CHECK AGAINST DELIVERY
Good afternoon ladies and gentlemen,
It is a true honour to be here today to commemorate a generation of people who stood up for our values in the face of evil and allowed us to be here together as Europeans today; living in democracies, cherishing our freedoms, and being free from persecution, prejudice, fear and discrimination. It seems the normality, which it wasn't. It's not normality. It's something that was fought for; it's something our fathers and grandfathers, mothers and grandmothers fought for. And if the survivors of that had been here today, I would have liked to thank them, on behalf of all those who followed after them here in Europe.
They made unimaginable sacrifices, they suffered incomprehensible tragedies, they faced dangers that most of us today hopefully will never know, and they went through an emotional rollercoaster which must be at the very boundaries of what the soul can bear. In those years, we didn't know or we didn't talk about PTSD, shell-shock perhaps. So we need to pay tribute to them whenever we can.
Looking back, when facts, figures and stories are nicely ordered, it is difficult to realise how desperate the situation then was and how it really could have gone the other way. I recommend everyone reading or watching the 'Darkest Hour' by Anthony McCarten. It is a remarkable film.
The need for remembrance is greater than ever. And I'm really encouraged by what you were saying, that many young people now join that feeling.
We see that the Second World War is slipping away from living memory, simply because the generation who lived through the 1930s and the war are gradually leaving us. We are arriving at the turning point where living memory is substituted by written history.
Distance in time has the same effect as distance in space: the events disappear from view, suffering is felt less acutely, and budding threats are perceived less keenly.
There are those that say young Europeans don't care for war stories and reminiscences, and who say that these dark times have passed and can't return and we should stop remembering.
But read the first line of the Schuman Declaration of 1950: "World peace cannot be safeguarded without the making of creative efforts proportionate to the dangers which threaten it."
This then is the original raison d'être of European integration.
Once there is no one around to recount their real life experiences, there is of course a danger that people will leave the history books on the shelf, to gather dust, because "Ah, we have heard it once again, we know it." I've had quite often these discussions: "Let's stop talking about that, we know by now." I'm not so sure.
There is a danger in this for all of us, because how do we progress together as a society, as a people, if we tell ourselves "we know it already"?
Mark Twain said that "history doesn't repeat itself, but it does rhyme". I think this is a very important lesson. If we go look for parallels in history, very often we say "Oh it's not the same, because they don't wear uniforms. Or they don't have this or that." Look beyond that, look what's underneath that if you really want to see whether history rhymes.
It's part of human nature to love, but also to hate. It's part of human nature to be happy. But it's also part of human nature to fear. Fear leads to hatred and hatred leads to dehumanizing others. And that leads to conflict, exclusion and war.
So to be aware of our time, to understand what is going on, we need to read, we need to listen, we need to remember, if possible yes even relive, and think about what happened to our parents and grandparents and how they got caught up in this European tragedy.
My two youngest children are thirteen and eleven. One of the best ways for them to understand how close it was, is to take them around the town where we live, Heerlen, in Limburg in the Netherlands. And to just go for walk around places where there are Stolpersteine, where you see where Jewish were taken from their homes and killed. Nothing drives home the point more to my kids than seeing that. "So they lived in this house? What did they do? And their children were what age?" They went to school, they were your age. They were taken away and gassed.
That is how you can recount and make it something people can understand.
The veterans we still see – less and less, because time takes its toll – in their faces you will see a fighting spirit and in their eyes a spark of survival. The Liberation Route Europe Foundation is doing important work in retelling their stories, our stories. I hope you agree that the idea of reliving their darkest hours in the fields, forests and streets is of huge and lasting value. Just as with the Stolpersteine and to see where the soldiers went in 1944 and 1945. To go there and experience that is of huge importance.
To understand the reality of the wars that were fought in Europe the rest of us need to understand where these veterans stood, breathe the air they breathed, cast their eyes along the horizon, feel the ground under our feet, and hear the sounds around us. You can do this in many places in Europe. On the beaches in Normandy, in Buchenwald you can do it, in Nijmegen you can do it, in Eindhoven. Just go and stand on the shore of the Waal in Nijmegen and imagine these soldiers under fire, crossing the river in small boats.
Imagine the plight of the Polish soldiers at Driel when they had to rescue English soldiers who needed to cross the Rhine with English boats. And then in the last days, English soldiers were helped crossing the Rhine, but they didn't send the boats back to pick up the Poles. Things like that we need to remember. Not just the heroic, but also the bad behaviour and tragedies.
