Today was Memorial Day, during which the victims of the Second World War in Holland are being commemorated, just like every year on the 4th of May.
I realised I had actually never done anything about it, not with other people anyway, apart from maybe looking out of the window and see if people on the street stand still for two minutes at 8 o’clock, so Alice and I decided to go to the memorial site in the centre of town dedicated to the seven hundred something Jewish victims – virtually all Jews of the capital of the province I now live in. The site was only recently being inaugurated, despite the events having taken place well over 65 years ago now. Not only that; it is on a little back street place, next to a car park and some underground bin deposit containers. You really have to look for the place and know where to find it.
But perhaps that is good. It is after all in the middle of where the Jewish life of the town took place, sort of in between the synagogue and the rabbi’s house. The synagogue doesn’t exist anymore and is replaced by a modern cinema and the old canal house where the executed rabbi used to live other people are living now. Like in so many places in Holland Jewish life has been decimated; people deported and murdered and synagogues destroyed, so the many pittoresk places get a different feel to it if you know what happened there not too long ago. So perhaps it is good that you have to put a little effort in order to find this spot, like the truth, that so often hides behind a mask.
I don’t have a personal connection with this place, but I do have a personal connection with the Holocaust, as my Polish-born Jewish great-grandparents were murdered in Auschwitz, and their son, my grandfather, who, despite having survived Westerbork and Theresienstadt had to live with the knowledge having seen his parents being taken away and he wasn’t. It is this knowledge where words become meaningless and the pain so big it creates an emotional vacuum that leaves its traces a long way. Finding a goal in life becomes a quest for meaning and goodness. Things might look rosy, beautiful and friendly, but they can turn ugly at any moment.
Today is such a beautiful day, with a calm evening sun, the sound of seagulls and the smell of spring, and we pass the beautiful big square around the big church via the modern cinema (incidentally designed by one of my favourite comic book artists), towards the memorial. I read that wearing a kippah was desired for the occasion, but since I don’t have one – having grown up with my non-Jewish non-religious parents and all – I felt a bit weary going, but on approach to the site through the alley I saw some men of which the majority weren’t wearing one and felt somewhat relieved. In fact, judging on appearance I thought that some people weren’t even associated with anything Jewish. Of the about 50-something people there were actually people of all sorts; slacky-slouchy-baggy-jeans wearing sort of curious looking people; some grey-haired as well as some 20-somethings, and out of the corner of my eye I spotted the one religious character: the current local rabbi of which all I know is that he happened to have lived a block away from us until recently, in this town of which I still haven’t find any traces of open religious Jewish practice in the shape of a synagogue or even a community centre or anything. If you look through his all-black outfit, including traditional hat and long thin beard, he looks relatively young, perhaps 40 or so. Of his children, of which I know the existence since I have seen them walking around the block last year is no sign, nor of a possible wife.
His first words are that there is no leader and no rules or something along those lines, but people move a little closer to him anyway as he is about to give a proper speech. His voice is somewhat solemn and in a sort of a melodic way he reads out, in Dutch, the names of the concentration camps where these local Jews were deported to and murdered. I can’t stop thinking that it is somewhat painful that these people have to be commemorated by the names of the places where they were murdered, not the places where they have lived and might have known joy and love. There is the occasional Hebrew, including some Psalms by David, of which I can understand a word or two, and feel a little more connected. During his speech, just before 8 o’clock, twice a pizza delivery guy passes behind us on a scooter with its sound echoing around the otherwise quiet place, but everybody seems determined not to be deterred, apart from one or two tutting glances. While still talking, the church bells of several churches suddenly start their prelude to the 2-minute silence, and the rabbi stops talking.
The entire place is mute. Not just the rabbi, us and the other bystanders. As far as the ears can detect, in the rest of the town, there is not a single sound, no cough, no sneeze, not even breathing. As if time stands still. Or a single short moment, that lasts forever. The 8 o’clock sun casts a warm yellow-orange light over the top halves of the old red-stoned façades of the centuries old houses just visible behind the black marble memorial stones with the names of the deceased on it.
Some seagulls fly over uttering a mocking laughing sound, but it doesn’t feel like mocking, it feels as if life goes on, despite all tragedies. I noticed how it was a pair of seagulls, two birds flying really close to each other in formation. There were singing – it just sounded like they were mocking us.