As absolutely everyone around here knows, Cinco de Mayo is a commemoration of the undermanned Mexican army’s surprise drubbing of the invading French in the Battle of Puebla. As it happens, May 5 is also Liberation Day in Holland. Bevrijdingsdag, they call it, and I’m afraid it’s pronounced pretty much the way it’s spelled. Judie’s hometown is over there, a cozy village on the Dutch channel coast with the unlikely name of Monster (“Muenster”, I’m often corrected by know-it-all passerby. No. Monster.). From her mom’s house you used to be able to see a glimpse of the nearby windmill, whose name is de Vier Winden, but now the vanes are obscured by other houses. If you strike out in the direction of the beach, though, you’ll find the windmill two blocks away. Walk on past it if you want to hit the beach. If you want to head downtown, though, hang a left and you’ll continue on for an easy 20 minutes (weather permitting) through a long, leafy neighborhood of tidy brownstone row houses, their steeply canted roofs and ordered lawns conferring a certain highly organized tranquility.
When you reach the roundabout at Van Bemmellaan, (or Van Bemmell Lane, if that helps), you hang a right. There, adjacent to the Film Club videotheek you’ll find a bronze statue commemorating Bevrijdingsdag (Liberation Day), the day in 1945 the exhausted German occupiers left at the suggestion of the arriving First Canadian Army. The statue is a mildly expressionist woman cast in bronze. She faces the nearby beach and raises her right hand in welcome, signifying the massive sea landing further south that finally brought rescue. The Canadians swept into Holland almost exactly one month before the D-Day landings on the French coast.
The Germans had arrived with a bang in another May, 5 years before – the terrified Dutch and German soldiers fighting savagely at close quarters in the previously bucolic forest of Ockenburgh, a half mile or so from Judie’s childhood home. The German guys were trying to advance to the Hague and the Dutch guys were determined not to let that happen, all the uniformed young men clawing and shooting and weeping and falling where today there are swings and slides and climbing structures for the kids, and birdsong. On a clear day you can picnic among the trees. For some of us it’s difficult to transpose the one scene over the other. I’d been raised on the stirring and sanitized war of t.v and the movies; The Great Escape, The Dirty Dozen, Kelly’s Heroes. My G.I. Joe war doll came off the assembly line with a manufactured facial injury and a hint of fraternal smile. War was heck. The movies portrayed muddy, stylized battle, yes, and as a kid I spent a considerable amount of time wondering why they didn’t just throw the grenade as they would a baseball. What’s all this dumb stiff-arming about? The shadowy complications off the battlefield mesmerized me the most. There was covert intrigue and well-dressed men running along train platforms and James Garner in a turtleneck gently crashing his escape plane into a picturesque knoll, and always David Attenborough with his collar turned up. Attenborough’s pensive wartime baby face didn’t prepare me for Koos and Riek’s casually brutal stories of a childhood spent in the midst of a world war.
As kids in the middle of a monstrous and merciless war, Judie’s parents had seen into the abyss. How any kid of that generation who’d seen what they’d seen could survive and grow up and prosper and function – it’s beyond me. Judie’s mom, Riek (Hendrika), is an indomitable, humor-filled dynamo of energy and wisdom. She cleans like a cartoon tornado, is a three night-a-week card sharp, dispenses folksy Dutch wisdom with a raised forefinger and a smile and usually dines in her apron. Koos (pronounced like “cose”) was a particular softie, G*d rest him. A former cabaret performer, he had an artist’s sensibility, and he loved shared laughter. When he found something funny, his face would collapse into a crinkly smile and he would put his palm to his forehead in a silent gesture of hilarity, winking his eyes at you conspiratorially in his own inimitable signal of love and family. Koos was an emotional tinderbox, his heart a barely contained fire. When Judie and I had excitedly told him in the kitchen one evening that I had proposed to her, he surprised us both by bursting very suddenly into tears, roughly embracing me again and again, then turning to his baby and folding Judie into his arms. He was a lovely, gentle man, a bespectacled joker and much-beloved figure in the small seaside town on the North Sea where he’d grown up, which, like all real villages and towns, remains a world unto itself.
But he’d had it rough at the hands of the German occupiers. He was a pubescent everykid when they rolled in and he remembered aloud to me once the scene in Monster’s town square when advance word of the German approach was rushing through the cobbled streets like a toxic wind, uniformed teens in a local Youth Brigade of some kind rushing around in panic and yelling in terror at everyone to get their hands out of their pockets lest they be holding grenades. “Hands out of pockets, hands out of pockets!” he described the scouts screaming in their high kid voices. Once the Germans arrived, Koos and other boys his age were conscripted into killing factory work with little food to speak of, slave laborers assembling munitions. One day Koos walked by a room where several officers were dining. He hadn’t eaten in days. The officers asked if he was hungry and gestured him over, allowed him to eat his fill, laughed and smoked as he attacked the sumptuous foods spread out on the table. They knew the sudden feast would kill him, and it nearly did.