But let us also imagine the enormous sense of gratitude of our parents and grandparents once they were liberated. I still talk to my parents about this. My father would probably not have survived, he was very skinny. And in 1944 he was liberated in Breda by Polish soldiers, who then stayed in the house with my grandparents and said they would come back once they had liberated Poland. Just imagine the tragedy they themselves had in their lives, when they went back to Poland. Many of them didn't even get to get back to Poland. I wouldn't be standing here if they hadn't liberated Breda.
These are things we should be aware of, and I can tell you that my parents were so grateful. My mother was liberated by American soldiers.
This is something to think about for a minute: one can lose freedom. One can lose the fundamental values of democracy, rule of law, human rights. Nothing is irreversible. Not then, not now.
My political father is a man called Max van der Stoel, who was sixteen years old when the war broke out. He lived in Leiden with his mother and his father, who was a general practitioner in Voorschoten. When the invasion started on the 10th of May, he and his mother went to her parents who lived in Rijnsburg, which is not far from Leiden. They should have stayed in Leiden, but they travelled.
Max always told me he saw paratroopers coming down from a plane on Valkenburg airfield. And he said: "For the rest of my life, I will remember the feeling – as a boy, 16 years old – of soldiers from another country stepping into my country and taking away my freedom. From one day to the other we were no longer masters of our own destiny. This can happen just like that." And all his political life, he fought for that never to recur. And he also fought in other countries for those countries to be free of that as well.
There are countless stories to be told about the heroes and the villains, the survivors and the victims. I'm going to tell you a couple more stories, because I believe they can really evoke the human side of the great tragedy which was the Second World War.
Let me share first with you the story of a young boy called Deddie Zak. I saw his picture a few years ago in a museum in Warsaw. We were there on a state visit in Warsaw.
Deddie caught my eye because the picture of a young boy - who looked just like my youngest son Max looked at the time – blue eyes, blond hair, and the happy and open face of a child excited to discover the world that was still in front of him.
But Deddie, Jewish, was born 69 years earlier than my son Max and he lived in wartime Amsterdam.
For these two young Dutch boys, Deddie and Max, life could not be more different, but what brought them even closer together in my mind was a Dutch tradition which I observed in Deddie's photograph – the metal name tags around his neck with his name and address.
It's so typically Dutch, this idea that your kids would run off and play outside, and that a stranger would help them find their way back if they were ever to get lost. A tradition that many people in the Netherlands still follow today. Our kids wore the same things.
But poor Deddie and his name tags did not find their way home to that address on Uitwaardenstraat in Amsterdam. He was rounded up with his parents in 1943 and sent to the Vught concentration camp. And there transferred from Westerbork to Sobibor, killed on the same day his parents and he arrived.
I had a great privilege of meeting his cousin Lies Caransa, who survived the same flight. Because when they got transferred in Amsterdam, the children were put in the care of a care facility next to a place where they were rounded up. There was a school next to there, and they had devised a scheme where they would take off a number of the children and simply register a total of children which was lower than the Germans had brought in. When they brought in thirty children, they only registered twenty-five. And five would be so lucky as not to be taken off, and they would be channelled elsewhere. Lies is one of those who survived. She told me about Deddie and how nice he was. How close they were. How she was lucky and he was not.
The only memory we have now of Deddie is that name tag from around his neck, dug up in Sobibor, and the photo that goes with it that is now in the museum in Warsaw. I'm now still pleading with the Polish authorities to please give the nametag back to Lies Caransa, to his family. They don't want to do it now, for historic reasons. I understand that, but I still appeal for human reasons to please give it back to his family.
For Deddie's life to mean something, it is important that his story lives on. That I tell the story, that some of you will remember it. That some of you will tell it to others.
I can't tell you how much importance I attach to these stories. I think we all need a huge sense of gratitude to Steven Spielberg who registered all these stories of Shoah survivors, so that we see it and re-see it.
And I hope one day I can create, with the help of Steven Spielberg, a film we can make with these testimonies. And perhaps we can then spread them around in the educational systems of our Member States, so that they have this in schools. Nothing tells these stories better than a personal account.
The second person I want to tell you about is a man called Leo Lichten. Leo was one of the heroic liberators of Europe.
Leo was born in New York, Manhattan, but he lived in Brooklyn. He was a Private First Class in the 84th Infantry Division of the US Army, known as the 'Railsplitters'. And he died on 20 November 1944 just a few miles from my family's home in Heerlen, in the Netherlands. He died in Prummern, just across the German border, where the Americans met staunch SS resistance. Because the SS were trying to protect the railway they needed for their provisions.
