Celebrating history

I heard it said once that if you want to know what is important to someone, look at their checkbook and their calendar. (These days, I guess you’d have to look at their mobile banking app and iCal.)

I can’t speak to how the Dutch spend their money, but I can say that their calendars are filled with holidays, especially in the coming weeks. Today is a national holiday, Liberation Day, commemorating the liberation of the Netherlands at the end of World War II. Yesterday was Remembrance Day, and we joined thousands of others last night in Dam Square to watch the King and Queen lay wreaths at the National Monument. Our beginner-level Dutch didn’t let us to follow the nuances of the speeches, but sadly there are some phrases – kindertransport, concentratiekamp – that can be understood across any language.

It is a powerful thing to join strangers in two minutes of silence – a silence which was full and deep, despite the size of the crowd and our location in the center of the city. I was aware that my thoughts in those moments were likely quite different from those around me. A great-uncle of mine was killed in the war, his transport plane crashing in North Africa. Still, I know that the American experience of war, and especially of World War II, is far different from the European experience. The deprivation, the danger, and the loss are still in the memories of people here. Colleagues of mine in their early thirties know well their grandparents’ stories of the Hunger Winter. Holocaust memorials can be found throughout Amsterdam, and take on additional significance in light of rising anti-Semitism in Europe and attacks on synagogues and Jewish community centers in recent years.

I don’t pretend to know enough about Dutch history or culture or politics to have fully-formed opinions about how they both commemorate their past and address the current challenges. But last night, watching the ceremony and listening to the music, I felt a seriousness – a reverence – from the crowd that had gathered. Whatever their collective understanding of their country may be, they clearly understood the need to stop, to reflect, and to honor those lives that were lost.

Today, Liberation Day, has a slightly different tone, and will be marked by many events, including a musical festival, community dinners, and a concert on the Amstel River. If the Dutch recognize that there is time for reflection, they also know that there is a time for celebration.

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