Of my first school I can remember three things explicitly: the stories of ‘Rapje the Rabbit’ (reading in first and second grade); the stories of ‘Pim, Frits and Ida’ (reading in third and fourth grade); and a story of which I cannot now remember the name, but so much more of its contents. I probably read it when I was about eleven years old, and I take it I read it around the fourth of May, which is commemoration day in the Netherlands (which culminates in a nation wide two minute silence at 8 p.m.).

The story is about a little boy (or girl?) sitting in an Amsterdam tram with his granddad, on the evening of May the fourth. Suddenly the tram halts. Granddad explains this has to do with the commemoration. Then a cyclist passes by, seemingly unaware of the silence around him. He looks at the boy and smiles. De boy asks his granddad whether this is right. Granddad then explains that you cannot oblige anyone to take part in such a commemoration, and that this is the very idea of freedom.

Without a doubt the actual story was quite different—that is the price you pay for remembering things. What really counts is that this story is the only thing I can remember in detail from that period of my life. I have respected commemoration day ever since. My relatives came through the war virtually unscarred. We have no loved ones lost. But every year, I can see this cyclist passing a silent tram.

However, it took a long time before I read Anne Frank’s diary. I was twenty-five before I had the nerves to open it. Why? Probably because I was afraid it would forever change my image of the war due to the symbolic status of that book. ‘Luckily’ that was not the case.

Last spring, I happened upon a British documentary about Anne Frank. There she was, leaning silently out of a window, laughing, gesturing to someone inside. Dutch newspaper soon had the stories: British film makers had acquired actual film footage of Anne Frank from 1941. Suddenly I wept, and I didn’t know why. Max Pam later tried to explain: we know what happened to that girl.

Now this is my proposition: every fourth of May, at 8pm, we broadcast these pictures of Anne Frank, instead of the dull commemoration ceremonies. It might be followed by pictures of a cyclist passing a silent tram.


This text was previously published in the By The Way…, volume 58.

© Roelof Ruules