The Dutch National Remembrance Day on 4 May 2020 was unlike any that had come before. Marking the significance of the 75th anniversary of the end of the Second World War, King Willem-Alexander was set to give a speech on Dam Square in Amsterdam. Due to the coronavirus pandemic, however, he delivered it to a nearly empty plaza. Despite this, or rather also because of it, the speech was powerful and more timely than ever.
Addressing the 6.5 million people watching from home, the Dutch king recounted the testimony of Holocaust survivor Jules Schelvis, and pointed to the enduring impact that the Holocaust and the Second World War has on generations today.
Read the full text of the speech below.
Speech by King Willem-Alexander, National Remembrance Day, 4 May 2020
It feels strange to be standing in an almost empty Dam square. But I know that you feel part of this National Remembrance and that we are standing here together.
During these exceptional months, we have all had to give up some of our freedom. This country hasn’t experienced anything like this since the Second World War. Now, we are choosing our own path. For our lives and our health.
Back then, the choice was made for us. By an occupier with a merciless ideology which caused the deaths of millions of people. How did that utmost lack of freedom feel?
There is one testimony I shall never forget. It was given here in Amsterdam, in the Westerkerk, almost six years ago. A short man with clear eyes – standing proudly at 93 years old – recounted his journey to Sobibor, in June 1943.
His name was Jules Schelvis. There he stood, fragile but unbroken, in a full but utterly silent church. He spoke about the transportation of 62 people in a single railway wagon. About the barrel on the bare floor. About the rain that spattered in through the gaps. About the hunger, the exhaustion, the filth.
“You began to look like a pauper”, he said. And you could hear the heartbreak in his voice. He recalled the soldiers who ripped the watches off their wrists upon arrival. And of how he lost his wife Rachel in the ensuing chaos. He never saw her again.
“Which normal human being could have imagined this? How could the world allow us, honest citizens of the Netherlands, to be treated like vermin?” His question lingered amongst the pillars of the church. I don’t have the answer. I still don’t.
What I also remember is his account of what happened before his journey. Following a razzia, he and his wife and many hundreds of others were taken to Muiderpoort station. I can still hear him saying: “Hundreds of onlookers were witness to the heavily guarded trams overflowing with people passing them by and didn’t protest once.”
Straight through this city. Straight through this country. Right before the eyes of their fellow countrymen. It seemed to develop so gradually. Bit by bit.
No longer being allowed to go to the swimming pool.
Being excluded as member of an orchestra.
No longer being allowed to ride your bike.
No longer being allowed to go to college.
Being put out onto the streets.
Being arrested and taken away.
Sobibor began in the Vondelpark. With a sign saying: ‘Jews Not Wanted”. Certainly, there were many people who protested. Men and women who took action, bravely going against the current and putting their own safety on the line for the sake of others.
I also think of all the civilians and military who fought for our freedom.
Of all the young soldiers who lost their lives on the Grebbelinie in May.
The military who served our Kingdom in the Dutch Indies and paid for it with their lives.
The members of the resistance who were shot dead on the Waalsdorpervlakte or were treated inhumanely in labour and concentration camps.
The military who didn’t return from peace-keeping operations or were severely injured during them.
True heroes who were prepared to die for our freedom and our values.
But there is also a different reality. Fellow human beings, fellow citizens in need, felt abandoned, unheard, and unsupported, if only by words. Also from London, and by my great grandmother, despite her unwavering and fierce opposition. This is something that won’t let go of me.
The impact of war lingers on for many generations. Even now, 75 years after our liberation, it remains with us. The least we can do is: not look away. Not justify. Not erase. Not brush aside. Not make something ‘normal’ that is not. And: nurture and defend our free, democratic constitution. Because only that is what will protect us from terror and insanity.
Jules Schelvis went through hell and somehow managed to make something of his life as a free person. Much more than that. “I kept my faith in humanity”, he said. If he could do that, then so can we. We can do it, and do it together. In freedom.