He was a kid of great talent, a kid brought up in poverty. But he was so smart, I'll come to that in a moment.
He now lies alongside 8,000 of his brothers in arms at the Netherlands American Cemetery and Memorial in Margraten, in my home province of Limburg.
All the American war graves in that cemetery have been 'adopted', mostly by local people, there's even a waiting list apparently. And we all take care of the upkeep of the graves.
I was allowed to adopt Leo's grave, and I decided that I would go in search of more information about him. We, the Dutch, feel a very strong bond with our liberators, even now after several generations have passed. And I wanted to write about this bond and pay tribute to the people that formed it.
I had been trying for many months to learn more about Leo, from official records, and through friends and acquaintances in New York who tried to help me find his family. I had uncovered details, but enough to put together some articles and publish them on some American veterans' websites.
So I knew a little about Leo. I even learnt more about the way he died in that final battle on the 20th November 1944 in the diary of one of his colleagues that I was sent later, with brutal details. But I still couldn't say that I had built a true bond with Leo the person, the man, the boy. He was 19 years old.
And then a letter arrived from the United States.
86-year old Paul Slater had written to the Dutch Embassy in Washington after reading a veterans magazine with a speech that I had given at the Margraten cemetery in 2009, mentioning Leo.
Paul and Leo had been childhood friends. So I found Paul's phone number, and just I called him. We talked non-stop for hours about Leo, and Paul, and their bond of friendship.
Talking about Leo was difficult for Paul, who still held on to the anger created over 60 years earlier by the way in which Leo and other boys like him were sent totally unprepared to their deaths in Europe.
I need to perhaps explain why, if you have a little patience with me. Leo was talented but poor. So there was a program in the US where very talented but poor boys were sent to colleges sponsored by the military, a very special program.
When Americans joined the Second World War, there was a huge shortage of soldiers. Because they hadn't invested in that over many years. And there was also some jealousy that some kids would be drafted and others would be allowed to stay in college. So abruptly, they decided to end that program. And all these kids were sent from college straight to military training in Louisana. But very brief military training. One of them was Leo, another one of them – also a Jewish boy, who would come from Germany – was Henry Kissinger. They were on the same train; they were on the same boat to Europe.
But Henry was lucky, I've spoken now several times with him about this. He's very emotional when he talks about this. Henry was lucky, because he knew German and the situation so well that officers saw that. The commanding general of the unit said he wanted Henry to explain how his men should behave in Germany. And then the commander said he wanted Henry to be his driver. And then – because he was very smart – they wanted Henry to work in intelligence service. And he was put in charge there in Germany of managing a whole city.
But, he also said to me: "Had this not happened, had they not discovered my talent and knowledge, my fate would have been exactly the same as Leo's, because we were totally unprepared for this."
Actually, Leo died the first time he was put into action. And he knew he was going to die, because in the last letter he wrote he said: "I'm not going to survive this, but it's for a good cause." And the veterans, the real soldiers in the unit, knew that these kids had no chance. The percentage of deaths of these college kids was much higher than other soldiers during the war. That's just to explain why Paul was so angry.
Paul went into the navy, served on the Atlantic routes, but didn't experience the same thing as Leo.
So I the invited Paul to come to the Netherlands. Paul has sadly died a couple of months ago. But Paul had a son and a daughter. It wasn't a surprise to me that his son's name is Leo. So I had the honour to invite Paul and his son Leo to the Netherlands in October 2010. And almost 66 years after Leo fell in battle, we stood together on a hill overlooking the battle field at Prummern, a few miles from my home, across the German border. We even found a farmer in the neighbourhood who could tell us what happened on those nights, because he was there.
We took Paul and Leo to Leo's grave in Margraten, where he spoke to his late friend about the life he had gone on to lead, fulfilling the dreams they had discussed as young boys in Brooklyn before the war. I saw a 86-year old man becoming a 19-year old kid again, and he was talking to another 19-year old kid who was lying in that grave.
Paul told Leo about the opportunities that he and his children had in life, as a direct result of the values they had defended and fought for all those years ago. It was a wonderful moment. And I wanted to recount it here, because I took them – exactly as you're here proposing – to Bastogne.
I took them along the route where the soldiers went. The soldiers of the 84th were in Gulpen before they were sent to Germany, so I took them there. Reliving this route for Paul was extremely important.
Lessons from History
Deddie and Leo were both just boys. If you have children, just imagine. My oldest children are now ten years older than Leo was when he was killed for our freedom. These boys were dehumanised and murdered by the purveyors of an evil ideology. They both teach us lessons about our past.
