George Molnar played a critical role in the conclusion of the Second World War, but he kept it secret from all but his family. It was years later before colleagues learned that as a young captain in the Canadian military he had served as the interpreter for German generals during their capitulation in Holland.
The last surviving person to participate in Germany’s surrender there on May 5, 1945, Dr. Molnar died at home in Edmonton on Monday. He was a few months shy of his 96th birthday.
“He only sparingly told people about the role he played,” said Robert Wuetherick, a friend and employee of the Molnar family. “That is not the way he defined himself.”
Married for more than 70 years, Dr. Molnar was a loving father and grandfather and a physician who went on to become chairman of the Department of Medicine at the University of Alberta. He was trained at the Mayo Clinic, and also helped establish the Alberta Diabetes Institute.
For all of the acclaim he received as a researcher and doctor, his place in history is forever secured by the unique service he provided in the liberation of Holland. Although V-E Day, marking the Allies’ victory throughout Europe, was declared on May 8, Holland continues to celebrate its liberation day on May 5.
Demeter George Eugene Molnar was born on July 30, 1922, in Szekesfehervar, Hungary. His mother was a language teacher who spoke to him in French, German or English exclusively for a year at a time. His father was a Protestant clergyman who accepted a posting in Canada after he and his wife divorced.
With war in Europe imminent, George joined his father and stepmother in Hamilton, Ont., as a 16-year-old in 1939. When his dad was called to preach in Calgary, he followed, studying for a year at Mount Royal University and serving as a reserve with the South Alberta Light Horse Armoured Regiment.
Enlisting for active duty as a private on May 8, 1942, George progressed through basic training and learned to drive tanks in Dundurn, Sask. He was then selected for officer training at Camp Borden in Ontario, after which he anticipated being assigned to an armoured brigade overseas.
He only sparingly told people about the role he played. That is not the way he defined himself— Robert Wuetherick
But when military officials discovered that he spoke German, they sent him for intelligence training in England. He was promoted to captain as a 20-year-old on Feb. 13, 1943 – the youngest in the Canadian Army.
Capt. Molnar was serving with the intelligence corps at the First Canadian Division headquarters near Apeldoorn, Holland, when he was called upon to provide the special duty he fulfilled that historic day. The impeccable German he spoke made him the ideal candidate.
The night before, Harry Wickwire Foster, the major-general under whom Capt. Molnar served, told him to report for duty early the next morning. Even as they drove through enemy lines, Maj.-Gen. Foster never revealed the nature of his mission that day.
Dropped off in Wageningen, a town in central Holland, Capt. Molnar was directed to the Hotel de Wereld. The lobby was bare, except for a table with seats on each side for military officers. At 11 a.m., the negotiations that led to the surrender began.
The 22-year-old sat beside Prince Bernhard of Holland, Canadian Lieutenant-General Charles Foulkes and Brigadier George Kitching, and across from Paul Reichelt, the chief of staff to Johannes Blaskowitz, the general in command of German forces in the Netherlands.
During the meeting, Lt-Gen. Foulkes dictated the terms of surrender, pausing to allow Capt. Molnar to translate. Col.-Gen. Blaskowitz attended the proceedings later in the day and sat directly across from the translator, occasionally asking questions. At the age of 61, Col.-Gen. Blaskowitz was old enough to be Capt. Molnar’s grandfather, but treated him with the respect due a ranking officer.
Col-Gen. Blaskowitz, who had led German troops during the invasion of Poland, signed formal surrender documents the next day. The German officer had fallen into disfavour with Hitler early on after condemning atrocities committed by the SS. He died in an apparent suicide in 1948 while awaiting trial for war crimes in Nuremberg. Posthumously, he was found not guilty of war crimes.
To this day, Holland continues to show appreciation to its liberators, Canadians in particular. A photo taken of Capt. Molnar as he acted as translator has been featured in posters commemorating the war’s end in Holland, and it even appeared on the cover of a biscuit tin produced by a Dutch company. After the surrender, Capt. Molnar was tasked with overseeing the orderly removal of 120,000 German soldiers from the country.
“It is only with time and age that my father came to share more of the details,” his son, Charles, a professor of genetics and biology at Camosun College in Victoria, B.C., said. “It is a huge source of pride. The appreciation blossoms with time for my father and so many others.”
Capt. Molnar was discharged from the military in 1945 and returned to Canada. He enrolled in the pre-medicine program at the University of Alberta. While attending classes there, he met his wife, Gwen, an education student and former messenger to a Navy quartermaster. They married on Christmas Eve in 1947.
After receiving his medical degree in 1951, Dr. Molnar went on to become an instructor and researcher at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn. University officials in Edmonton recruited him back in 1975 to become the University of Alberta’s fifth chairman of medicine. He officially retired in 1992 after helping found its diabetes and research training centre.
In 2011, Mr. Wuetherick and his wife, Lorie White, visited Wageningen, where the uniform that Capt. Molnar wore on May 5, 1945, is displayed in a museum. The room at the Hotel de Wereld where the meetings were held is known now as The Great Capitulation Hall.
On his 94th birthday, Mr. Molnar received a gift from an Edmonton-area resident, Elly Dalmaijer. As a toddler, she hid in the basement when bombs were falling on her hometown in Holland near Wageningen. Her father kept a diary during the Second World War, and she presented it to Mr. Molnar. She also gave him one of the commemorative cookie tins with his picture from May 5, 1945 on the cover.
“I would have been pleased to meet anyone who had been in the Canadian military,” Ms. Dalmaijer said. “To get the opportunity to meet the actual person that played such a crucial role was really touching to me.”
When she asked Mr. Molnar why he enlisted in the Army to help strangers halfway around the world, he told her it was because he knew that Hitler was evil.
“The altruism of people in these situations still boggles me,” she said.
In addition to his wife, Gwen, and son, Charles, Mr. Molnar leaves his daughter, Gwendoline Jane, who lives in Toronto, and granddaughter, Hazel.
Mr. Molnar loved carpentry and was a keen boater. He remained committed to being fit and active into his 90s. It was only in the last few years that he had begun to slow down.
“A couple of years ago, he kind of touched my arm as I walked by, and said, ‘I am going soon,’ “ his son, Charles, said. “It was such a wonderful moment of connection.
“He showed great stoicism as life became more constraining. He wanted to let me know without hesitation how proud he was of me, and he took the opportunity to make that clear. He was a great, kind, generous soul.”