Saturday, 24 September 2011
dr. J. Terlouw, physicist, writer, former Member of Parliament and Cabinet Minister
The Oranjehotel, 66 years after the Second World War. Due to the careful attention of the Chairman of the Foundation I have been able to learn about a number of the impressive addresses that have been held at the commemorations over the years. She asked me to say something today particularly about the role and experiences of children during and after the War.
I was a child during the War. We heard about it. Not in particular about the people who were in the Resistance Movement and were shot after having been imprisoned in the Oranjehotel, but we did hear a lot about executions carried out in several places in the country. Being a child, it already made me shiver, and I shiver again when reading the memories of Reverend Bos’s son, who accompanied so many on their last journey.
The Netherlands was occupied by a hostile power. Those years were for me the years in which one grew from a child to being an adolescent. I remember more of those five years than of any other five years in my life. Life-changing events do leave their mark. You don’t forget them. In the last winter of the War, when I turned thirteen, I felt like an adult because the responsibilities that you were given as a child were far larger than in normal times. The four years after the liberation, until I was seventeen (when I could start my ‘free’ student life), were in a way the most difficult years of my life because I had to be a child again for four years – something I had actually forgotten to be.
The prevailing impression the years of War made on me, is still that we did not live in a constitutional state. The arbitrariness, the dismay that people were arrested and were executed as hostages – even if they had no part in what had happened. Jewish friends that were deported and – as we heard after our liberation – were murdered. The confusion that was caused by that news never left me, and not many others either, I presume. Even to this day there is a certain fear for people in uniforms. Instinctively I am still afraid of the police, as if they have control over me. Of course I know better and rationally I am grateful for the constitutional state in which we live, but I never forget that it can also be different.
“We live like God in France”, as the Dutch saying goes, in prosperity and in freedom, with the trias politica, citizens have rights against the State, free press, rights of participation and appeal, free people – all thanks to amongst others those who were deported from here and were shot, and to the thousands of people that were imprisoned here. Do we take it for granted that we live in freedom? Yes, we do. But yet there is with many, also with those born long after the War, a slumbering awareness that it is not to be taken for granted. Many young people come to commemorations. And many want to know.
Do we realize how wonderful it is to live in a constitutional state? How privileged we are? That we live in a country in which the government is there for the civilians and where law and order prevail, where inequality before the law is denounced? Where we have the right to vote, are allowed to start political parties and to stand for election? Do we teach our children, when they are growing up, that freedom, law and order are not to be taken for granted? Justice is one of our first needs in life. Absence of Justice is a constant source of fear. Civilians, defenceless against the arbitrariness of a man in power who calls himself the government.
No right to have a lawyer when accused,
at the most a pro-forma one. However,
your enemy as a lawyer then.
An automized conviction.
The executioner is the judge at the same time.
When our children reached the age that my wife and I had during the Second World War, they wanted to know how it had been. I then wrote the book Oorlogswinter and to my surprise there was an enormous interest for it, continuing to this very day. Worth mentioning is also that some readers said: “It wasn’t like that.” Of course not. Everyone experienced their own War. On the battle field. In the concentration camp. In the starving city. In the Oranjehotel.
Do we have to inform children about what happened during the obscure years of War? Yes we do, as they grow older they should learn about that more and more. They should know that in the last century there were years in which an indescribable blood lust wandered through Europe. A period about which has been thought a lot since, has been written about and has been told lies about too.
In the past in books for the youth it was often written that unfortunately children tended to be naughty, but if they did their best they might at any time become just as well-behaved as the adults. Well-behaved like adults…… Fortunately we do not do so anymore. Children ought to know that they are on their way to a society in which it is not unusual that adults do terrible things – they should guard themselves against the reversal of values, which can take place at any moment in time.
It is a good thing that the romance of the heroic Dutchman during the war has gradually given way to the truth. But then there were also many who did not give in to tyranny. Who did not stand idly by and just watched. Who fought. That too, children must hear. Children must hear that there were also many who in the end made the ultimate sacrifice. The Oranjehotel is a monument in honour of this.
At this time, in 2011, people still give their lives for the freedom of others. In so many places in the world many soldiers are killed. Like at the time the British, Americans, Canadians gave their lives for our freedom.
We struggle with political issues: is the battle against the Taliban useful, promising, justifiable? Was the invasion of the Americans in Iraq defendable, necessary, effective? One can have different opinions on this. But these questions are not relevant when we remember those who have died. Then it is about individuals, about people of flesh and blood, then it is about the heart-rending loss of a loved one, who has made the ultimate sacrifice: his life, her life. Then we want to remember those people, each individual, as far as there are still any relatives left who can do so. And even if we did not know them personally, we want to make them part of our memory, our collective remembrance.
It is good that we remember them each year again, them and all others who were killed by actions of war and terror.
Endless field with innumerable crosses.
For our freedom you lie there.
You were no match for bullets and shrapnel.
You fell for your country, for your duty, for freedom.
Your parents, far away, could not bury you.
No future for you with your child, your loved one,
Private Johnny Doe, twenty years old.
Monument in the sand of the Waalsdorpervlakte.
You were standing in front of the firing-squad.
You had thwarted the occupier for a long time.
You helped a pilot escape the enemy.
You helped pursued people hide.
Until, quite unexpectedly, you walked into their trap.
You did what you had to, what you could.
Millions killed, the balance-sheet of a war,
Christians, Jews, Muslims ……
Placed in a list of statistics.
