Just like last year, the commemoration is different, but when the tattoo is blown, Dam Square is a sacred place

The National Remembrance Day on Dam Square in Amsterdam.Image Raymond Rutting / de Volkskrant

On the roof of the Bijenkorf, the Dutch flag flies half-mast again, the bells of the Royal Palace on Dam Square sound subdued as always and the king – dressed in black – lays a wreath with solemn gaze for all war victims since the outbreak of the war. WWII.

But otherwise everything is different during the Remembrance Day in Amsterdam, where the corona virus still haunts. With a hundred guests on chairs on the square, this year’s commemoration feels more intimate than other years when 20 thousand people gather on the Dam.

“He survived, but you shouldn’t ask how,” said comedian and actor André van Duin about his father Adrianus, who was put to work in Germany during the war. The National Committee on 4 and 5 May approached Van Duin for the annual lecture on Dam Square. “They were looking for a worthy successor to the king,” Van Duin jokes just before his performance.

Last year Willem-Alexander gave perhaps his best speech on a virtually empty Dam Square, in which the king also critically considered the role of his own family in the war. Van Duin will be on Dam Square for the first time during the Remembrance Day. ‘I commemorate every year at the Homomonument at the Westermarkt, the first monument of its kind in the world. I am proud of that. We must cherish the freedom that everyone here is allowed to be themselves. ‘

King Willem-Alexander and Queen Máxima lay a wreath.  Due to the corona virus, the commemoration has again been adapted.  Image Raymond Rutting / de Volkskrant

King Willem-Alexander and Queen Máxima lay a wreath. Due to the corona virus, the commemoration has again been adapted.Image Raymond Rutting / de Volkskrant

On rows of black chairs in the square are representatives of various groups of war victims: Holocaust victims, the Indian community, resistance fighters, soldiers and the merchant navy. Supplemented with leaders from politics and the armed forces. At the very front is 81-year-old Thea Meulders, who regularly tells at schools about her time in the Brastagi Japanese camp on Sumatra. ‘I once smuggled firewood into my skirt, but my mother gave me a huge pack for it. The guards did not punish children, but their mothers, for example by hanging them by their hair. I saw women fighting over one grain of corn in that camp. ‘

Meulders remembers the vague figure of her father, when he bends over her in 1942 to say goodbye. ‘As the first lieutenant of the military police, he had to guard a road. After a short battle, the Japanese army positions all Dutch prisoners of war along the river and shoots them. My father had fought so bravely, I later learned, that he received an honorary death: decapitation with a saber. ‘

Meulders is now at peace with this history. “My father did what he believed and the opponents also followed his culture.” The continuation of her childhood in the Netherlands, between traumatized family members and racist neighbors, was harder for Meulders. Today she commemorates her father Joop.


While the guests gather in the Industrial Grand Club on the corner, a new company gathers around the king and queen for the first time in the palace across the street. Their procession has been expanded this year to include the presidents of the Senate and the House of Representatives. A spokesman for the Committee: ‘We have started to think since the implementation last year without authorities. With this expansion we want to show that we attach importance to the representation of the parliament during National Commemoration. ‘

Next to the Palace, in an almost empty Nieuwe Kerk, writer Roxane van Iperen gives the annual May 4 lecture. She believes that the Netherlands is stuck in a superficial story about the Second World War. “An uplifting self-image based on not knowing.”

Van Iperen, who wrote a bestseller about two Jewish sisters who led a resistance group during the war from the current home of the writer in Naarden, challenges all Dutch people to descend further. “Not only in history, but also in ourselves.” The support act is concluded with the sung Indisch Onze vader.

After a clarion call, the renewed procession is stately walking over the cobblestones of the Dam: Willem-Alexander, Máxima and chairman Gerdi Verbeet of the National Committee on 4 and 5 May in the lead, followed by Mayor Femke Halsema of Amsterdam, adjutant general Ludger Brummelaar and lady-in-waiting Pien van Karnebeek-Thijssen, with Prime Minister Mark Rutte behind him, Chairman Vera Bergkamp of the Lower House, Chairman Jan Anthonie Bruijn of the Upper House and at the very back the Commissioner of the King of North Holland Arthur van Dijk.

The tattoo sounds before the two minutes of silence.  Image Raymond Rutting / de Volkskrant

The tattoo sounds before the two minutes of silence.Image Raymond Rutting / de Volkskrant

Sacred place

Two minutes of silence on Dam Square, it turns out, feels different than two minutes of silence at home in front of the television or at a gas station. The square, which is usually the site of tourists, living statues, hot dog stalls and angry protesters, suddenly turns into a sacred place one day a year. Where first-generation victims of war and solemnly looking drivers with a freedom pin on their black clothing underline that freedom cannot be taken for granted. Many think of family members who did not return from extermination camps, succumbed along the Burma Railway or drowned in the Atlantic Ocean after a torpedo hit.

After the two minutes of silence, and a wind-blown tattoo of an Air Force sergeant, 19-year-old student Amara van der Elst from Rotterdam wonders how to ‘heal old wounds with new words’. The performance of the ghostly talent, who recites her poems in a rhythmic voice and ditto arm gestures, is reminiscent of that of Amanda Gorman during the inauguration of President Biden. But according to the committee that is merely a coincidence. A spokesperson: ‘We already asked the National Youth Council for an unconventional contribution. Eventually Amara came out. ‘ Van der Elst, who previously won prizes with spoken poems in which everyday discrimination and her identity (half Dutch, half Indo) play a role, this time focuses on awareness of the past.

Not who shouts louder
but thinks more quietly
not who shouts louder
but quietly commemorates

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