Dutch citizens celebrate as British soldiers with the 1st Canadian Army liberate the Netherlands in May, 1945.

Remembrance Day in the Netherlands: The Power of Silence

In Holland, Liberation Day is for celebration. But Remembrance Day in the Netherlands, “Dodenherdenking,” is for the silence of deep and painful memories, the solemnity of “We Will Never Forget.”

Liberation Day is celebrated in the Netherlands on May 5th. It marks the day in 1945 when the Germans surrendered in Holland and the occupation of the Netherlands officially ended, and with it the long nightmare of World War II for the Dutch people.

Liberation Day, Bevrijdingsdag, is marked by celebration. It’s a national holiday, a happy day, a day for fun and picnics and laughter and parties. Everyone gets the day off from work. There are music festivals throughout the country. The day’s festivities end with a major concert on the Amstel River in Amsterdam. The people celebrate their freedom, democracy and joy.

Dutch citizens celebrate as British soldiers with the 1st Canadian Army liberate the Netherlands in May, 1945.

British soldiers from the 49th (West Riding) Division—the Polar Bears—attached to 1st Canadian Army,
liberate Utrecht, the Netherlands in May, 1945.

Remembrance Day in the Netherlands Comes First

But for the Dutch, the rule has always been, “First commemorate, then celebrate.” And so the day before all the fun and festivals, May 4th, is the day to remember all those who died or were murdered in World War II and in every armed conflict since. Remembrance Day ceremonies are still taken very seriously and are held throughout the country, with the major one taking place at Amsterdam’s Dam Square, where wreaths are laid by the King and Queen.

Remembering My Remembering

My own memories of Remembrance Day in the Netherlands are smaller, more personal than the pomp and royalty on the city’s main square. But perhaps the more powerful for all that.

It was 1971 and I had been living in Amsterdam for only a few weeks, but I was already in love with the country and the people. I was not on Dam Square that day. I didn’t see Queen Juliana lay a wreath or hear the bugles play. I didn’t watch any of the pageantry or hear the solemn speeches—which I would not have understood anyway as my Dutch was non-existent at the time. I was not part of any crowd. But what I saw was much more meaningful to me.

It was a beautiful spring day in Amsterdam, I recall, with flowers spilling from every window box and a few flat-bottomed white clouds dotting an unusually blue sky. The windows were open in many of the flats, their so-Dutch white lace curtains ruffling slightly in a spring breeze.

I was walking along the Rozengracht near where it crosses the Prinsengracht. I was on my way to meet a friend for dinner at a favorite café and hoping we’d be able to find a table outside to enjoy the beautiful weather. The Dutch are such inveterate sun-worshippers, they were out in force, filling every available seat of every terrace café I passed.

People at a terrace cafe in the sun in Amsterdam

Today, as in 1971, Amsterdammers love sitting outdoors at a terrace cafe canalside on a sunny day in May.


A tour boat slid quietly up the Rozengracht canal, leaving a small wake where the sunlight glistened off the water. Moms pushed strollers and prams along the cobblestones. A young couple bicycled past on their traditional old-fashioned Dutch bikes, each with one hand on the handlebars and the other clasped between them, in perfect balance. The café patrons laughed and chatted over their drinks—a koffee, a pilsje, a jenever.

And the World Stopped

The sky was still light at 8 pm, the sun sailing low in the sky when, almost as if the earth took a deep breath and held it…everything and everyone in the Netherlands simply stopped.
Cars pulled to the side of the road and stopped. A tram moving down the middle of the street slowed and rolled to a complete stop mid-block. Pedestrians stopped walking and stood like relaxed statues. People in the sidewalk cafés put down their cups, their forks, their glasses of pils.

A waiter stepped from inside to the doorway, looked out and stopped. A streetsweep stopped and leaned on his broom, looking down at the now-clean cobblestones beneath his feet. The pair of bicyclists back-pedaled to brake to a halt, still holding hands. On the humped bridge over the canal at the corner, a couple leaned on the railing of the bridge, completely still.

