It’s the Dutch King’s 56th birthday today. Ten years ago he took over the reign from his mother. On National Remembrance Day, 4 May 2020 in the Netherlands, the day all those who died in the war are remembered, the Dutch king apologized for the failings of his Great Grandmother Wihelmina.
This is the speech he gave:
“It feels strange to be standing in an almost empty Dam Square. But I know that you all feel part of this National Remembrance Day and that we are standing here together.
During these exceptional months, we have all had to give up some of our freedom. This country hasn’t experienced anything like this since the Second World War. Now, we are choosing our own path. For our lives and our health.
Back then, the choice was made for us. By an occupier with a merciless ideology that caused the deaths of millions of people. How did that total lack of freedom feel?
There is one testimony I shall never forget. It was given here in Amsterdam, in the Westerkerk, almost six years ago. A short, clear-eyed man – standing proud at 93 years old – recounted his journey to Sobibor, in June 1943.
His name was Jules Schelvis. There he stood, fragile but unbroken, in a full but utterly silent church. He spoke about the transportation of 62 people in a single railway wagon. About the barrel on the bare floor. About the rain that spattered in through the gaps. About the hunger, the exhaustion, the filth.
‘You began to look like a pauper,’ he said. And you could hear the heartbreak in his voice. He recalled the soldiers ripping the watches off prisoners’ wrists on arrival. And how he lost his wife Rachel in the ensuing chaos. He never saw her again.
‘What normal human being could have imagined this? How could the world allow us, honest citizens of the Netherlands, to be treated like vermin?’ His question lingered among the pillars of the church. I didn’t have an answer. I still don’t.
What I also remember is his account of what happened before his journey. Following a Nazi raid, he and his wife and many hundreds of others were taken to Muiderpoort station. I can still hear him saying: ‘Hundreds of onlookers watched as the overcrowded trams went by under heavy guard, and they didn’t once protest.’
Straight through this city. Straight through this country. Right before the eyes of their fellow countrymen. It all seemed so gradual. And with each new step, it went further.
No longer being allowed to go swimming in public pools.
Being excluded as a member of an orchestra.
No longer being allowed to ride your bike.
No longer being allowed to go to college.
Being put out on the street.
Then arrested and taken away.
Sobibor began in the Vondelpark, with a sign saying, “No Jews Allowed.” Certainly, many people protested—men and women who took action bravely went against the tide and risked their own safety for the sake of others.
I also think of all the civilians and military personnel who fought for our freedom. Of all the young soldiers who lost their lives on the Grebbelinie in those days of May. The military personnel who served our Kingdom in the Dutch Indies and paid for it with their lives. The resistance fighters who were executed by firing squad on the Waalsdorpervlakte or suffered inhuman treatment in labour and concentration camps. The military personnel killed or severely wounded in peacekeeping operations. True heroes who were prepared to die for our freedom and our values.
But there is also another reality. Fellow human beings, fellow citizens in need, who felt abandoned and unheard. Who felt they should have received more support, if only by words. Also from London, and from my great-grandmother, despite her unwavering and fierce opposition. This is something that will always stay with me.
The impact of war lingers on for many generations. Even now, 75 years after our liberation, it remains with us. The least we can do is: not look away. Not justify it. Not erase it. Not brush it aside. Not normalise something that is anything but normal. And nurture and defend our democracy and the rule of law. Because only that can protect us from tyranny and chaos.
Jules Schelvis went through hell and yet managed to make something of his life as a free person. Much more than that. ‘I kept my faith in humanity,’ he said. If he could do that, then so can we. We can do it, and we will do it together. In freedom.”
The title of this piece is A King for a Day. In the title, I am not only referring to the Dutch King but also to Barend de Wilde.
Barend de Wilde was one of those fellow citizens the Dutch King referred to, as were his parents. Barend was born 27 years before the Dutch King in Groningen on 27 April 1940. He would have been 83 years old today, but he perished at the hands of the Nazis at age three at Sobibor.
Barend was deported to Sobibor in June 1943 from Vught via Westerbork on the so-called children’s transport. There, the Nazis murdered him on 9 July 1943, along with his parents Rachel and Meijer.
Barend could have felt like a King for a Day today because of all the celebrations which will be going on across the Netherlands. He could have enjoyed a bit of Royal celebrations.
But an occupying force with an evil ideology, assisted by fellow countrymen and women, who were only too eager to help, made sure that Barend would not even celebrate his fourth birthday.
I do appreciate King Willem Alexander’s speech and acknowledgement of Queen Wilhelmina’s shortcomings, and I do believe his words were sincere. My fear is that some might see this as a line drawn under the Holocaust, and they may urge people to forget and move on.
We should never ever forget.