Here in The Netherlands we have Remembrance Day on May 4th (today) where we remember those killed in war and we celebrate Liberation Day on May 5th, when The Netherlands was liberated from the Nazis in 1945. This year marks the 70th anniversary of the end of the war and every year these commemorations make me stop and think.
The war in 1940-1945 has shaped my outlook on life even though I was born 25 years after World War II ended. Memories of the war have been recounted to my brothers and sisters and me ever since I can remember. My father didn’t have too many memories of the war to share but my mother’s memories are very vivid and to this day she often tells us all the stories.
My mother was the daughter of a shipowner. Her father owned fishing ships in Scheveningen, the little town at the beach of The Hague that is now a bustling resort. She has a few memories of before the war, like going to Meijendel in the dunes of The Hague and Wassenaar to watch her father ride horses. “When you’re bigger you can learn to ride as well!” he told her, but that never happened. The war came when my mother was 4.5 years old. She was the eldest of 3 children.
Her father, my grandfather, started working for the resistance. He was involved in a plan to evacuate the Dutch Queen Wilhelmina to England with one of his ships but ultimately another flight path was chosen for her. My grandfather’s fishing ships were confiscated by the Nazi’s at the beginning of the war, their house near the beach in Scheveningen was declared a war zone and had to be evacuated.
My grandmother took my mother and her sister and brother to live in Den Haag, while my grandfather went into hiding because of his activities for the underground. The 17th century bible, a family heirloom (now proudly on display in my parents’ home) was wrapped up and buried in the soil so that it would not be stolen by the Nazis. You can still see the damp in some of the pages.
The war was tough on the population. Food on rations, night time curfews, escaping into shelters during bombings and when you came out seeing dead people who hadn’t made it. There were regular round-ups and the Gestapo (the secret police) regularly came by my grandmother’s house looking for my grandfather. One day they took my grandmother with them for questioning and kept her overnight while the small children remained all alone in the house that night, not knowing whether their mother would return. Once in a while, often after dark, my grandfather would come home for a secret visit and then he would disappear again through the hatch in the floor, to the crawl spaces under the houses. My mother remembers one particular day when their house was searched by the Gestapo: her father had just left after a secret visit and she and her sister Irene were sitting on the rug covering the hatch, playing there and making sure the hatch could not be seen. Discovery of the hatch was to be avoided at all cost; their father must not be found!
And then there were the stories about school. Less and less children came to school, Jewish children went away. There was at least one girl in class who my mother knew was Jewish. Her hair was dyed blonde and she passed through life as a “Christian” girl. One time my mother pointed out to the girl that her hair roots were dark. When the girl came to school again the next day her hair was all blonde again. When my mother told her father about it he got angry with her because with that remark my mother could have endangered that girl’s life. The winter of 1944-1945 was later dubbed “the hunger winter”. Food became very scarce with often only boiled tulip bulbs for a meal. Wood in the tram rails was used for firewood and the toes were cut off the shoes so that they could still be worn by the growing children. It was a very difficult and desperate time.
Dutch collaborators were interred in a camp, ‘kraut girls’ who had dated German soldiers were accused of collaboration and were shaved publicly, their bald heads painted with red dye. My mother, as the eldest, was taken by her father to witness all this. When the German troops marched out of The Hague, my grandfather told my mother to spit on them and she did.
After the war, the family returned to their house in Scheveningen where the rats were crawling everywhere and the floors were covered in human excrement. My grandfather told my mother to do her best at best school but that she was allowed to fail German class. Hate for the Germans ran deep. If a German tourist came to visit Scheveningen and asked directions, my mother was instructed to smile, point towards the North Sea and say sweetly “Immer gerade aus” (“Go straight ahead”). My grandfather’s hate for the Germans later cost him his life. At the end of the 1950’s he went to Germany to receive compensation for his ships that had been confiscated by the Nazi’s. In Germany he got appendicitis but he refused to be treated by German doctors. By the time he returned to The Netherlands it was too late. He died.
At around this time my mother (who had not been raised in any religion) met my father, a young idealistic theologian. My father was very interested in Judaism and the murder of 6 million Jews in the war had deeply affected him. He admired the German-Jewish philosopher Martin Buber who had fled from the Nazis and advocated dialog in his philosophies. This dialog philosophy became the basic principle in my father’s further life. He even got to meet Martin Buber once in person in 1959 and interviewed him! Buber’s “Ich und Du” (“I and You”) dialog philosophy is what guided my father in his work and became a profound influence on my mother as well as they were trying to help build a better world in the aftermath of war.
My parents got married in 1960, the first children were born in The Netherlands, and my father was dispatched to Israel in 1967 by the Dutch Reformed Church; he was to work as an advisor and a bridge builder: help the Christians receive more insight into Judaism and understand that the roots of Christianity lie firmly implanted in Judaism (Jesus himself was a Jew after all!) and show the Jews that not all Christians hate them or want to convert or murder them. Martin Buber’s “Ich und Du” brought to life in my father’s work, a philosophy close to his and my mother’s heart. No more hatred and anti-semitism, what was needed was an understanding of the beliefs of the other, the realization of how much each has in common and the acceptance of people just as they are. My father as well as my mother had learned from the war: racism and oppression should never happen again, every person counts, it doesn’t matter where they are from, what they look like or what they believe. We live in a multicultural world – instead of being divided by difference, how about also realizing how rich this world is in all its variety? This philosophy of life was not just abstract; it became practice in our home. Next to the ‘biological’ children (of whom I was the last to be born, in Jerusalem) my parents adopted 2 Palestinian babies and 2 Ethiopian teenagers: we became multicultural ourselves and turned into a family of different faiths (or no faith) and colors. Added to that, many other children temporarily lived with us, when the need arose, for short term fostering.
When I was 10 years old we moved to Germany. My grandmother in Scheveningen found it difficult to accept that but my parents did not believe in racism and hatred: not all Germans are bad! My father continued his work on an international level, becoming General Secretary of an organization called “The International Council of Christians and Jews”. In a beautiful twist of fate the head office of the ICCJ was located in the former home of Martin Buber, my father’s philosophical hero! He worked in Buber’s House for 17 years.
From my teens to the beginning of my twenties I became obsessed by the Second World War; a logical consequence of my parents’ history and work. I had been surrounded by the subject ever since I could remember, after all. When I was 19 I even went on a “Holocaust” study trip where among other places I visited Auschwitz in Poland. This left a profound impression on me and the values and lessons from history handed down to me by my parents were only strengthened in me through these experiences. To this day I try to live by them – be open to people, never judge a book by its cover, accept the other for who they are, embrace diversity and never ever lose touch with your humanity.
So, why are the 4th / 5th of May important to me? Because every year I am reminded of these lessons. Every year I hear people say in the speeches how we must learn from the lessons of the past and everyone agrees and applauds, while the next moment I see hate and intolerance towards, for instance, Muslims around me here in The Netherlands. Every year I hope that the remembrance of what happened in the war and the celebration of freedom will jerk us into behaving with respect and humanity towards the other, even though opinions and beliefs may differ. Through opening yourself up towards the other and vice versa there is a way. Ich und Du.There is always hope and to make the world better, you really only have to start with yourself.