On 4 and 5 May every year, the Netherlands first remembers the sacrifices made by those who lost their lives, then celebrates the freedom those sacrifices made possible. Dodenherdenking (Remembrance Day) is a low-key affair, focussing on memorial services and parades at war memorials and military graveyards. Bevrijdingsdag (Liberation Day) is a celebration of freedom, with free festivals throughout the country. After a day of remembrance of those who gave their lives, the lighting of the bevrijdingsvuur (Freedom Fire) symbolises the transition to a day of celebration commemorating the liberation and celebrating freedom.

There are always many events surrounding both Remembrance Day and Liberation Day, particularly in the east of the Netherlands, so I will give some background information and pick out a few interesting things I discovered about this year’s celebrations in Gelderland. This year is the 70th anniversary of the official end of WWII, so many places have made an extra effort this year. What’s more, this year there was an extra special link between the Liberation Day celebrations in Wageningen and the VE Day celebrations in the UK.

Dodenherdenking – Rembrance Day in the Netherlands

Commemoration of Dutch Liberation, September 2014 - Hell's Highway, Alverna
Commemoration of Dutch Liberation, September 2014 – Hell’s Highway, Alverna

On the evening of 4 May there are services of commemoration all over the Netherlands, reminding people to be thankful for the lives of military personnel and civilians sacrificed during the Second World War to ensure the freedom we now enjoy. This includes those involved in the resistance during WWII, those who were victims of Nazi persecution and retribution (Jews, Sinti, Roma and others), and the victims of Japanese camps in Indonesia. Not only those who died in WWII are remembered, however. This is a day to remember all those who have died in wars, conflicts and peacekeeping missions since then. After all, there has not been a single day of peace over the entire world since 1945; somewhere in the world, there is always war, conflict, discrimination or oppression.

There are small-scale remembrance services all over the country at local war memorials. In some parts of the country there are allied war graves and so there are usually services held there where wreathes are laid, often by schoolchildren whose schools have ‘adopted’ a graveyard. At a national level, a major televised parade is held at the Dam Square in Amsterdam and the royal family and other dignitaries lay wreathes at the national war memorial. This year nearly 3 million people watched the parade on television with another 20,000 there in person. Flags are flown at half-mast, not just from government buildings, but by many individuals. See my previous blog post for more about Dutch flags on 4 and 5 May.

A special role for Wageningen, a town in Gelderland

Wageningen, calling itself the ‘City of Liberation’, is a town in Gelderland that is especially connected to the remembrance days here on 4 and 5 May, as the capitulation which ended World War II in the Netherlands was signed in the town’s Hotel de Wereld in 1945. The commemoration started in the early evening on 4 May with a short ecumenical church service, followed by a silent march (stille tocht), stopping briefly so those who wished could place a pebble on the Jewish monument De Levenspoort (the gate to life). After this the parade moved on for the two minutes’ silence at 8pm and the wreath-laying ceremony at the war memorial. Participants were also encouraged to place a candle in a jam jar, making a beautiful meandering display along the dike, symbolising how light and rivers can connect people together.

The National Freedom Fire ceremony is the start of Liberation Day

Forming a link between the solemnity of Remembrance Day and the celebration of liberation and freedom, Wageningen holds an annual Freedom Fire (bevrijdingsvuur) ceremony at midnight in front of Hotel de Wereld. Carried like an Olympic flame, the torch for the Freedom Fire (or Fire of Liberation as it is called on the website) was lit from a permanent flame in Bayeux in Normandy, France. Bayeux was the first French town liberated at the end of the Second World War (and also of course the one with the famous tapestry of 1066 and William the Conqueror). The tradition of the Freedom Fire began in 1945, when a team of athletes brought the flame to Eindhoven. In 1948, they decided to carry on and bring it symbolically to Wageningen, the place where the war ended.

Keeping the Freedom Fire burning – Fun fact!

