When I was young I asked my father if he had ever been in a war. He told me that he had been in the Navy during World War II. That didn’t surprise me because he had been working for the Navy as a designer of communication missiles for aircraft carriers since forever. He then told me that he joined the Navy close to the end of the war and that he had never seen any conflict. I remember being so disappointed. He talked about Pearl Harbor, and that perked me up. I hoped that he was going to tell me dramatic heroic stories. But no, he was stationed there  three years after the attack on Pearl Harbor. “Daddy, don’t you have anything exciting to tell about being in the Navy?” Alas, he did not. Oh how naïve I was. 

He later went to college (thanks to the GI Bill) and became an engineer. Something that farm boys rarely could dream about—getting a college diploma. But he knew about war and loss. His younger brother, Billy, died in a Korean POW camp. My father never made war service romantic and exciting. Because he knew how lucky he was to not have been in battle and he also knew what it was to face the death of a brother.

Last week, on May 4, the Netherlands had their Remembrance Day. This is the day to remember those who died in World War II and those who died since WWII in any kind of war or conflict. At 8pm on that night the entire country had two minutes of silence. It was another reminder that war is not romantic, fun or even a grand adventure. It was interesting for me to watch this ceremony for the first time. I knew that this country was occupied for five years by the Nazis. This was a country that, during WWII, had camps run by the Nazis that interned Jews, gypsies, the mentally and physically ill, and those in the resistance. This was a country who lost thousands of its citizens to hunger. And this is a country that had 140,000 Jewish citizens at the start of the war, and at the end of the war, 104,000 Jews were dead. 

I believe it is important to talk about the past and especially with those who have first hand accounts to share. I am researching a play I will eventually write about World War II and the camps in the Netherlands. I have already been left numbed and speechless by what I have found, and yet this is just the beginning of the project. To be here, in a country that has been bombed and ravaged by war, is a lot to take in. 

But as I talk to people who remember, I remember the uncle that I never met. I remember a father who lived to tell his own stories. Everyone has stories to tell, we just have to be ready to listen. And we must always remember those that we have lost.

 Recommended reading:  The Madonnas of Leningrad by Debra Dean

Invisible Bridge by Julie Orringer

The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

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  • Aledys Ver  On May 12, 2011 at 4:37 pm

    It feels certainly very special to see the places where it happened and to hear first hand, all those terrible experiences. Argentina did not fight in the war but hearing all those heart breaking stories of persecution and destruction makes me think of the recent past in my own country, where 30,000 people disappeared and were exterminated just because they did not agree with a regime… One would think that after an experience like that in 1939/45 the world would’ve learnt the lesson, and yet….!

  • Leslie Sullivan  On May 15, 2011 at 1:42 pm

    Jane, my father was in WWII and he was greatly affected by his experiences. He wanted to talk about it all the time. But sadly I have to admit, we, as his family, tired of hearing the stories over and over again. My father could not get past his experiences. They haunted him.

    Why is it that most people cannot grasp or feel another person’s experience? Why is it we cannot learn from history unless we personlly have taken part in the event?

  • Ien in the Kootenays  On March 9, 2013 at 7:08 am

    My grandmother’s sister was one of the 104.000.

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