Canadian troops entering a small town, liberating the Netherlands (in Dalfsen)
Seventy years after the end of World War II at the height of summer, the Van Noorden family got together on a typical Dutch day with rain drops and fleeting sunshine taking turns in short bursts, making it difficult for the hosts to determine where to stage the seating arrangements.
The habit of meeting had slowly grown over the years and became more formalized after the matriarch, Frieda, passed away at age 89, ten years after her husband, Kaleb, expired from a massive heart attack. If not for Frieda’s birthday, nobody would ever meet again, as Frieda and Kaleb’s offspring were not all that close; even some resentment from childhood years lingered. However, nobody was yet prepared to let the family fall apart with Frieda’s death and become another alienated family—so many extended family members had died already, alone and estranged.
From then onwards, the Van Noorden relatives met bi-annually: brothers and sisters and their offspring. Recently, after the sudden death of one cousin, (most cousins had attended her funeral after years of alienation), they decided to have a reunion day for the cousins as well. So one day was allocated to the children, and the next day, the cousins on mother’s side would meet.
Kaleb’s relatives were strangers; nobody had met all of Kaleb’s eleven siblings, or even remembered their names. All members of the war generation had long gone; only stories were left now. The one member who missed most of these gatherings was living in Canada, Wilhelmina, but this time in 2015, she was present.
World War II, a significant event in all of the world’s history, certainly had overshadowed the Van Noorden family. War had already caused a split between twin brother Franz and his sister Frieda during the years of German occupation, although it was unclear to most of the second generation–just children then, or not even born—how and why that happened. It took for them to grow into old age to want to explore those years with each other, finally wondering what kind of people their parents really had been and by extension, why they themselves had become who they are. Betrayal, loyalty, secrecy, and collaboration with the enemy were subjects too sensitive for open discussion. Secrecy had continued after the war; nobody wanted to talk much about those years.
Rotterdam, main harbour city in the west Netherlands after the “Blitzkrieg” 1940.
After the war, life had continued with social changes of tremendous impact for the Dutch. Many disappeared to Canada longing for a clean slate elsewhere, thus escaping the bleak years of rebuilding. Some of the emigrants had been on the wrong side of the war: collaborators with the enemy. Others were women who had met these strapping young Canucks and Yankees and had fallen in love over a liberation libation. Some were left behind, pregnant. Many children with overseas’ fathers were born post war: illegitimate children, as they were called then and some children followed decades later, on a quest to find their dad after their parent’s passion had weakened, but blood ties still pulled.
The Dutch nation felt that they owed their freedom, and even their lives sometimes, to the allied troops: Canadians and Americans soldiers that liberated the towns and villages in hard-won battles, losing many lives doing it, and cementing Dutch loyalty in post war times.
No surprise then that the youngest of the post war generation, Wilhelmina Van Noorden, left for Canada with her parents’ blessing, to join a Canadian young man she had met on a vacation in that northern land. She was born four years after the war; her name signified a nation’s strong emotional connection to the Dutch royal house and Queen Wilhelmina whose family had been in exile in Canada and had been the Dutch national symbol of strength and loyalty during the German occupation.
War is a strange paradigm for life; it had never been real to Wilhelmina, although it overshadowed her life, nevertheless. In grade school her post war generation was extensively educated on the perils of discrimination and intolerance with examples of what had happened during WWII. At a young age Wilhelmina saw photos and movies of live skeletons with hollow eyes that had survived the concentration camps—people that were Jewish, homosexual, developmentally delayed, or otherwise disabled or punishable in the eyes of the Nazi-German administration. These survivors, originating not only from Germany, but also from the Nazi-occupied territories including the Netherlands, had been shipped into cattle rail cars and brought to near-extinction in German extermination camps, transfer and forced labour camps. The children were shown in grainy black-and white videos and photos piles as high a house, made up of millions of bones of the actually exterminated—six million persons gone–and piles of suitcases, and boots, and hair to be used for pillow fill, and large open dug outs with emaciated bodies, not even covered by dirt, as the last of the German staff had fled. Actual ovens burned many people in a very organized manner. She even saw photos of lampshades made of human skin, and basins full of gold ripped from mouths.
All of the atrocious facts of that particular war were scary mysteries to Wilhelmina; how could this have existed? How could people let that happen to other people, to children, to their neighbours and their close friends? For Wilhelmina it was like a Grimm’s tale of horror and indeed, like many other children, she was traumatized for life, because it wasn’t just a story. In adolescence she became a pacifist, flirted with communism, and rejected conformism passionately. She did not readily accept her parents’ limits when the limits made no sense. She excelled in high school academically, but battled the authorities, which cost her with extra years to learn to comply. She left home and parental control as soon as she could.
As an adult, Wilhelmina became a passionate advocate for the lost and vulnerable, unable to become anything else under the brutal post-war education that lasted for years, and probably still carries on today in present-day Holland in a similar nothing-to-hide vein. The intent and motivation could be explained, sure. After the war, children embodied their parents’ hope for a better future for the nation, for the world. No wonder this generation of children were the love children and despised war: Make love, not war.
The sad part of the Dutch history is that the intent of education was the prevention of future genocide, although probably fuelled by guilt feelings. The Netherlands (and Britain, France, Belgium, the USA, all other nations involved) could have prevented millions of deaths, had they recognized in time what the Nazi regime was up to, and been less politically naïve about the Nazi goals and the Hitler politics, and had they recognized the envious, angry, anti-Semite in themselves, enough to stand up and arm themselves earlier and put aside their differences for the purpose of peace, and not for the accumulation of territory. But somebody had to be blamed for poverty and stock market crash of 1929 and the following depression…
Hitler was successfully elected, and welcomed in the German speaking neighbouring countries, because he promised jobs and the restoration of honour and German pride in their nation, and he put the money where his mouth was, with extensive allocation of government money towards infra structure building rods and bridges and electricity lines (and in secret, war equipment). Unemployment disappeared.
Other wars have started since; genocide was repeated. The United Nations had replaced the League of Nations–powerless before de war—which seems equally powerless to stop aggressive invasions without the presence of an impending war. Examples enough: USA in Iraq and Afghanistan, Russia in the Ukraine, Britain in the Falklands, and so on. Those that did not learn, are condemned to repeat history. The Jews of today are Muslims, Mexicans, Koptic Christians, Tootsies, Suni Muslims, fill in the blanks.
There are more people on the move now than after the second world war. Have we, the human race, learned anything yet?