Memorial Day means something in Europe. In America, it's just another day off. Time to do some shopping or something. But here, well, here they know from memorials.
When I'd finally gotten enough caffeine in my system, I asked Francisco about it. He explained that in almost in every city in Europe, even the tiny villages, they have a memorial to victims of World War II, the war I was taught to call "The Holocaust." And there was one such memorial just down the street on Amstelveenseweg.
On Memorial Day, people gather at these memorials to honor the victims of war. They sing and speak and observe a moment of silence at 8pm. But it's not just them, all of Amsterdam shuts down. No traffic lights, no cabs or trams or cars. No nothing. Just silence.
I've had a tough relationship with my Jewishness. I rejected it as a kid as just another set of rules I'd been given. As I get older, I embrace it more and more. But one thing I never rejected, never doubted, is where I came from. The Powazeks. I've always believed in them.
And most of them were taken from this world in Poland in the 1940s for being on the wrong side of an arbitrary line that I'll never understand.
So today I found myself in Europe on Memorial Day, amongst a crowd of 100 or so, gathered around a memorial for four people who were also on the wrong side of the line in that horrible war. Francisco translated the words on the memorial for me: these 4 died in May of 1945, two days after capitulation. Another senseless few deaths. Maybe they were Jewish, maybe they were just in the wrong place at the wrong time. But now, in that spot, over 50 years later, we all stood and remembered.
There was a small stage set up and a trio of folk musicians were playing a guitar and flute and singing songs. I wished I could have understood the words so much, but the spirit was clear.
And then, just like Francisco has said it would, suddenly everything stopped. Everyone just looked down and closed their eyes. And I did, too.
Standing there in my own darkness, I could hear the wind rustle through the leaves of the trees, I could hear a few birds in the distance. And then ... nothing. Nothing but my own thoughts.
So I remembered.
I remembered my uncle Charlie, now in his nineties, who survived the war by hiding in the woods. I remembered my uncle Oscar, who survived the war with numbers on his arm, and lived long enough to get shot in LA in the 80s. I remembered my Aunt Chanka, who was the first to get out. And I remembered my grandparents, who I literally owe my life to, who ran and ran and ran until they got to Buffalo, New York.
I remembered because that's what I was supposed to do. But I remember them every day. The difference is that today I was with a hundred other people, remembering a thousand others. I could feel them all in the whistle of the wind in the leaves.
And then one of the musicians started plucking the strings of his guitar. He began a song and, slowly, everyone around me began singing. Francisco leaned in and explained that this was the traditional song for Memorial Day. It was beautiful a hundred people, singing in the street.
When the song was over, everyone began to bustle and Francisco suggested we go look at the memorial. As we made our way closer, it got harder and harder to take. All these people. All the songs. All the loss. And as I neared the memorial, I saw something I hadn't noticed before.
Flowers. Piles of flowers around the base of the memorial. Red tulips, white roses, daisies, and more. I glanced over my shoulder and saw them in everyone's arms, coming near. Flowers. So many flowers.
I bit my lip and turned. I couldn't get any closer without weeping all over everyone. I was swimming in my emotions. Sadness for my loss, pride in my family, astonishment that a spontaneous crowd of strangers could honor my family more than anything I'd ever seen in my own country.
Francisco noticed me leaving and followed after me. For someone who I think has a hard time with his own emotions, he knew just what to do with mine: stay close, but let me be.
On the walk back, when I was able to speak again, I asked: "This happens all over Europe?"
"Yes, each on their own day. Today is just Amsterdam. But they all have a moment of silence like this."
"Wow." I said, and headed back to the office to finish the day.
Later that night, as I was biking home, I passed by the memorial again. It was covered in flowers. I stopped and looked at it for a long time.
Derek, in Amsterdam
written 5.4.99, posted 5.29.00