This Tuesday I will take my children to the Remembrance Day ceremonies, just like my father used to take me to the remembrance ceremonies in The Netherlands where I grew up as a child. The memories of those events are vivid: a sober ceremony, some music, a speech by the mayor, veterans and survivors placing some wreaths in front of the statue on the square and a silence of two minutes followed by the national anthem. But as opposed to Americans, Canadians and British, our day of remembrance is May 4, the day marking the eve of liberation day; the day Canadian troops liberated the North and West of The Netherlands almost seventy years ago. But there is another more major difference between these two days of remembrance: most of the victims we commemorated weren’t military, but civilian.
I remember one time, I must have been about ten years old that I was standing next to an older man who was there together with a younger man who I had seen before in our hometown. The younger man was probably somewhere in his late thirties with dark black hair and, as it seemed to, somewhat mentally challenged. The older man started talking to me and I could not really follow what he was saying as I was trying hard to pay attention to the unfolding ceremony. So, all I did was smile to the man, nodding yes, and in effect politely ignoring him. As time went on it became evident that he was talking about the mentally handicapped younger man standing next to us. He probably had come to the conclusion I wasn’t paying any real attention so in order to grab it he all of a sudden cut right to the heart of his monologue and pointed to the younger man and said: “they made him watch the execution of his parents”. Somewhat embarrassed, I turned to the man and immersed myself in the life story of one of the few Dutch Jews who had managed to survive the Second World War.
And so it was in many Dutch households, where stories of suffering and survival were kept alive by a generation that had lived through five years of war and brutal suppression. My own family also provided its wartime narrative. There was the story about my grandfather who ended up in Buchenwald after he and a few enthusiastic would-be resistance fighters had naively compiled list of all the members of the team. That typical Dutch effort to get organized ended terribly when the list with names inadvertently fell into German hands. Or how my own father during the last few months of the war was forced to hide in a closet, while the streets were swarmed with Wehrmacht rounding up young men to work in Germany’s rapidly collapsing war industry. They were all stories that formed an integral part of the identity of our family, oral history in its purest form, delivered on to the next generation at the dinner table and at family parties. And in the days leading up to and after the May 4 commemorations they were usually recycled and enriched with long forgotten details.
So, after these Remembrance Day services had ended my father 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. My generation learned to take that freedom for granted, use it or even abuse it.
As the generation of my parents passes on, the ones born in the first few decades after the war will be the last generation to have had some sort of direct link to the world war that ended in 1945. Both in Canada and Europe that generation is somehow tasked with preserving the memory of what it means to lose freedom as best as it can. That is why today I will take my children to Remembrance Day. So that they understand directly why Canadians landed on Juno Beach and why people from both sides of the Atlantic connected through mutual, if very different, experiences of totalitarianism. And yes, they will hear me talk about what happened to their grandfather, their great-grandfather and that poor black haired man who now most likely will have reached middle age, still tortured by the trauma and brutality he endured as a child.
There is of course more than just the spoken word, as today we gather around the more physical legacy presented by war monuments. One of the most impressive can be found in Amsterdam where former Dutch resistance fighter and poet H.M. van Randwijk’s succinct words immortalized the essence of losing freedom and the importance of remembering:
A people that bows to tyrants
Note: this text was originally a speech that I gave to the Lions Bay Remembrance Day ceremony on November 11, 2007. The text was published and I recently edited a bit, it was also published on Medium, here.