Understanding why and what we remember through the European perspective
A few years ago I spoke some words at the Remembrance Day ceremony here in Lions Bay– and I focused on how people in Europe experienced being liberated by Canadian troops in 1945. It makes sense to reflect on that, as we need to understand what they, these brave men and women, accomplished. And yes in a way, if The Netherlands were never liberated back then I would most probably not be standing here today.
Norman Kirby was among those troops. You landed on D-Day and marched and fought all the way up to the northern parts of The Netherlands and into Germany. By late August and early September 1944, allied troops crossed into Dutch territory. It caused a real panic among the Germans and their collaborators who started to flee and whose operations were severely impacted. The war could have ended right then and there if the massive allied attack on Arnhem, Operation Market Garden as it was called and you all probably know it better by the movie about it, ‘A Bridge too Far’, had succeeded. It failed as it met fierce German resistance and it caused the allies to get stuck behind the great rivers, separating the West and North of The Netherlands from liberated territory.
What followed was a winter of hunger, plunder and terror where the German occupiers basically destroyed what was left of The Netherlands while starving its population. The place was reduced to rubble. My own father who was seventeen in that last winter had to hide when German troops raided towns and villages to capture young men to work in Germany’s readily collapsing war industry. My father survived, as did my grandfather who was interned in Buchenwald, one of the more notorious concentration camps.
Around the same time that the allied troops entered The Netherlands, Anne Frank and her family were deported on September 3, 1944 – the last transport of Jews to Auschwitz from The Netherlands. The Frank family had been following the advance of the allied troops from their place and those of you have read her diary will remember the excitement when they figured out that allied troops were getting closer and closer to liberating The Netherlands. For them it was the last bit of hope that separated them from a certain death.
The story of Anne Frank and her family symbolizes the deep horror of the Nazi occupation. Their ordeal started in 1942 in what I find to be one of the most gut wrenching things I have learned about the Holocaust. A note from the German occupiers that her oldest sister, Margot, had to report to the train station on a certain night, on her own, unoccupied with only one piece of luggage. And yes, she had to walk there on her own saying goodbye to her family, forever, in the hallway. This is one of the cruellest things one can imagine and for the Frank family it was the sign to pack up and hide, a mission which almost was successful, as we know only her father Otto managed to survive the war.
As a kid I just did not grow up with those stories, they were part of post-war life in The Netherlands. My parents would point to Jews that had survived, to people that had collaborated with the Nazi occupiers, to people who had served in the resistance, to people that had lost loved ones and yes, on a lighter note, to some of the girls who got hitched to a Canadian soldier when they finally arrived during the first week of May 1945, liberating the Dutch from five years of occupation and the ‘winter of hunger’ as it came to be known.
These stories were essential in remembering and why freedom was such a precious thing. On this side of the ocean here in Canada we learn about the sacrifices of the soldiers and the battles for freedom, but in the Europe I grew up in I had learned firsthand what it actually meant what Canadian soldiers delivered us from. My father took me to the Remembrance Day services in May and after they ended he and I would casually stroll back to our house, leaving behind a square filled with floral tributes to the fallen. He would tell me that none of the unborn would ever realize what freedom really meant. In my childlike enthusiasm I firmly rejected this notion, but subconsciously I knew he was absolutely right. Not until you have experienced what it is to see entire families disappear from your street or to sit on a darkened attic for days on end to avoid capture, deportation and death, can one come to realize the true value of freedom.
And remembering is very hard. Over time things get lost, or sometimes people deliberately forget and move on. The Dutch never came to terms with the fact that out of 140,000 Jews, only 36,000 survived the war. Next year I will travel back to attend the unveiling of the Monument of Names in Amsterdam, a monument that has the names of each and every of those 104,000 Jews on it, much like the Vietnam monument in Washington, DC. It was built by letting donors adopt the names of murdered Jews and we as a family adopted a few. In doing that you bring them back to life, a bit. But note, it took some 70 years to get to this monument and yes; Anne Frank’s name will be on it.
But, if we do not keep telling and sharing these stories, people will not remember the why and the how of war. And people will no longer fully grasp why the Dutch were elated to see Canadian troops roll into their cities in the spring of 1945. So remembering today is not only to honour the soldier, but to fully understand what they fought for, what they gave their lives for.
This was the text for my words to the Lions Bay community on November 11, 2017. The photo of Norman Kirby was made during the ceremony of 2016.