Today is Dodenherdenking in the Netherlands; literally, ‘Remembrance of the Dead’. It’s the day when the whole country commemorates those who died in the Second World War, and every war since.
Tonight, the whole country stopped at 8pm. Two minutes of silence were held; on the television were images of Queen Beatrix laying a wreath, a packed though silent Dam Square in Amsterdam, and even cars parked along freeways, taking part in these two minutes. Shops closed early, and the only noise on the street was the cathedral chiming to mark the hour. It was solemn, and it was very moving.
There aren’t a lot of references to World War II by the Dutch. Perhaps it’s still too recent; that’s what makes this war different to tales of Napoleon and William of Orange. People still alive today witnessed the atrocities of such a war. That’s what hit me the first time I came to Europe. I would look around at the elderly and just wonder. “What was your role? What have you seen?” The questions would zip around my head at a rate of knots but of course I asked none.
Another point which marks World War II different from previous wars was that it was a total war. For us today, this means that everyone has a story to tell. Soldiers weren’t the only ones with war experiences. Thousands of Rotterdamers lost their homes and many their lives. Thousands more Jews, political prisoners, gypsies, homosexuals and those with disabilities lost their lives, too. Some were planned, some were at random. Some were murdered, some starved to death. Everyone has a story to tell.
So today, I thought about those people. I thought about the gap in the houses at the end of the street which were bombed by the Nazis. When watching Dam Square, I thought about Anne Frank’s hiding place just a short walk away.
Perhaps that’s the difference here. There are those little markers of war everywhere. There are bullet holes in buildings, reconstructed churches and simple memorials. And, perhaps most prevalent of all, there are stumble stones.
There are more than 30,000 stumble stones in Europe, all commemorating a victim of Nazism who resided in the adjacent residence.
May 4 may be the designated Remembrance Day in the Netherlands, but through initiatives like the stumble stones, memories don’t have to simply be drawn upon annually.
In Australia, it’s hard to picture battlefields in far-away lands. Here, I just look at that gap at the end of the street.