Histourism: Life in Utrecht during World War II

Last Sunday, May 3rd, was one of Utrecht’s Cultural Sundays, meaning that throughout the city, there were activities and exhibitions based on a certain theme. This week’s theme was “Utrecht 40/45,” because on the 5th of May 2015, we celebrated 70 years of liberation from Nazi Germany.

On May 4th, at 8 pm, we always have a minute of silence to remember those who lost their lives during the war; in Amsterdam, the king and queen attend a service at Dam Square. This year I went to the service held at Dom square in Utrecht for the first time. The mayor made a beautiful speech about the relevance of the war today, and urged us to remember and appreciate the freedom and peace that we live in, so dearly bought.

On May 5th, we celebrate being liberated as a nation; this is the date on which Nazi Germany officially surrendered. Officially, the war wasn’t over for the Netherlands until 1949, as the Dutch East Indies struggled for independence first from the Japanese in 1945 and then from the Dutch for another four years. This very bloody struggle has been swept under the rug; losing the East Indies is considered an embarrassing footnote in our national history, which is why as far as the motherland is concerned the war ended in 1945. Utrecht wasn’t actually liberated until May 7th, by the Canadian ‘Polar Bears’. The celebrations on May 5th aren’t strictly nationwide, as I learnt from a conversation with my housemates who were born and raised in the south of the Netherlands, because the south was liberated in the fall of 1944. They do have events every September – and they were particularly grand last September because of the 70th anniversary – that commemorate Operation Market Garden and the Battle for Arnhem. Because of the failure of Market Garden, the north of the country could not be liberated and the people in the north had to endure winter of hunger, during which many people were forced to eat flower bulbs. Over 20,000 people died during this time.

This Cultural Sunday, then, served to illuminate what life was like in Utrecht under German occupation. Sadly, I had to work the best part of the day, so I couldn’t attend many events; but the line-up was very interesting. There were Jewish open houses scattered throughout the city, where the owners told about the role of that house in the war, its Jewish inhabitants, and people who hid there. There were theatre performances, lectures and videos about the resistance, and walks around the city with a particular focus on the Maliebaan. The Maliebaan is a stretch of 1 km where the NSB (Nazi sympathizing party), the resistance, and the city’s abbot all had their headquarters.

I was lucky enough to catch two exhibitions before I went to work. The first one was located in the only remaining German bunker in Utrecht, in the Wilhelminapark. Anton Mussert, leader of the NSB, lived around Wilhelminapark, as did many of his peers. The exposition “Dangerous Print” showed a number of caricatures and pamphlets published during the war by De Bezige Bij (The Busy Bee), which was located at a stone’s throw from the bunker. De Bezige Bij is the only clandestine publisher in the Netherlands still in business today. In the bunker, they also showed a video of Utrecht during the war.

The second exhibition I saw was a photo exposition at Dom Square. The photos were taken from the book Utrecht 40-45 by Ad van Liempt. It shows the city during and after German occupation. I found it very moving to see pictures of tanks full of Germans, and then tanks overtaken by cheering women on May 5th, on the streets that I cycle on every day.

It’s difficult to comprehend what took place right here, 70 years ago, and yet it has shaped so much of our daily reality. I find the war endlessly fascinating, because the scale of the destruction and monstrosities committed was so big, and because there are so many different stories about the war that have been and can be told. And through reading war biographies, visiting cemeteries with row upon row of white tombstones, and watching films about the Holocaust, the soldiers, and all the other lives lost during the war, the flimsy membrane of being unable to comprehend the scale of the war because of how much time has passed can be punctured. And when it is punctured, it often moves me to tears. War is of all ages, and it has many sides to it. But I believe that World War II in particular shows that people are not fundamentally good, but evil, and I see it confirmed every day. That does not mean that I’m a pessimist, but it does make me cautious, and it makes me determined to do as much good as I can.

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