The German who served Canadians

Rene Thied in 2013, listening to Canadian veterans recall their role in the liberation of Sicily.
Rene Thied – art historian, tour guide and lover of life – seemed eager to learn more every day.

Like it did millions of other Europeans, the Second World War changed Rene Thied’s life. Born in Hanover, Germany, following the war, Thied first learned about the Holocaust while he attended Ann Frank Schule, a grade school in Hanover. Even as a boy, Rene was appalled by what the Nazis did during the war.

“I couldn’t live in a country that had done such a thing,” he told me years later, “so, I decided to leave my home country.”

Today, November 11, Canada’s annual Remembrance Day, I will try to pay tribute to as many Allied servicewomen and men as I can. Over the years, I have had the good fortune to meet and interview perhaps 6,000 vets of the two World Wars, the Korean War, U.N. peacekeeping and Afghanistan. Many of them are top of mind today.

But so too did Rene Thied, born in Germany, educated in Holland and for a quarter century a naturalized citizen of Italy. As a result of our friendship – kindled over the years he and I led tours of Canadians to historic battlefields in Europe – he found himself serving hundreds of Canadians, including veterans on our tours. He did so eagerly, devotedly and with a little self-discovery thrown in.

"We are the D-Dodgers" Canadian chorus.
“We are the D-Dodgers” Canadian chorus.

In 2008 and again in 2013, Rene Thied led our band of veterans, families and assorted other Canadian travellers from the south-eastern tip of Sicily to the Adriatic ports of Italy retracing the wartime route of the Canadian army that helped liberate the country from 1943 to 1945. Among our stops, Monte Cassino, where Canadians, Polish and British troops opened the road to Rome. I’ll never forget a night our tour group finished dinner at the restaurant of one of Rene’s friends in Monte Cassino. And into the wee hours, he and our merry band of travellers sang endless, boisterous choruses of the D-Day Dodgers song.

“Forgotten by the many; Remembered by the few,” we sang. “We are the D-Day Dodgers; Out here in Italy.”

Rene at the Berlin Wall, during our scouting trip across Germany - he never appeared fully at ease in such places.
Rene at the Berlin Wall, during our scouting trip across Germany – he never appeared fully at ease in such places.

The year that Rene Thied and I led Canadian vets and their families to Eastern Europe proved among the toughest for all of us. In 2011, we visited Auschwitz concentration camp outside Krakow where over a million Jewish prisoners were killed, and later Theresienstadt camp in what was Czechoslovakia where 100,000 Jews died. But Rene and I also found the enamel factory, where Oskar Schindler’s list of Jewish employees saved thousands. Knowing that the country of his birth was responsible for this crime and the Schindler miracle, our guide didn’t say much, at first. But then, all at once, Rene Thied opened up to us.

“My father was brought up in a Nazi family,” he told us one day. And he described the hardships that his family endured after the war in Communist East Germany, escaping eventually to Hanover in the West.

“I was 12 when I saw an article in the paper about concentration camps,” Rene said. “At 16, I left Germany, not wishing to ever come back.”

Canadian vet Harry Watts got to ride in the first jeep on VE Day in Holland, thanks to Rene.
Thanks to Rene Thied, Canadian vet Harry Watts got to ride in the first jeep on VE Day in Holland…

But he did, twice with us. In perhaps his proudest moment, Rene led us to the newly renovated Reichstag (German parliament) in Berlin in 2011. He recalled that his father had gone inside to see how Hitler had ruined the building during the war. “When I went inside and looked up to the ceiling of parliament,” Rene’s father told him, “there was nothing but sky. The roof was gone.” But in 2011, the revitalized national parliament rooftop had been elegantly transformed to a giant glass dome, which Rene said, “allows today’s German people to see a fully transparent parliament at work.”

... and Canadian vet Martin Maxwell too.
… and Canadian vet Martin Maxwell too.

Rene led us to the most extraordinary liberation anniversary celebrations in Holland, in 2010, and again last year. On Dutch Liberation Day, May 5, 2015, he ensured that our two veterans – dispatch rider Harry Watts, and glider pilot Martin Maxwell – rode in the parade through the streets prominently. He found a Dutch army vet, who had camped out all night to earn the lead position in the parade with his jeep. Our man Thied made sure Watts and Maxwell got seats in that vanguard jeep.

