By Rita Hoefnagels, U.S. Army Garrison Benelux Public Affairs
BRUNSSUM, Netherlands -- A terrible screeching sound rudely awoke me out of nice dreams, and for a moment I didn’t know where I was. But thank goodness I was in my own bed in my own room at my parents’ house. That terrible sound came from the British War Cemetery right across from our house.
Every year on May 5, Liberation Day in the Netherlands, a British military would come to the cemetery and sound reveille at eight in the morning on his bagpipe! Then, as a teenager, after a night out because May 5 is a national Holiday and you could sleep in, it was a very rude awakening.
So, I got up and went down to complain to my parents. But they weren’t sympathetic at all. My dad looked at me and said: “Think why this is done!”
I need to admit that after a few minutes thinking, I blushed and sat down. My dad was right. It was because of men like the British soldiers who found their last resting place in the cemetery across our house that I live in freedom. Some of those men were only teenagers when they died, far away from home and their loved ones. I had no reason at all to complain!
Unlike other countries, the Netherlands sets aside two days to commemorate the World War II and celebrate the country’s liberation from five years of occupation. May 4, Remembrance Day, is a day of solemn commemoration while May 5, Liberation Day, is a day of fun and joy.
The second world war left an indelible mark on the Dutch, who had remained neutral in the First World War. Though memories are gradually fading, however, they continue to occupy thoughts and conversations and remain a constant reminder of the fragility of civilization and democracy.
Germany invaded the Netherlands in May 1940. The number of people still alive who lived through the war has obviously declined. But most Dutch, young and old, are still aware of the years of Occupation, the persecution of Jews, Roma, Sinti and other minority communities in our society, and the destruction of Dutch towns and villages.
It took the Allied forces almost a year, September 1944 to Aug. 15, 1945, to liberate all the territories of the Kingdom of the Netherlands. Actually, Aug. 15, 1945 is the date on which Japan capitulated and freedom was restored to the then Dutch East Indies (now the Republic of Indonesia). Therefore different parts of the country celebrate their liberation at different times of the year. However, on May 4 and 5, the entire country observes a day of remembrance followed by a day of celebration.
The two days are a unique tradition, and for many people in the Netherlands they are very important. They give us a chance to pause and reflect on values and ideals of freedom, democracy and human rights.
Since the end of the World War II, the Dutch have observed May 4 as a day to honor the victims of war. Unlike most countries, the Netherlands does not mark this occasion with large military parades. No, people all over the country gather at war memorials in their own community, and at the stroke of eight in the evening the entire country observes a two-minute silence to commemorate the civilians and military service members who lost their lives in World War II.
A national ceremony is held in Amsterdam, with a memorial service in the historic Nieuwe Kerk at Dam Square. The ceremony is attended by the Royal Family, members of parliament and people from more than 100 organizations representing the different groups affected by the war. After the two-minute silence wreaths are laid at the foot of the national monument at Dam Square.
Sadly, due to the COVID-19 situation, only the King and Queen will lay a wreath this year at the monument on Dam Square in Amsterdam without public attendance. The ceremony will be broadcast live on radio and television so millions of people can still see this solemn event.
May 4 is a tribute to all Dutch victims of war. Special honor is paid to civilians and to members of the armed forces who fell in World War II and to all Dutch nationals who lost their live since then in other wars or peace operations.
The closure of the Remembrance Day ceremony normally would be the start of the Liberation Day festivities which commemorate Germany’s capitulation on May 5, 1945. War veterans would gather in the town of Wageningen, where the historic documents were signed in Hotel “De Wereld,” and parade through the city. May 5 is a national holiday on which the solemnity of Remembrance Day gives way to celebrations. But again due to the COVID-19 situation, no festivities will be held.
Different generations obviously have different perceptions of World War II and the remembrance and liberation ceremonies. People who lived through the war have personal memories of their experience, whereas later generations can only rely on history books and other accounts.
Whenever we -- my brother, sister, and I -- asked about the war my parents would usually tell us and not hold back anything. In April of 1940, my Dad, 19 years old, was as so many other young men at that time called to arms to defend his country. He was located in Rotterdam where he experienced the gruesome bombing of the town. It must have been a terrible and traumatic experience, and he never wanted to say much about it.
He did tell me, though, that the Germans systematically bombed the town. They started in the center and spread out to the outskirts. And my Dad was right in the middle of it. At the moment the Netherlands surrendered and a ceasefire was given, debris was scattering all around him. Many of his comrades died in the bombings. Those who survived, my dad included, were taken to prison and were transported to a camp in the middle of the Netherlands. But he was lucky and survived in one piece.
I could tell a lot more stories about my family’s experiences during the war, but the point I’m trying to make is that for my family Remembrance Day and Liberation Day were and are still very important.
The events organized to commemorate the war center on themes relevant today to people of all ages and backgrounds. Over the past years, Liberation Day has become a day on which the country unites to reflect on freedom and democracy. In marking the Netherlands’ liberation from oppression we celebrate the freedom we enjoy today. Unlike most countries, the Netherlands draws inspiration from this dark period in history to focus on the present and the future. That’s what makes these two days so special and important.