My shadow across the pavement stopped too, as I took in the whole, still, surreal scene and its meaning.

Conversations stopped. Laughter stopped. The sounds of tires on cobbles and wheels on steel tracks stopped. The clatter of cups and glasses and forks stopped. Everything except the breeze, the soft ripple of water in the canal and the cooing of pigeons just stopped.

For two minutes, no one spoke, no one laughed, no one moved. Instead, they stopped and they remembered. They remembered what their country had suffered.

In the silence, they remembered the ones who died—the Jews sent to be exterminated, the Dutch fathers and brothers and sons sent to become slave labor in the German munitions factories who never came home, the Dutch Resistance fighters who saved so many lives but could not save their own. They remembered the Dutch citizens who died in Japanese concentration camps in Indonesia. They remembered the Dutch children and the old people who died from hunger in the last brutal “Hunger Winter” of the war.

And they remembered every Dutch citizen who has died in armed conflict since World War II because the world has not yet learned to live in peace.

For those two minutes of silence, I stood there, feeling the low-angled sun on my face as I listened to the quiet lapping of the water. I realized I was only a two-minute walk from the very building where Anne Frank and her family had hidden from the Gestapo for years until finally they were found only months before the war ended and sent to the concentration camps, where most of them would die. I realized what these people, this country—like so many others in Europe—had been through and how fortunate we in the US had been to escape so much of that suffering.

The tower of the Westerkerk in Amsterdam, where the bells toll for Remembrance Day in the Netherlands, along with all the other church bells in the city.

The bells in the tower of the Westerkerk in Amsterdam began to toll, like all the bells in all the churches in all the cities in the Netherlands for Remembrance Day.

When the two minutes of silence were over, the church bells began to ring. The sound seemed to come from every direction. I was less than a block from the Westerkerk, and those bells seemed to sound almost inside my head. All the bells from every church in Amsterdam tolled out the memory of their loss and the end of their suffering. It filled the air and it filled me, that sound of relief that it was finally over.

Slowly, the world around me woke up again. The tram began rolling down its steel tracks once more. The tour boat resumed its easy float along the canal, pointing out to people from all over the world the magic of this beautiful city. Cars moved, bicycles rolled again, people started walking. Conversations and coffee resumed in the cafés.

The ceremony of Remembrance Day in the Netherlands was over for another year. Normal life resumed and I continued on my way, off to meet my friend, hungry for my late dinner.

But I was not quite the same person. I never would be again.


If you are planning to visit Holland and your timing is flexible, consider planning your trip to coincide with Remembrance Day in the Netherlands, May 4th. The silence, the remembrance, the respect the people still show for those who died–and are still dying today from the idiocy of war–will leave you moved, and touched. Then stick around for the parties, the fun and the pure joy of Liberation Day.

Pin it For Later: Pin for Later: Remembrance Day in the Netherlands, a time of silence, remembrance and resolve

Blue doors, a rose-colored step and fuchsia bougainvillea petals in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico

POTW: San Miguel de Allende, Mexico-It’s the Little Things

On how a photo presented itself to me in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico and reminded me to pay attention. To look up.  To look down. To listen and smell and feel the air. To notice the “little things” that can turn any trip into a rich and fulfilling adventure.

On Noticing the Little Things Along the Way

Blue doors. A rose-colored step.  A sprinkling of fuchsia-colored bougainvillea petals.

Blue doors, a rose-colored step and fuchsia bougainvillea petals in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico

A perfect still life in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, one of the “small moments” we must slow down to notice as we travel.

This lovey composition was just there, being itself in all its beauty, not waiting for me to come along, not posed for the camera or “set-up” as a perfect shot. I just happened to be walking by. I was on my way home from a meeting, my mind spinning with ideas and “must-dos”—what to fix for dinner, a business call I had to make, a bank balance I had to check. I was half-writing my next blog post in my head while keeping one eye on the ground to avoid tripping over the cobblestones or an all-too-common hole in the sidewalk here in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. My only real point of focus was getting home.

