There was a sense, an awareness, that all of them could die. It had been forbidden to admit this. There was a life after this war. There was no sense to contemplate death. He was twenty-five at the time. So much life ahead of him. He would come back. They all would come back.
He was there again, at the 4th of may, the remembrance of the dead. At 19:40 they would meet at the Roman catholic church. They would all walk to the memorial site by the park. An orchestra would be waiting. A trumpet will play the tap-toe signal, indicating the commencement of the two minute silence for the men who have perished in the war.
People began walking. There was a calm rain, it poured respectfully on all those who were honoring the great war that gave them freedom. They heard talks from their grandfathers and grandmothers about the times back then. Many of them had been part of the resistance. Holland in itself is historically notorious for its resistance movement during World War 2. For such a small country, a country that quickly backed down when the Germans invaded, their liberty and those of their minority peers, were dearly valued by the previous generation.
Every year he wondered the same: did nobody contemplate their mortality because of sheer superstition? To say it would be akin to tempting fate? Was all just necessary sense of machismo? Men who talk about death, fear death- hence you don’t talk about it. A sense of defeatism perhaps. So many had already been murdered. What’s the point? You either fight or die inside. The great war was the war for our souls. The price of their victory would be our humanity. History would be rewritten. Our children won’t be free to explore themselves. They would become subjects of the regime. A new religion would dominate the ages. The new God would have a ridiculous mustache. His disciples would wear long leather jackets. Demons would wear yamaka’s.
If they would die, they would die fighting for something. A purpose. Most people don’t die for a purpose. Most people just die. Perhaps this was just something he told himself. They were so young and brave. And stupid. Gloriously stupid.
How long has it been? 72 years. It goes so fast. It goes so goddamn fast. Most of the soldiers who have witnessed the carnage firsthand have perished. This is why there were no chairs anymore at the remembrance site anymore. These chairs were reserved for veterans. There were no more veterans. The stories must now go on through the next generation, by historians, by filmmakers, by teachers, by this yearly ritual.
He thought of his friends. The friends who didn’t make it. Every year there faces become more blurry, but every now and then, they would look clearer again. Their voices might long have been gone, but they were there still. Somewhere.
For a moment he forgot how he got here. Thinking back, it seemed like he couldn’t remember anything but his time during the war. Who was he after the war? Or was there a better question? Maybe the question should be: does it really matter who we were outside the war?
Truth was, his existence was defined by the time. Defined by the men around him. His brothers. So long gone.
They were there now. Every year there had been less people. No more than perhaps fifty now. Hopefully this is just a trend.
The tap-toe signal. Silence. Everybody is silent. He looked around, even the faces of children have a dignified sense of solemnity about them. A baby started crying. The baby was attached to young man’s chest by a strap. He quickly shook the baby who eventually calmed down, long enough for the last minute to pass soundlessly. The whole country was doing this now. You could feel it. We were all in this together. Only for a few minutes.
The tap-toe signal, the orchestra starts playing. An old man from the Remembrance committee came on the memorial site, to the microphone that was waiting for him. The committee man began naming the names of the brave resistance fighters.
He heard his name and then he began to understand again. Sometimes it feels like he’s here for real. Then he remembers: he’s only here for the short moment when the country remembers then and then he will disappear, only to come back and be reminded of his great sacrifice.
We were supposed to come back, but not all of us did. We might have died for a great cause, but this should have been understood by everyone, nobody needed to die, but we did. This is the way of the human animal. This is our kind of savagery. Every year people are shocked when people, even nations, enact atrocities that reminds us of our world wars. But there’s nothing shocking about us, or outdated. We are still the same. The same sounds are made. Nature evolves but doesn’t change. It’s all very fragile. And every now and then, the blood of patriots will have to be spilled so that we are reminded of this. This is why this is valuable. This is why we must remember. We always forget but we must remember as long as we can.
The committee man spoke the names of his fallen brothers.
And suddenly they were there. Everyone. His whole cadre of freedom fighters. They were as young as they were before their execution. They used to live here, back when these streets looked so different. They were surrounded by people who enjoyed their freedoms because of them but nobody could see them. None of them will ever be able to know the faces of these men. Not clearly enough anyhow. Whatever pictures are left are black and white, made brown as times went by. A historian somewhere in the world has a picture of all of them, armed, dirty, smiling, all together. He would not know it was them, the picture was not clear enough, there had not been enough evidence to support any definitive claims of who these people were. But they were there and they are here now, only for a while until they will have to leave again.
Jokes are made. They spoke as if they never went away.
”It’s good to be back,” one of them said, ”if only for a while.”
”They know our names.”, he said, ”That’s more than can we say about all those before us, so many of their names were erased from history. Least we have this. Least we can come back.”
”You think this will stay like that?”
”I hope so.”
None of them spoke about the possibility but it was there. It’s always there. But you can’t speak about or else you might jinx it. It’s not something that men do. Men must fight or die inside. It happens to so many. Sometimes it feels meaningless but it never is.
”Today we mourn the dead,” the committee man said, ”tomorrow we celebrate our liberty.”
”Wish I could stay for that,” one of the fallen said.
Children from a school in the neighborhood were asked to come on the memorial site to recite a poem. It was about freedom. One of the children was from Turkish descent. It made them smile, knowing this was possible now.
They left bouquets on the memorial site. An old man from the Remembrance of the Dead committee said that this is the end. Many of the people were given white flowers to put on the memorial site, he told them he could do this now. The orchestra began playing. The music they knew from their time in the academy. The music that seemed at first, so dull turned into one of the most beautiful music in the world. It brought tears to their eyes.
”Just to come back and hear this, makes it all worth it.”
People in the single-file dropped flowers on the remembrance site. Music kept playing. People hung around but eventually, the most painful fact of all comes haunting us all: life must go on. The living went back home.
Perhaps most of us will never fully appreciate their sacrifice. Perhaps this is the way of things. We are used to this. We don’t live with the kind of evil that reigned their country then.
The men stood there alone now, looking at the memorial site. They looked at each other. The same knowing glance they made before the bullets pierced their bodies. Their faces already began to fade.
I wish it didn’t, I really wish it didn’t…
They all said the same thing: ”it had been an honor.”
And then they were gone.
Will you come back next year?