The perpetual flame is kept burning in the prosaic setting of a boiler room at the municipal gas and waterworks until it is required for the annual celebrations. As this is the 70th anniversary of the capitulation, the flame was ‘renewed’ and brought once more to Wageningen from Normandy in September 2014.

At midnight on 4 May, in the pouring rain, the mayor of Wageningen lit the Freedom Fire with a torch, signalling the start of Liberation Day in the whole country. In a short speech, he mentioned that the fire symbolises our freedom, but reminded us of those who are not free and at peace today, particularly mentioning Syria, Iraq, Ukraine and the refugees who recently drowned in the Mediterranean. Teams of runners and cyclists from 200 Dutch municipalities lit their own torches from the fire and took part in a relay to bring the fire of peace and liberty to their own towns, stopping to light candles on war memorials and monuments along the way.

Watch the ceremony in Wageningen on this video from the local regional TV station, Omroep Gelderland.

I also found some footage of the runners arriving at the war memorial on the dike at Westervoort, near Arnhem, with a strong wind blowing, showing off the Union Flag, the Dutch red-white-blue and the Canadian maple leaf flag to their best advantage. Such a shame the Union Flag was upside down!

The Freedom Fire goes international

To highlight the 70th anniversary of the end of WWII, the Freedom Fire had an even more international journey this year, with 2 routes leading up to Remembrance Day and 2 continuing the journey afterwards.

Auschwitz – Wageningen From 21 April – 5 May, a group of 25 Dutch and 25 Canadian youngsters took part in the Frank Graham Cycle Liberation Tour. Visiting Auschwitz in Poland, through the Czech Republic to Theresienstadt,  then into Germany, visiting Dresden, a short detour to Berlin to see the Berlin Wall, then a visit to Bergen-Belsen. On the way, they carried a flame from Auschwitz back to Wageningen and ultimately to the Liberation Day celebrations in Markelo, their headquarters.

Normandy – Wageningen 29 April – 4 May. Retracing the route followed by Field Marshall Montgomery who lit the original Freedom Fire in France in 1948, a group travelled from Hull in the north of the UK, down to Portsmouth on the south coast and landed in Normandy, lighting a torch at Sword Beach. Raymond Lord, who fought during Operation Overlord on D-Day handed over the torch to a Dutch marine, representing the new generation of the armed forces, literally and figuratively passing on the flame. A team of cyclists started the lantern on its way  through France and Belgium, following the route taken by the Dutch Princess Irene Brigade in 1944, part of the allied forces. Once in the Netherlands, athletes from Wageningen relayed it back in time for the Remembrance Day ceremony, visiting various memorials en route where candles were lit in memoriam. The Google map of the route below comes from the Wageningen45 site and you can follow them on Facebook if you are interested.

Wageningen – Berlin 5 – 8 May. The director of the German-Russian Museum Berlin-Karlshorst (the site of the unconditional surrender of the Wehrmacht in 1945) attended the Fire of Liberation ceremony in Wageningen. One of the flames was then taken in a relay to Berlin to a ceremonial welcome on 8 May at the museum, a place where two former enemies commemorate their joint history.

Wageningen – Hull 5 – 8 May. 8 May is VE Day (Victory in Europe Day). Last year, Wageningen presented Hull’s veterans with a Freedom Fire. This year the flame was relit from torches from Wageningen and beacons were lit all round the country to celebrate 70 years of peace.

Beacons for VE Day in the UK – the Wageningen link

I’ve always loved the idea of beacons being lit around the country – I’ve never seen it myself – but the idea of torches being carried all the way from Hull to Normandy, on through France and Belgium, then back to be used for lighting beacons all over the UK is wonderful. And that’s without all the extra flames travelling from Auschwitz to the Netherlands then on to Berlin.

So once again, the Freedom Fire has proved to be a way of paying respects to the dead and in the process, strengthening the bonds between the generations and the countries involved.