But something made me turn my head to the side. A flash of color. A piece of composition. It barely registered and I kept walking. But then I stopped, turned around, walked back the few steps to look at it again. I realized it was beautiful, a perfect composition of color and form, shape and placement. It was a little piece of Mexican art handed to me on a plate.

I whipped my phone out of my pocket and snapped a few photos of it before going back on my busy way.

Later that evening, I looked at the photo again, and I liked it. I decided to put it up on my Instagram page. I post quite a few pphotos of my home town of San Miguel de Allende, Mexico there and they usually get a nice response. I also shared that photo on my NomadWomen Facebook page. I didn’t think too much about it for the rest of the evening.

But when I looked at my page the next day, I realized that this one photo was getting a much greater response than usual. Something about this pretty color composition had struck a chord. People were liking, it, commenting on it, and sharing it like crazy, this little photo that was basically an afterthought.

And that got me thinking. How many of these small moments, these little gifts of noticing, do we let go right past us in our normal lives and even in our travels? If you’d been walking up Calle Hernandez Macias on that sunny afternoon, would you have seen that blue door with its rose-colored step and its sprinkling of fuchsia petals? How many times have I passed something very similar in this town and NOT seen it myself?

The Lesson for Travelers from my San Miguel de Allende, Mexico Moment

The moral here, I think, is a simple one. First: Slow down and pay attention. Let your senses run free. Look around you. Smell the wind. Taste the air. Feel the stucco or the water or the wooden door.

Ask yourself: What “small things” and precious moments do we miss on our travels as we rush from place to place? When we go from one “must-see” attraction to the next, when we focus our attention on the street ahead and the day ahead instead of being fully present in the moment, what wonders go right past us unseen, unheard, unnoticed and lost forever to our conscious enjoyment of our trip?

Some Examples from my Own Recent Travels (with Bonus Photos)

If I had rushed through the Rijksmusem, seen the paintings I love, and then run off to the next thing on my Amsterdam “must-do” list, I would not have stopped to rest on a chair in the gardens behind the museum. I would not have noticed how the sun shining through the dancing fountain there created a rainbow that gave me great delight as I watched its changing stripes of color weave through the droplets while the fountain danced its rhythms.

A rainbow in the fountain behind the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam

A rainbow plays with the dancing fountain in the garden behind the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, the Netherlands.

 

If I had been solidly focused on getting to the Charles Bridge in Prague, a highlight of any trip to that magical city, I might not have been hit so hard by the divine smell of chocolate when someone opened the door of the Choco Cafe just as I passed by. I might not have realized I could take a break to rest my sore feet, step inside and order what turned out to be the most decadent, most sensory-fulfilling, most delicious cup of thick hot chocolate I’ve ever had.

The facade of Choco Cafe, near Old Town Square, Prague

The facade of the Choco Cafe, at Liliová 250/4, near Old Town Square, Prague, Czech Republic.
Photo courtesy of Choco Cafe.

 

If I had not been paying close attention as I strolled the aisles of La Boqueria market in Barcelona, my nose might never have taken in the full variety of the different fish smells and my eyes may not have taught me that barracudas have wicked sharp teeth and are apparently a popular food fish in Catalunya. Or that the movements of the man slicing Jamon Iberico from a large hanging shank of that specially cured and especially delicious ham are a beautifully choreographed ballet.

Head of a barracuda with sharp teeth on a bed of ice at La Boqueria market in Barcelona.

A barracuda with its wicked sharp teeth, resting on a of ice at La Boqueria Market in Barcelona….
not someone you’d want to meet out in a wine-dark sea, or even a sunny one.

 

And I never would have caught, from the corner of my eye as I hurried home, the perfect abstract composition of a pair of blue doors, a rose-colored step and a handful of fallen bougainvillea petals in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico.


Pinnable Image of San Miguel de Allende, Mexico with Text Overlay--How Noticing the Little Things Can Turn Your Trip into an Adventure

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