A certain percentage due to the bombardments.
A certain percentage in destruction camps.
Countless people, resolved into their factors.
They all had a name.
In the thirties many Jews tried to flee Germany, threatened as they were by the criminal, fascist Hitler regime. The world was very reserved to give them refuge. So was The Netherlands. When you read this now, you think: how is that possible? What got over us? What was wrong with our values and the resulting norms?
Now there are still people that are pursued, threatened, tortured and murdered. How will history judge us now, in this time of prosperity and, as we like to say, of democracy?
Reality orders us to establish that many of us, also in our constitutional state, have still not internalized the human rights –which are embedded in the Constitution– not locked them in our hearts, not made them our spiritual property.
Actually, this is not that surprising. Intuitively we stand up for our short-term interests. The present price of bread is of more interest to us than the state of people’s welfare in fifty years‘ time. The present price of gas is of more interest to us than climate change over a period of fifty years. The rights of our fellow citizens seem more important to us than the rights of people in distant dictatorial states.
When a child is born it cannot read or write, and human rights are not part of its cognitive property.
For years one of my daughters has been arguing, privately and in publications that the significance of justice should be taught at school, like reading and writing are taught. It should be an integral part of education.
What do we teach our children at school? Do we teach them the fundamental principles of the constitutional state, of human rights? Of course, those things come up for discussion, in history lessons, in social studies, in civics and in economics. But much is to be said for replacing some of this sort of subjects by the subject rights and law.
Law is ultimately the most important asset of mankind. Without law, without the ordering, the self-control, taking other people into account which law demands of us, all other important things ̶ economy, science, diversion, art ̶ cannot flourish. You see this when in times of war law disappears, when killing is compulsory, when looting is not abnormal anymore, when rape is considered to be war loot. Then people fall back, at an alarming pace, into very primitive behaviour, into a way of acting as in amoral nature.
I agree with our daughter that we ought to – very explicitly – convey to our children at school the importance of Law, the importance of respecting Law, especially Human Rights Laws, of defending democratic assets, of defending the constitutional state, like the enforced guests of the Oranjehotel did.
Law and Justice seem distant subjects, only intended for lawyers. They are not. Every day people talk about Law and Justice.
“How can the judge do this?”, we say. “Why isn’t that punished?”, we call out. “Why can’t I kick that impudent rascal in the behind?”, we think.
There is a constant tension between Law and conscience. There is a lot to be explained about the Law. There is a lot to be discussed about the Law.
The Constitution guarantees freedom of religion. You are free to believe what you want.
Also freedom of speech is embedded in the Constitution. Can one therefore say that one thinks a religion is ridiculous? Can one say so in an offending way?
Laws of Freedom, Human Rights, these are fundamental concepts in society. So there is much to be learned from them, be discussed about. The school curriculum would admirably lend itself for that.
The first thing children want is to enjoy life. Be safe. From that basic urge they grow into independent thinkers. During that process adults, parents, teachers and so many others make their mark. Their norms and resulting values. Part of this process is to let children know what happened, which values were lost and were given a new chance after the liberation. Part of that is showing how important certain values are, which responsibility also the growing child is gradually given to protect these values.
I said: “Education is essential for democracy”. But just as essential for education and research is democracy.
Democracy is a form of government and a way of living. A democratic form of government is in default if its managers, those in power are not constantly involving the citizens, those governed, in decisions and developments. A democratic attitude also means having an eye for the major injustices that still afflict the world. Not to be obsessed by material prosperity. A democratic attitude has everything to do with real freedom.
There will always be tension between power and the freedom of others. That is why power should be temporary, have checks and balances and where possible be chosen. Forced admiration is of no value. Forced love is of no value. He who surrounds himself with flatterers and yes-men, harms his soul. He closes himself off from the possibility to distinguish false from true. He deprives himself of his own freedom.
What meaning do we give to the concept freedom? Freedom is one of the most misused words in our vocabulary. It has little to do with “being able to do what you want to do”. Freedom at the expense of others, does not deserve that name. De Montesquieu said: “You are free if you can do what you need to do”.
You are free if you can follow your conscience. If you cannot be forced to go off on immoral side- paths. If you are not brainwashed. If you are allowed to express your opinion. If you are not forced to conceal the truth. If you can protect children against evil. If you can do what you need to do.
Freedom is not for sale. Freedom has to be fought for, and if it is won it has to be cherished.
Freedom, a concept which reaches beyond our imagination, a word which makes life flourish spontaneously. Unreachable distances are opened up by freedom. Bare desert grounds can suddenly be reclaimed. It is as if freedom makes everything grow into heaven.
Freedom, so high on everybody’s list. If you are not there, how poor life then is. Every new thought imprisoned inside your skull. Every sentence you speak concealed in a jacket of hypocrisy. Subservient in attitude, in opinion, in language.
Freedom – you also put on our fragile shoulders a heavy responsibility. If we do not stubbornly defend your vulnerable spot, if we do not appreciate the possibilities that you present, you just turn your back on us, and we have lost you.
Why do we want to stand still at Death Cell 601 every year again? Why do we also want children to hear about the Oranjehotel and what happened there?
Commemorating is a mixture of paying attention to the past and shaping the future. The past is the foundation on which the future is built. Where the foundation is solid, of high quality, there is where we want to build. The spirit of the Oranjehotel has that quality, that value for a future in which we fight terror with democratic means.