After a wonderful string of weekends hosting visitors, we’ve found ourselves with several weekends that are blissfully free. We’ve taken advantage of this time and the incredible autumn weather (which I’m told is unusual) by doing some day trips. One day was spent exploring Utrecht, which was much more enjoyable than my report of my bike crash would lead you to believe. This past weekend we took the train to Arnhem.
Anyone familiar with World War 2 will know Arnhem as the site of the Battle of Arnhem and the target of Operation Market Garden. Market Garden was led by Field Marshal Montgomery of the British 1st Airborne Division, and it was the single largest airborne operation in military history, up to that time. American, British, and Polish airborne troops participated in the drop and the fierce fighting that followed. Ultimately, due to a series of tragic events – poor intelligence about German presence, equipment drops into enemy-held territory, ammunition shortages – the operation failed. The British suffered heavy losses, the Germans recaptured key bridges, and the civilian population was forced to evacuate. The goal to end the war by Christmas of 1944 was not met; instead, the war continued. The Dutch – who had earlier greeted the Allied troops as liberators – endured the Hunger Winter.
We learned all of this at the Airborne Museum in Oosterbeek. (We had, I’m a bit embarrassed to say, brushed up the night before by watching an episode of Band of Brothers. You could also watch the film “A Bridge Too Far” or the British movie “Theirs is the Glory”.)
The Museum is housed in the former Hotel Hartenstein, which was the British headquarters during the war. The exhibits were very well done, especially the exhibit about the evacuation of Arnhem after the British defeat. The stories are told from the perspective of survivors, now in their 80s and 90s, who were children during the war. These children and their families packed up their few belongings, believing they’d be back home in a matter of days. It was 10 months before they were able to return, and when they did, they found much of their community destroyed. The reflections of the survivors – and their own children, who never fully understood the impact the war had on their parents – were made even more relevant when one considers the millions of displaced people seeking refuge and safety today.
What I found most moving was the monument outside the museum, which was given to the residents of the entire province of Gelderland by the British troops, several decades after the war. The monument speaks to the fact that the British came to liberate the Dutch, but instead brought death and destruction. In spite of that, the British were – and still are – treated with gratitude and respect by the residents of these communities. Many Dutch continue to tend the graves of British soldiers buried in the nearby cemetery in Oosterbeek, and annual ceremonies of remembrance bring the community together.
I think it is difficult for Americans to truly appreciate the impact of World War 2 on Europe. I don’t say this to imply that American involvement in the War wasn’t both tragic and heroic. My family suffered losses, and there was deprivation and difficulty throughout the United States. But the experience of occupation, of exile, is one that Americans, thankfully, cannot relate to. And the effect it has on a population – on their collective psyche, on their health – doesn’t end when the war ends.