On history: 75 stories about freedom from the lowlands

If being free is: you be quiet
for I have something to say
If being free is: rigidly determining
the day of tomorrow by allowing today’s day
to be a little less day

Thus begins the poem, “Freedom,” by Marian Bloem, one of the 75 people whose stories are published in to mark the 75th anniversary of the end of WWII. Candid, short, personal stories carefully curated. Well-worth reading.

Marion Bloem says, “My Indian background has completely defined my life. Just because I felt from an early age that there was no room for my parents to commemorate and share what they had to endure during the Japanese occupation in the Dutch East Indies and the revolution time after. When they came to the Netherlands, they were told that they had not experienced the war. Also in the textbooks it was only about what had happened in the Netherlands and Europe. Because the Indian people were treated so badly after coming to the Netherlands, I developed a strong sense of justice and a great sensitivity of colour.

Freedom by Marian Bloem

Her poem, Freedom (video above) is an examination into the concept of freedom, especially in relation to the freedom of others. She says about the poem, “I describe that the freedom you make for yourself is not freedom when it comes at the expense of others. If you don’t allow someone else freedom, it’s oppression. Everything you give yourself, you have to give someone else.

Bloem’s is not the mainstream Dutch narrative, clearly. What I like about the 75 stories is that it has tried to collect stories from different groups, at least made an attempt at inclusion. Together they provide a rich read, covering many different perspectives.

Another interesting story is that of Alfred Kool. Kool’s father did not speak until he was 88 that he was forced to work for an aircraft factory in Nazi Germany. It makes me think of “choices” people make. Ordinary people put through extraordinary situations – when extreme courage is asked of us, and if we fail, does that condemn us to a lifetime, and our descendants too? If we don’t though, anyone who stands around or joins gets to feel free. He also talk about his father-in-law who “spent two and a half years in hiding in a Drents forest to escape the Arbeitseinsatz”. He dug a hole there and sat there with as many as twenty men. For 2.5 years. Imagine!

Dieuwertje Blok refers to the poem, “The Earthworm and his mother” as a call to making your own choices and daring to think independently. Almost all of us live in fear, fear of something. The day we can conquer it is the day we become free.

A pensive earthworm from Ditmars
Each night looked up into the stars
And whispered “These fair lanterns make
My tender heart with beauty ache”
His mum said “Hon —— give me a break!”
“Look down, I tell ya, turn around!
A normal worm looks at the ground.”

Then Sunday night, just around three,
The night owl came around for tea.
Our hero saw him and could flee.
But mum, whose head was in the sleet
Was eaten ’live on Ditmars Street…

Remember children, from today
Don’t heed a word your mothers say.

The stories also made me realize the fallacy of the word “history.” There is no one history. We all live and see the world through different histories, which depends to a large extent on who we are, and the context in which we live. I was curious about what the German newspapers had published to commemorate the end of WWII. I read about the mass suicides that swept through many villages in Germany – a story not often told. I read about a man who describes his relationship with his homeland, Dachau.

When I lived in Germany, the version of the stories I heard from the people around me were a mix of shame and contrite admission of the events of the past. I sat in a row of desks with a Polish man on my right and a German on my left – as a person with relatively little historical baggage from the WWII, I didn’t often catch the nuances in the conversations. That was nearly 15 years ago – since then I have learnt a lot more. One of which is that there is no one without historical baggage from something.

WWII occupies a lot of our airtime because there are clear dates to signify and many commemorations around the world – but many many more atrocities have been committed across the world across the years. No suffering is less or more. The suffering and violence that we as humanity have inflicted on each other – there have been many. Most are not remembered enough. Why do we forget? Perhaps, many of us don’t even know about most of them. Why do we not know? But then, I am not asking for memory theater – a concept I came across here which brings to light the complexity of multicultural narratives that try to set right the past.

But what is it that I am asking for?

  • For an understanding of our shared past. Where none of us are allowed to sit on a pedestal, none of us were the victims, because in some version of the same story, we all have occupied all roles.
  • For an acknowledgement of the complexity and nuance in our lives – present and past. In realizing that stories are not a single truth. History is not a fact, it is merely a perspective. I ask for the hard work that we need to do to see through each other’s eyes, for empathy. To truly feel what another feels. To acknowledge feelings of ourselves and of others.
  • For resistance to complacency. To fight our cognitive laziness and do the work to find that understanding. The world is complex and we are equipped to handle it, but we do need to try. And then when we do realize what is at stake, make our own opinions, and dare to stand by our views.
  • For a shared view of the world. This one feels even more difficult than the others. What does it take for all of us to have a world view? Not a nationalistic view? The media would like us to believe that we are moving towards more polarity, that populism is coming back – but is that true? Just as recent studies have debunked the common notion that the world is progressively going to hell, where is the work that shows conclusively and factually that we are rooting for populism and for polarity. And if we indeed are trending towards populistic and nationalistic tendencies, isn’t it on us to reverse the trend. Which at least needs to start with an empathy for the world. Which starts with a shared view of the world.
  • For the ability to see the world from different perspectives. Through many eyes.