Dutch Survivor Guilt: Reflections on Commemoration Day (part I)

Almost two weeks ago, I wrote an anticipatory article covering the annual commemoration of Dutch casualties of World War 2, which takes place each year on May 4th. When I listened to the words, I wanted to get an article about it on the site the very same day. But then I changed my mind: the timing seemed off. After all, my main argument against the Commemoration was that it’s a ritual, and arguing against the ritual on the same day as the ritual only means that you strengthen the idea that the ritual is relevant. Well, at least in my mind. It seemed like a better idea not to reflect on this year’s Commemoration after a bombardment of WW2 movies, WW2 documentaries, WW2 news-items, WW2 cultural events… I wanted to write it at least one or two weeks later, when the subject of freedom, and the history behind our freedom, should be just as topical. Of course the words that were spoken on May 4th, 2013 are still just as fresh in our minds.

Right?

Well I don’t blame you; if I didn’t have the weird habit of writing about current events on this site, I wouldn’t have made any long-term memories of those words either. Anyway, here is the full text of the poem that was selected amongst those entered by high school students all over The Netherlands:

4 mei, ik lig in bed maar kan niet slapen / Beelden flitsen door mijn hoofd / Foto’s die ik zag op tentoonstellingen / kransen onder monumenten, / een man tegen een muur, / zijn ogen gesloten in gebed / het kamertje in mijn ooms schuur / de lucht zwaar van herinneringen / Zo’n klein kamertje / zo’n klein belangrijk kamertje / een kamertje dat levens heeft gered / Ik knip mijn nachtlampje aan en kijk om mij heen / mijn laptop, mijn volle kledingkast / ik schaam mij er opeens voor / Mijn heftigste herinneringen zijn die van een ander

Here’s an English translation by yours truly:

May 4th, I lie in bed but cannot sleep / Images flash through my head / Pictures I saw on expositions / Wreaths lying beneath monuments / A man against a wall / His eyes closed in prayer / The room in my uncle’s cabin / The air heavy with memories / Such a small room / Such a small, important room / A room that saved lives / I turn on the light and look around / My laptop, my cupboard full of clothes / Suddenly I am ashamed of it all / My most vivid memories belong to someone else

Before I start my ranting, I want to let you know that I am not wholly against this poem. Let’s not confuse form, content, and intention. The first and last are, in my opinion, very good: it’s a well written poem (especially considering the author’s tender age, which is sixteen) and I heartily support the intentions of Commemoration Day. But (there’s always a “but”), I immediately had some problems with the content, and especially the last four sentences.

A girl looks around, sees the obvious signs of her abundance, of her privileged position, and feels shame. How can you feel guilty without having done anything wrong? Only when existence itself is a sin, a notion all too similar to Christian morality, where it is supposed that people are born into “sin” and that they are guilty against the creator god. But what aggravates me most about the guilt expressed in the poem is that it is impotent guilt. What I mean by that is that this notion of guilt is not translated into action. Are we suddenly going to throw away our possessions: clothes, laptops and all? I don’t think so. I don’t even see a reason why we should in the first place: the age of ascetics is over. And so this tension that is created by realizing that we are better off than others simply because we were born into a prosperous day and age isn’t resolved. Say what you will about Christianity, but at least it sold a cure along with its poison: after having convinced you that you needed saving, it had a Savior waiting right around the corner. Just say the lines, join the community, live the prescribed life and off you go: freed from the chains you didn’t even realize you had. But what are we supposed to do with a sense of guilt that comes from inheriting a wealthy and peaceful nation from our ancestors?

The last sentence implies another problem. “My most vivid memories belong to someone else.” This is precisely where I think where commemoration becomes problematic: almost every lesson about the Holocaust is accompanied by the additional lesson that these horrors are incomprehensible to those who have not experienced them first hand. And this is all too true: you simply cannot even begin to image what it must have been like to live and die in an extermination camp, no matter how many books, movies, history lessons, and silent moments you consume. I fear that this living vicariously, with your most vivid memories being second-hand, will have an alienating effect on us; that it will only further remove us from something that we couldn’t even fully comprehend in the first place. I absolutely do not mean to say that we shouldn’t raise awareness about the Holocaust, what I mean is that perhaps we need to rethink how we commemorate and how we educate ourselves on this subject. Commemoration today is, in my view, too one-dimensional: it looks too much to the past so that we still lack ideas on how to prevent similar atrocities from happening in the future. And it looks too much at the victims so that we may lose sight of how people become perpetrators. This last issue will be a central point in the second part of this reflection on Commemoration Day.

Frank Kool
Born and raised in Holland, spent his time procrastinating and studying Psychology and Philosophy. Frank harbors a special interest in weird social phenomena (which are ALL social phenomenon if you think about them long enough).

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