“Years have taken away so many of the vets,” Thied said last year. “But that just means more pent-up emotion from the Dutch for the few who are left.”

Rene Thied... happiest when making others happy.
Rene Thied… happiest when making others happy.

Rene Thied died last month of pancreatic cancer, at age 59. Five years ago, we celebrated his 54th birthday on the road in Prague. And we pressed him for his age.

“My father lived to the age of 56,” he told our tour group then. “I have lived a wonderful 54 years and hope to outlive my father.”

He did, by only three birthdays. This week, I wondered how many veterans – able to return to the Europe they liberated – will never know the unique gratitude from one of its modern citizens. Rene Thied will no longer be there to thank them with his infectious laugh, the twinkle of mischief in his eye, and his words of heart-felt homage.

8 comments:

  1. Fran and I very well remember the 2010 tour with you and Rene to celebrate the 65th Anniversary of the Liberation of Holland: The Holten War Graves cemetery with its rows of white headstones; The amazing parade in Apeldoorn with the crowds cheering the veterans as they passed, along with the obvious Dutch affection for the Canadians…made all the more poignant because of the WWII veterans in our tour; Rene telling us stories from the front of the bus as we passed through the countryside, and you, with your encyclopedic knowledge of all we saw, providing excellent running commentary. We are very saddened to hear of Rene’s passing!

  2. Spencer and I were on the Italian trip and the trip to Poland and Germany. Rene was a very professional guide and showed us the local sites at each stop that made these trips so memorable. His knowledge of art enhanced our Rome stops and his personal stories showed us who he really was. Thank you Ted for giving us this sad news.
    Helen and Spencer Storms

  3. Thanks Ted for the sad news and very fitting tribute to Rene. We have many fond memories of Rene leading us with you during our Holland Liberation Tour – his obvious passion for his vocation and the kindness he displayed to our group.

  4. Ted;

    Gloria & I are both stunned with your news re Rene. Your tribute to him is wonderful & speaks volumes about how the rest of us felt whenever he was our guide. Gloria will personally miss him because he was her dance partner whenever she got off & onto the bus. It will be difficult to find someone to fill his shoes.

    Gloria & Wayne Hall

  5. Rene: I went on four tours with you. Thank you for ensuring they were the most professional and enjoyable.

  6. Hello Ted,

    I was very shocked, and saddened, to learn of Rene’s passing at age 59. I will never forget the kind thing he did for me during the “Behind The Wall” tour, in 2011. In Berlin, the tour hotel had assigned a room to me that was just a bit larger than a broom closet. Not an exaggeration. There was, literally, no room for my luggage. I told the hotel front desk clerk I could not possibly stay in such a confined space for five nights, and requested a larger room. She consulted her supervisor and I was told it would not be possible. As I was protesting the supervisor’s decision Rene happened to come to the front desk, saw that I was upset, and asked me what the problem was. I explained the situation and he asked to speak to the supervisor. When she appeared, Rene quietly spoke about half a dozen words, in German, to her. I was immediately handed a new room key, and suddenly a bellhop appeared to take my luggage to a larger room. Without Rene’s intervention, my hotel stay in Berlin would have been very unpleasant. I will never forget the kind favour Rene did for me that day. He certainly didn’t have to, but he was a STAR: Saw Trouble And Responded. He truly was a gentleman, taken away from us far too soon.

  7. Wat zijn wij geschrokken van het nieuws dat René er niet meer is. Wij mistten hem al op onze app. We hadden een prachtig reis dankzij hem met de reis Rome en de Golf van Napels in 2015. In 2016 hebben wij hem speciaal nog ontmoet in Assisi en wat gedronken op een terras. Hij heeft speciaal nog de Basilica di San Francesco in Assisi met ons tweetjes bezocht. Wat een geweldige leuke lieve en bijzondere man! Wij houden van hem zoals ie was. Vergeten hem nooit. Sterkte aan Jan.

    With thanks to my friend Al Vrensen, who translated this email from Dutch to English:
    “We are really shocked by the news that Rene is no longer with us. We already missed him on our app. We had a beautiful trip thanks to him in Rome and the Gulf of Naples in 2015. In 2016 we had especially met up with him in Assisi and had a drink at a terrace. He particularly visited with the two of us at the Basilica of Saint Francis in Assisi. What a fantastic, jolly, loveable and unique man. We loved him for who he was. We’ll never forget him. Strength to Jan.”

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