The 5 years between the German army’s arrival and the liberation of Holland were characterized by misery and privation, and many hearts were naturally hardened in that crucible. The stories are many from the winter of 1944 in particular, the Hunger Winter (Hongerwinter) when the occupiers responded punitively to a railway strike called in by Holland’s government in exile. In angry response to the strike, Germany ordered the blockade of food shipments in a disaster that unfolded so quickly the German commander in the area saw the scale of what would unfold and somewhat desperately tried to roll back the orders, but by then the inland waterways, Holland’s famous canal system, had frozen solid and nothing could get through. Tens of thousands starved in a famine so virulent there is evidence it bred epigenetic changes in the next line of Dutch children to be born to the famine’s survivors. My in-laws have told stories about families digging up and eating tulip bulbs for food and capturing birds in the denuded, otherwise useless greenhouses. Riek’s father would leave the family and travel the perilous countryside for days on his bicycle and return with a loaf of bread. Her mother, unable to bear the hungry families that passed by their home day and night, would share her own family’s meager rations, infuriating her husband on his return. “M’n moeder was een heel goed mens,” Riek says today. During the hardships and death of the occupation, an entire generation of Dutch people had their hearts impermeably tempered against Germany and Germans.
It once would’ve seemed impossible, but by the early 1980s a grudging and ragged rapprochement was in the air. German families had been coming to Monster’s beaches for some time (to the occasional shouts and growlings of certain of the Dutch citizenry there) and a field had long since been set aside for their trailers and tents, in the shadow of the enormous berm that separates the shore from the town. But the intermingling of the populations also gave rise to new animus. During the war, Dutch bikes had been confiscated in their tens of thousands by the occupiers, the primacy of the bicycle to the Dutch culture and identity an unknown quantity to the Germans. The nimble mobility of the Dutch, and particularly the Dutch Resistance (Ondergrondse), the largest WWII resistance movement in Western Europe, was an unclear but intolerable threat to the occupiers.
Given the broader horrors that had been visited on the Nederlanders, the taking of the bikes remained, in the post-war years, a curious sore point. At the seizing of 100,000 bikes in July, 1942, the Dutch outcry was such that a Wehrmacht officer’s memo noted that the confiscation was “…a particularly harmful action. One of the worst things that can happen to a Dutchman is that he loses his bike.” As the long thaw between the countries incrementally crawled along, the angry lament for the stolen bikes stubbornly took hold as a sanitized and invective-free rallying cry of post-war national anger against the Germans, singularly hurled at German campers, football supporters, and so on. It was an innocuous, even childish thing to shout, but it contained volumes.
“Geef me mijn fiets terug!” – “Give me my bike back!”
In the early 80s there began a timorous exchange program between a church choir from the tiny village of Mühleip in Germany, and Koos’ choir in Monster. Someone in Koos’ choir knew someone who knew someone, it seemed an idea whose time had come, and arrangements were made. One year the German choir would come by bus to Monster and be hosted and housed, the next year Koos’ choir would be received as guests and performers in Mühleip. The informal, seat-of-the-pants arrangement began with some trepidation on both sides and crept along in stutter-steps. The enmity ran very very deep. But slowly, the ice cracked, a little. The recency of the war made it a glacial thaw. While no actual friendships grew, the two choirs began to see each other not as ciphers or historical symbols, but as flesh and blood, or to put it less biblically, as singers in a couple of small town church choirs. Koos, though, couldn’t let it go (understandably, I think), and during one visit of the German guest chorale he burst out with a comment that may have set the whole enterprise back on its heels; “How about you guys bring back the bike you stole from me!” After some downcast faces and throat clearing the remark was allowed to drift away, like an awkward flume of smoke.
When Koos’ choir next made the trip to Germany to perform and be hosted by their counterparts there, a couple of the German singers pulled him aside.
“Koos, we must tell you something.”
He waited. “Ja? Wat is er?”
The Germans looked at each other.
“Koos, we found your bike.”
His smiling German hosts wheeled out a beautiful 10-speed racing bike amid clapping and laughter. They’d painted it Dutch royal orange. When the German group next visited Monster, Koos met the bus at the edge of town and led his pals, in a singular procession, down the winding streets to the church where they would sing together, Koos on his royal orange steed gesturing as grandly as a parade master. It would be the second momentous rolling into Monster of a loud German mob. This one cheering.
The human race has its moments. We’re not stamped by destiny. Happy Liberation Day. (Koosje, je bent altijd in onze gedachte..)