactly who he was looking for.

Menno described the experience as “fascinating.”

“It made me feel grateful and emotional, in a good way.”

The German officer’s grandson (whose name has been withheld at Menno’s request) had also been told the story of how Karl and this German officer saved each other’s lives.

In the music video, the German grandson expressed his thanks to Menno and his late grandfather for what had happened.

The two grandchildren eventually met up and shared a drink, continuing a friendship that was started by their grandfathers many years ago.

* * *

Remembrance Day means something a little different for everyone, but for all of us, it’s a time to recognize those who have put themselves in dangerous situations to defend their country.

Both of Menno’s sets of grandparents lived through the Second World War.

“I think of what they went through and just how lucky we are.”

Though Menno appreciates Remembrance Day, he doesn’t think there should be just one day devoted to giving thanks to veterans and current soldiers.

“Every holiday has its purpose, but I try to be grateful and think about them every day,” he said.

On Nov. 11 this year, Menno said Hollerado will sit down together and enjoy a nice meal.

“We’ll put our phones away and be with each other, have a glass of wine and be thankful,” he said.

* * *

Since releasing the music video on July 31, 2013, fans have been approaching Hollerado with stories of what their relatives went through.

“I appreciate it when people I don’t know come to me with similar stories,” Menno said.

Some said they were inspired to research more of their own family histories and create relationships with grandparents to try to understand what their lives were like. As Menno pointed out, that generation is aging, and they won’t be around forever to share these first-hand accounts of their lives.

* * *

In December, Hollerado will be returning to Europe as part of their tour. Menno plans to visit his new friend in Germany, who’s also been invited to their show in Berlin.

Their current tour is titled the “So It Goes” tour, and they will be playing at the Blue Grotto on Nov. 12, the day after Remembrance Day. Tickets are still available, and can be purchased online for $15.