When we talk about the war, it seems natural to focus on the victims, and imagine that they were just like you and me: "We're all victims, we're all so lucky. We've escaped that. We're all so lucky that we live in a time where we cannot become victims of such evil."
But I have a word of caution. Do not think that it was only the victims who were just like you and me. It was the perpetrators too. It is important that we ask ourselves: 'What led ordinary men and women to follow these evil leaders? What allowed these evil leaders to come to power? How did their poisonous ideology go unchallenged?'
We had Holocaust Memorial Day just a couple of days ago, and there was a film shown in Bozar. A testimony of a Polish-Jewish-Belgian lady who had survived Auschwitz, who had been used as an interpreter by Mengele.
And the one image that stuck in my mind when she was recounting all these horrors, at one point she said: "At one point we had a big batch of Hungarian Jews coming in. And they were out of Zyklon-B, so they tossed the children alive into the ovens. And we could hear their screams all over the camps."
Many years later she broke down, and this woman was a survivor, she had survived everything. Then you ask yourself: to what point can you push human beings to take an innocent child, and throw them into an oven. What has happened to us? Because it's us, it's human beings, it's fellow human beings who did that. That we could stoop that low.
Some of you will be familiar I hope with the work of the writer I admire a lot, called Joseph Roth. While many histories of the Nazi era are written with hindsight, Joseph Roth was writing in the 1930s before the worst occurred. And while he didn't live to see the Nazi terror unfold, he drank himself to death in 1939; he saw its seeds and recognized them for what they were.
I find these testimonies very strong, because it's easy when you know what the outcome is to say: "Well, this is how it led to that." It's much more difficult before the outcome to see what it's going to lead to. And that's what Joseph Roth did.
So I think writers like him help us to look for the symptoms. Hannah Arendt is another one who helps us to look at the symptoms. His and her work are like premonitions. It's easy to be wise after the event. But wouldn't it be better if we could heed the warnings before?
So what conclusions do I draw from reading Roth, Arendt and many others? It tells me that the hatred of the big-time villains or the callous violence of their small-time followers is not the biggest threat to society; the biggest threat is the indifference of the majority. The ability of individuals to shrug off the warning signs and to leave evil unchallenged is the biggest threat.
Because great evils don't just suddenly appear from the blue sky. They fester and grow when unchecked. It starts with a word, dehumanizing someone because he is a Jew, or a Gypsy, or a Muslim, or gay.
The boundaries of what is acceptable then are stretched. Language once deemed coarse, inappropriate and sometimes outright discriminatory undergoes a sort of inflation, we get callous. Our souls get callous, and we get used to things we weren't used to before.
If some people who lived in the 70s and 80s would wake up today and listen to political discourse, they would be shocked at what has now become normal in political discourse in Europe again.
So that's why we cannot be complacent. We cannot simply shrug and hope it will pass like a fleeting breeze. We need to stand up and speak out and say no to hatred, say no to discrimination and say no to dehumanisation. Because if we don't, words of hate that go unchecked will slowly but surely enable an environment where actions of hate can take place. And it could also lead to an environment where such actions will be shushed with "there was violence from both sides."
In sum, dear friends, let us therefore use our history to teach the next generation of Europeans where their freedoms came from. That is the value of what we are doing. How these freedoms hung in the balance, how their parents, grand-parents and great-grandparents fought and were liberated. It did not go easily, it could have gone wrong. And let's not forget, for half of Europe it went wrong. They went from Nazi occupation to Communist oppression. And it took them decades to liberate themselves from that and really unify Europe.
Defeating the Nazi terror was a heroic deed. By learning the lessons of history, we give battle to the ideology that drove it.
Let me be very clear, history is a teacher. History can be a museum. History is not a political instrument, and we politicians should be modest. Leave interpretation of history to historians. Quote them, ask them questions, teach our children well. But don't instrumentalise history.
It was one of my favourite subjects in university to learn from history. Not to give my own interpretation of it, but to learn from historians.
And we can learn more by re-telling the stories of Deddie Zak, Leo Lichten and many others. By giving these boys a name, a face and a story. By celebrating them as humans and by bringing back to life their memory and also showing their hopes and aspirations.
So let us encourage old and young Europeans to travel the Liberation Route, to listen to the stories of our forebears on both sides, and to vow that together in Europe we will never again turn a blind eye if Europe's values are threatened and our fellow man and woman are dehumanized.
Ladies and gentlemen, this is an important project. I wish you good luck. I offer you my assistance and help if you need it.
And I wish you a lot of success in this honourable endeavour.