Dear Pope Francis,
Today is June 6. I’m sure you have a calendar and know that already. This date always resonates with me. No, it’s not my birthday, nor is it a birthdate for a close friend or family member. It is an anniversary, but not something in my personal life. On this date in 1944, American, British and Canadian soldiers stormed the beaches in Normandy for the D-Day operations. Let me set the scene, for just a minute.
I was born and raised in Canada, but I am the grand-daughter of Dutch immigrants. Growing up I was encouraged to learn about my Dutch heritage, and now I often describe myself as Dutch-Canadian. There are key areas in my life where this comes out. The most prominent being sports. During the Olympics, I am torn between cheering for the Dutch and the Canadians. In soccer and hockey, there is no contest, I cheer for the Dutch in soccer, and the Canadians in hockey. There are other ways that my heritage comes out. I love tulips, which is the Dutch national flower, and one of the things on my bucket list is to attend the Tulip Festival in Ottawa, which commemorates the Canadian government’s role in protecting the Dutch princesses during the Second World War.
I think it’s safe to say that my deep love for both countries grew out of my time with my Oma (grandmother). She often told us stories about how the Canadian soldiers freed the western portion of the Netherlands, where she lived, in the spring of 1945. She also told me stories about the devastating ‘Hunger Winter’ that spanned 1944-1945, and about other hardships and atrocities, like eating tulip bulbs because there was no food and trying to burn asphalt to generate some heat. She showed me pictures of the ruins in various Dutch cities like Rotterdam and Den Hague, which was the result of repeated air raids. Knowing these stories made the Canadian soldiers’ actions all the more heroic. While she and my Opa (grandfather) had valid reasons for immigrating after the war ended, Oma seemed equally proud of both her countries, and this was something that I adopted as well.
There are very few days that I am prouder to be a Dutch-Canadian than on June 6, the anniversary of D-Day. The Canadians were instrumental in freeing Holland, and it all began with the landing on Juno Beach in June 1944. This year, we are commemorating seventy years since D-Day, or the ‘beginning of the end’ as Oma called it. This day always reminds me of Oma’s stories about the end of the war: watching the air planes flying low to drop crates of food, celebrating that the Germans had surrendered, and her first slice of white bread after the war (she said that she never had a piece of cake that tasted better than that bread). Even though I had absolutely nothing to do with any of these events, I always feel so proud and grateful for the people who did fight for it, both those who came home and those who gave their lives. Oma’s gratitude and respect was evident as well. Any time she told these stories, her voice sounded just a little bit different, as if she were reliving the events in some way, including the hope and joy at the liberation.
This year I am feeling all of this even more poignantly as I will be traveling through Europe in a couple of weeks, learning about the Shoah (Holocaust) and I will be visiting Auschwitz I and Auschwitz-Birkenau. D-Day was not only the beginning of the final push towards the liberation of Holland, but also the liberation of Concentration Camps across Europe. As I read about the destruction of the Nazi regime, I can only feel numb at the sheer number of people who didn’t get to see liberation. Despite the numbness, deep down, I am still very proud to be connected to both the victims by learning about their fate, and the people who helped put an end to the war.
Oma believed in the power of her stories to teach people about the atrocities of the war. She wanted to make sure that we didn’t forget how hard it was, so that we could work to make sure it didn’t happen again. D-Day, and other anniversaries of events in the war, bring all the stories I’ve heard, from Oma and others, to the forefront of my mind, but in a special way Oma’s stories are there. I can’t even fathom what being able to walk in the death camps are going to do when it’s time to tell my stories. But, like Oma, I believe in the power of memory and stories, both personal stories, like Oma’s, but also national stories, like the collective Canadian soldiers’ involvement in D-Day. Passing these stories on, either verbally or written down, whether in a classroom or around a kitchen table, helps in some small way to keep the memories alive for another generation, helping a country to stand together, and a family to sit together.
Enjoying the stories and memories,
Author’s note: As I mentioned above, I will be travelling (June 14-26). Hopefully, there won’t be any interruptions in my posts over the next three weeks while I get ready and actually travel, but the trip schedule and workload seems quite demanding. If there, I apologize in advance!