On May 4, the Netherlands recognizes Remembrance Day, then on May 5, Liberation Day is celebrated. These two days are very close to the Dutch, who remember the fallen of World War II, and celebrate being liberated from the Nazis, prior to the end of the war. Living survivors are becoming less common now, but many native Netherlanders have a direct connection to someone who was lost during the war, someone who suffered, or someone who witnessed the atrocities taking place in their own streets.
The Netherlands are the only country known to hold their WWII memorial and victory celebration on two separate days. The Dutch have said that although the events commemorated over these two days are in essence one, the emotions are not congruent. Those lost deserve to be honored, to be remembered with sadness. Liberation and freedom should be celebrated, and to be experienced with jubilation.
The Netherlands were occupied by Nazi forces from May 17, 1940 to May 5, 1945. Many Jewish residents were taken to concentration camps never to return, as were other "non-conformists" such as gypsies or homosexuals. Many Dutch Resistance fighters were killed or imprisoned. Many "regular" citizens did not survive the Hunger Winter. These lives are honored on Remembrance Day, May 4, the last day of Nazi occupation. Canadian forces came through, taking control of Amsterdam on behalf of the Dutch, on May 5, 1945, and the Nazis capitulated. This is celebrated on Liberation Day
Throughout The Netherlands there are over 40 different memorial events prior to the National Remembrance of the Dead. Some of those widely visited in Amsterdam include the Open Jewish Homes, the Open Resistance Homes, and the ceremonies at the Homomonument, and of course, that national ceremonies at Dam Square. All of these events focus on telling the stories of those lost, real people with children, friends, coworkers, whose lives were cut short.
It was coincidence that we happened to be Amsterdam on Remembrance Day this year. Our hosts in Germany had selected the dates of our visit, whether intentionally or not. Once we were aware of the significance of these days, it was very important to us to participate. After an early dinner, we saw the crowds begin moving in the streets. So we began to follow, and soon were swallowed into the throng.
Gradually we made our way toward Dam Square. The National Monument was ahead, flanked by large projection screens. There were so many people, calmly waiting. And suddenly a stirring began, as people shifted for a line of sight. King Wellem and Queen Maxima had arrived. All attention was on them as they solemnly commenced through the honor guard.
As one, we watched on screen as King and Queen stood before the National Monument while a speech of remembrance was given. Then together, they climbed the steps, and laid a wreath on behalf of all Dutch people. The Taptoe, the military honor song, was played. As it came to an end, the clock struck 20:00.
Then there was utter stillness. There was no movement. There was no sound except the seagulls. The honor guard stood at attention. Thousands of citizens stood in silence. All attention was on the memory of all those lost, those who did not survive the occupation, family members, friends and neighbors whose lives were taken; those who were once mourned and grieved, were remembered. For two full minutes, there was silence.
Then, as the two minute of silence came to an end, there were speakers. Then, one by one, survivors, accompanied and assisted by their loved ones, moved through the honor guard. They met the Monarchs, then moved to the steps of the National Monument. The younger generation climbed the steps and laid wreaths on behalf of the older, their loved ones, who had survived, and had come to honor those who had not, those lost 72 years before. Five groups of survivors came forward, each with their story told on the screen, the younger generation laying the wreaths.
I felt strangely connected to everyone around me. I wanted to embrace them, to take their hands. The Canadians liberated the Netherlands. Across the world in Canada there were families, probably having lunch, whose grandfather's were part of the reason that many of these Dutch were able to gather on this day. And I wanted to believe that somewhere in France there were families having dinner, able to do so because my American grandfather's had played some role in the liberation of their country. Perhaps it was a ridiculous leap beyond logic. There was a gap of many years and millions of people, yet I felt deeply that we were indeed connected.
After the ceremonies, the King and Queen were escorted away, and the gathering slowly dissolved. It seemed as if all of Amsterdam was quiet that night, at least from where we were in the back courtyard of our hotel. The next morning the festivities would commence. The celebration of liberation, of freedom, would begin with free breakfast served at numerous locations throughout the city. Then a full day of concerts and festivities would ensue.
The Dutch keep their Remembrance and their Liberation Days separate so that both can be completely experienced without conflicting emotions. It makes perfect sense. The Day of Remembrance for the Dead is powerful, and moving. For the first time in my life I felt I fully understood the meaning of a memorial day, and it was the people of Amsterdam who led me to that understanding.
I have no doubt that Liberation Day is one big amazing party. Unfortunately, we had to depart the city before the celebrations were in full swing. I guess that is just one more reason we must return to Amsterdam some day!
If you would like to see the televised ceremonies of the 2017 Remembrance Day, the Dutch News has published them on YouTube at the following links:
If you would like more information about the Remembrance Day of the Dead, or Liberation Day in Amsterdam, the following links will get you started.
Dutch Resistance Museum: https://www.verzetsmuseum.org/museum/en/museum
The Organizations managing the events: http://www.4en5mei.nl/english/4_and_5_may
The header image for this article, as well as the Homomonument image, belong to Gypsy With a Day Job. Other images used are from Wikepedia Commons. Credits are included in image descriptions.