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.

Wreaths laid in Dam Square for Remembrance Day in the Netherlands. One has flowers in red, white, and blule, for the Dutch flag. the other has orange flowers for the Royal House of Orange.

Wreaths are laid at a memorial ceremony at Dam Square. The red, white, and blue flowers reflect the colors of the Dutch flag. The orange ones are the national color of the royal House of Orange.

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 Prinsengracht 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, a couple leaned on the railing, 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.

A World War II walking tour is a deeply enriching way to learn more about Amsterdam and the Netherlands during the war. I really enjoyed this one, which covers the story of Anne Frank and includes a visit to the Jewish Historical Museum. Or learn more about Amsterdam’s struggles during the Nazi occupation in the early 1940 and how people endured events like the February Strike and the hunger winter. Hear the story of Anne Frank, her family, and their strife during this dark period of time on this fascinating tour.

Pin it For Later: Pin image for Remembrance Dahy in the netherlands, showing floral wreaths at the war monument in Dam Square, Amsterdam.

32 replies
  1. Anita @ No Particular Place To Go
    Anita @ No Particular Place To Go says:

    Thank you, Donna for sharing such a heartfelt memory. After reading your beautifully told story I can understand why this experience has stayed with you through the years. We have yet to visit The Netherlands but I’m thinking that planning our trip for the beginning of May next year might be the best time; a time to pause and honor all those, soldiers and civilians alike, affected by war.

    • Donna
      Donna says:

      Thank you, Anita. Yes, I particularly like the idea that it is not just a memorial to military “heroes” but to everyone who died, including those who were taken to the camps and the Dutch who starved to death in the “Hunger Winter.” I have a story in the works about how the mother of a Dutch friend of mine survived that winter. It’s a hard story to write because the story is hard to hear.

  2. Kristin Henning
    Kristin Henning says:

    Donna, this is really a beautifully written story of the moment. We were there for Remembrance Day a couple years ago. It is stunning when the bustling city goes quiet. Thanks for posting

  3. Janet
    Janet says:

    I was there with you as a result of your provocative retelling of your experience. Such moments are profound. And speak more than volumes of books ever could. Thank you for taking us back to this day and reminding us of the importance of the work ahead. There should be no more killing.

    • Donna
      Donna says:

      Thank you so much, Janet, for this kind response. I do agree that hearing personal stories can have so much more impact than history tomes ever do. And oh how I agree with your last line. If remembering the horror of war could only stop it!

  4. Suzanne Fluhr
    Suzanne Fluhr says:

    Donna, this is a beautifully evocative sharing of a moment that obviously affected you greatly. I’m glad I stumbled across it while looking for something else. While the US obviously played a large role in WW II, European civilians experienced it in a way most living Americans did not—-a continental post traumatic stress syndrome that still reverberates, but those with first hand knowledge continue to leave us. Thus, Remembrance Day is so important.

    • Donna
      Donna says:

      Thanks for your comment, Suzanne. Yes, I realized when I was living there in the early ’70s that the experience was an entirely different one for them. I developed the habit of asking older people I met to tell me their stories of getting through the war. It made it all so much more real to me. So different from my own mom’s complaints about sugar rationing and black-out curtains in California!

  5. Anja
    Anja says:

    This year a person trying to make a point shouted during these solemn moments claiming his democratic rights……so the dutch ignored him, leaving him shameful and alone………I’m so proud of my country ❤

    • Donna
      Donna says:

      OH dear, How sad that happened, Anjua. But yes, proud of the Dutch for simply ignoring him and making their own point in such a beautiful way.

  6. Elisa
    Elisa says:

    I loved reading this, as it echoes my exact experience as well. I had moved to a tiny town in The Netherlands jus a few weeks prior to Remembrance Day and I had no idea it was observed. At some point everything just noticibly froze and all you could hear was the breeze. I cautiously stopped as well, not knowing what was going on, but realizing on some level that it was something deeply meaningful, enough to make time stand still, and needed to be respected.It felt eerie and beautiful at the same time. Later I learned what it meant. It’s a memory I hold dear.

    • Donna
      Donna says:

      Thanks for sharing your own experience with Remembrance Day, Elisa. I can imagine it must have been a bit confusing when everything stopped and you had no idea why. But your sense did not desert you. It alerted you to the truth and you reacted accordingly. It will always be a special memory, as my experience was.

  7. Elaine Masters
    Elaine Masters says:

    Extraordinary. What a wonderful way to remember. We don’t always need speeches or insistent media to honor others. Thank you for sharing. I know that a tsunami of grief is coming with all the virus is taking. This kind of memorial would be so powerful for what is death but silence from those we love.

    • Donna
      Donna says:

      Thank you for such a lovely and heartfelt comment, Elaine. And thank you for “getting it.” Yes, I agree that some kind of a special silent tribute to the 75K+ (and growing) who we have lost to this totally unnecessary tragedy would be a perfect response. Of course, that’s not going to happen this year. Maybe next year–if we are very lucky.


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