I was about five years old when my parents told me what had happened to our country, the Netherlands, when I was a baby.
“Bad soldiers came from another country.” they said, “They came breaking God’s rules. They lied to us, and they stole things, they hurt people. There were so many of them, all with big guns, that they chased away all our good soldiers and our good policemen.”
I nodded. I had already seen lots of those enemy soldiers with their guns on the streets, and had heard about them stealing bicycles and radios from people’s houses.
“But now they are also starting to steal men—daddies, uncles, big brothers, even young grandpas,” my mom said. “They are locking them into train boxcars and taking them to their own country to work like slaves on farms, and in mines and in factories.”
“If you see an army truck on our street, with soldiers going into houses, you come right home. Don’t shout, just come home and once you are inside, tell us about it. Then daddy can hide.”
I remember times my dad crawled into a space below the floor of a back room and my mom closing the trap door. Then we rolled the carpet back over it and with both of us pushing, moved the heavy sideboard back into place. I brushed out the tracks on the carpet so it looked as if nothing had been moved.
Pinning on a poppy in preparation of Remembrance Day, I remember the day Canadian soldiers freed my city. I wrote the memory years ago and read it during a talk at a Remembrance Chapel at the local Christian School on Friday. I repeat it here in honour of those who gave their lives in war so that my countrymen and I might live in peace.
I squirmed and squeezed my thin seven-year-old body through the jostling crowd until I conquered a spot on the curb. The bright sunshine warmed my face, arms and bare knees as I squinted into the light. I clutched my little paper flag, the Dutch red, white and blue, ready to wave, ready to shout and ready to sing a welcome to our rescuers. It was Tuesday, May 8, 1945.
The approaching rumble of a column of Canadian army trucks started the crowd up the road cheering and singing. The noise grew louder as huge, dull green trucks blocked out the sun. Shouting, laughing soldiers waved their machine guns from the backs of the trucks. The applause and cheers of the delirious crowd lining the street nearly drowned out the singing of Wilhelmus, the Dutch national anthem.
Young soldiers whistled at the tall blonde girl jumping up and down behind me. Her homemade rose petal perfume fought the stink of the diesel exhaust fumes and the stench of close-pressed sweating bodies—bodies and clothing that had not been touched by soap for years. Camouflaged tanks grumbled past, pulling long-snouted artillery. Their thunderous booming had kept me awake for several nights. Now the cannons were sniffing the air, eager to rout the enemy from the next city.
The cheers died down suddenly as a column of prisoners of war in grey-green uniforms shuffled past. The Luger pistol holsters flapped empty on their brown leather belts. They walked with their fingers laced on top of their heads. Armed Canadian soldiers walked alongside them.
The crowd silently watched the infantry prisoners go by, but then began to boo and hiss as a small column of Gestapo officers came into view. Finally! No more strutting. No more haughty looks. No more death-dealing commands. Their once-feared black uniforms glistened with the slime of saliva as people rushed from the curb to spit on them.
The last trucks in the parade rolled past. I cheered myself hoarse, and waved my little flag until a soldier snatched it out of my hand and waved it high as his truck rumbled on down the road. I tasted the salt of tears, not for the loss of the flag, but for the joy of knowing the Peace Bringers had arrived and the enemy would never make me afraid again.
Today, again, I Remember Them.