By ALAN J. ORTBALS
Last month, my wife and I took a river cruise down the Rhine River beginning in Basel, Switzerland, and ending in Amsterdam, the capital of the Netherlands. It was there that I witnessed one of the most profound moments of my life.
On May 10, 1940, the German army sped across the borders of Belgium, Luxemburg and the Netherlands. Such was the onslaught that the three small countries surrendered on May 14 rather than be reduced to rubble by the Luftwaffe. That began five years of occupation and martial law under the boot of the Nazi army.
The Germans went on to push the combined British and French armies to the sea at Dunkirk where, through the extraordinary heroics of English citizens and the Royal Air Force, most of the soldiers were able to escape. The Nazi army then turned toward Paris and “The City of Light” fell on May 14. The French formally surrendered a week later. Hitler went on to spread Nazi domination across Europe from the English Channel to Stalingrad.
During the occupation of the Netherlands, all Dutch males between the ages of 18 and 45 were forced to work in German factories and the Gestapo hunted down, rounded up and deported Jews, Communists and other “deviants” to concentration camps. The Jewish persecution was particularly harsh in the Netherlands where more than 70 percent of the country’s Jews were exterminated, a much higher percentage than Belgium and France.
The Netherlands wasn’t liberated until May 5, 1945, 10 days after the Russian and American armies met at the Elbe River and five days after Adolf Hitler killed himself in his Berlin bunker. That was when the German army that occupied the country surrendered.
Since then, May 5 has become a national holiday and is celebrated as Liberation Day all over the Netherlands. There are festivals and parades throughout the country and a special ceremony is held each year in Dam Square in the center of Amsterdam to commemorate the event.
They do something different on the day before. May 4 is Remembrance Day, a day when the people of Amsterdam pay their respects to all those who died in the war.
We were in Amsterdam on the fourth of May, dining at a restaurant adjacent to our hotel. You entered the eatery through a large atrium that opened onto a huge deck overlooking the harbor. That was a Friday night. The weather was beautiful and the deck was full of people eating, drinking and generally enjoying themselves.
But in the atrium, there was a big screen TV and rows of chairs assembled because they also have a ceremony called “Remembrance of the Dead” in Dam Square on the evening of the 4th. It is nationally televised.
At about 7:45 p.m., 19:45 by the European clock, our millennial waitress came to our table to let us know that a solemn event was coming. Every year on May 4 at 8 p.m. a 2-minute moment of silence is observed and she asked us to please respect this tradition.
There was no signal, no siren or horn or bell. Everyone there knew when the hour approached and everyone stopped what they were doing and stood silently. Many of the revelers on the deck came in to watch the ceremony taking place in the square on the atrium TV. I’m told it is that way all over the country.
Sure, we have our Memorial Day when we are supposed to remember all those who died in military service but to many of us it just means backyard barbecues and mattress sales. Maybe that’s because we, unlike the Dutch, have never been occupied by a foreign army or had our neighbors hauled away to gas chambers in cattle cars. Or maybe it’s because all of our wars have been fought on someone else’s soil. But it seems to me we could learn something from the people of the Netherlands.