How May 5th is celebrated in The Netherlands and how Lions Bay resident Norman Kirby played a major role during the country’s liberation in 1945
Early May is springtime in The Netherlands, just like it is in Canada. The weather warms up, the trees start to blossom, the flowers come out and the month sets off with a few important public holidays. On May 4 at eight in the evening, the Dutch remember their 240,000 war dead which were almost all civilian and of which 104,000 Jewish, with solemn and sober ceremonies including a minute of silence. The next day however it is ‘Bevrijdingsdag’ or ‘Liberation Day’ where the Dutch celebrate how on May 5, 1945 the German forces accepted the terms of their surrender to the Canadian generals Foulkes and Kitching at a small hotel in the city of Wageningen.
What does May 5 these days look like? It is a day full of festivities all over the country where each municipality hosts music events, celebrations, markets and public parades. It is also the only other day – other than King’s Day on April 27th – where most Dutch homes will fly the national red-white and blue from their homes, many adding the orange banner on top which represents the colour and name of the royal family. But most importantly it is also the day to honour the veterans and war heroes who traditionally participate in parades across the country, and many Canadian, American, British, Polish and Dutch veterans have attended these events in recent years. And even though the war’s end is now 75 years behind us, these men are still cheered, honoured and celebrated as if the liberation took place only yesterday. As Lions Bay residents we can be proud that one of them is Norman Kirby who landed on the beaches of Normandy in June 1944 and fought all the way up to the liberation of The Netherlands and finally Germany. Had it not been for the Coronavirus crisis impacting us this year, Norm would have been in The Netherlands attending the liberation festivities, celebrating and commemorating 75 years of freedom.
There is a reason that the gratitude for these war heroes runs so deep. The last year of the war inflicted a terrible toll on the still occupied western and northern parts of the country. Cut off from all supply lines a famine spread across the entire country, in particular the cities, which killed thousands and left many to survive on things like flower bulbs and tree bark. It was compounded by endless efforts to arrest and haul off young men to Germany for forced labour. If this were not enough, retribution for even the smallest infractions against the Nazi occupiers was often summary execution. Collective punishment was handed out to civilian populations where the German occupier often shot groups of random people and left their corpses on display for everyone to see. And in the final weeks, when the war was effectively over the retreating Germans pointlessly blew up historical buildings, bridges and even inundated some areas creating a fresh flow of refugees. It was a horror winter, so one can imagine that the sight of Canadian soldiers marching into a Dutch village or neighbourhood resulted in total elation. A five-year nightmare had come to an end. Dutch flags were brought out, the alcohol freely flowed and Dutch streets exploded in spontaneous dancing and wild celebrations.
It is this spirit of gratitude and happiness that the Dutch managed to preserve over the decades so that now even younger generations participate in all the fun and excitement on May 5. All of course not without a key purpose: the essence of Liberation Day is to realize how easily democracy and freedom can be lost and what an incredible price there is to pay to regain these. For Canada the war in Europe was on the other side of the ocean and as Norm Kirby himself often said, after he returned from the war everybody carried on and forgot about it. The Dutch too forgot, on purpose or not, the memories of the horrors were too fresh and too gruesome and were largely supressed while everyone engaged in rebuilding a nation that was reduced to rubble. But in the later years with the elapse of time, the opening up of archives and certainly the advent of the internet made it possible to remember again and bring the war back to life for both the young and old.
And so it is in 2020, seventy-five years after the conclusion of World War II that we remember the fallen, the wounded, the heroes, and all that contributed to rid the world of the terrors of Nazism. We should all be proud that we get to share a village with one of those veterans who at a very young age risked his life and contributed to the liberation that is celebrated on May 5. Let’s all use this day to remember and reflect and thank our great neighbour, Norman Kirby.
Here is a great interview with Norman, a few weeks ago: