DRIEBERGEN, Netherlands (RNS) Once a year in the Netherlands, joggers in the park stop running for two minutes. Bicyclists pull over to the side of the road. Television sets and radios are turned off. Parents hush their children. And in many villages and cities people congregate in public spaces for a communal ceremony.
May 4 is the annual Remembrance Day, and this year my wife and I joined millions of Dutch citizens there in observing a customary two minutes of silence, beginning at eight o’clock in the evening.
We attended one of those public ceremonies this year with Dutch friends in their city of Driebergen, about 40 miles southeast of Amsterdam. It was, for us, a good preparation for our own Memorial Day at the end of this month.
For the Dutch, Remembrance Day, which they call “Herdenkingsdag,” is specifically about World War II. But it is not — as is often the primary focus on our own Memorial Day — simply about those who died in military service. People are encouraged to reflect upon all of the lives lost during the horrible years of the German occupation. And the focus on the tragic elements is kept separate from the more joyful memories that are the theme of the next day, another national holiday: Liberation Day, or “Bevrijdingsdag,” when the end of the Nazi occupation is celebrated.
In Driebergen, the painful memories explicitly cited in the public ceremony were very local ones. Seventy Jewish citizens had been taken away by the Nazis, never to return. Eleven others, young men, were shot because of active engagement in the Resistance. When food supplies were cut off, children in the town died of starvation.
During the two minute silence, everyone stood still, most with heads bowed. A young man in front of us turned to look at the street behind us, and nudged his girlfriend to see how the traffic had come to a halt for those brief moments.
There is a continuing debate in Holland about whether there ought to be an expanded focus for Remembrance Day reflections. What about other wars? Why not think also about recent Syrian refugees who have drowned at sea?
Good questions — but I think it is good for the citizens of Driebergen to emphasize very local memories. During the nonsilent parts of the public ceremony, many wreaths were laid at the city’s statue of liberty breaking free of the ropes that had been binding her. The local school soccer team stepped forth with flowers, followed by the Scouts, representatives of churches, a synagogue, the local mosque, the children and grandchildren of people who had lost their lives.
Our own American experience after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks showed that sometimes in times of national tragedy many of us discover in our own hearts a yearning for a community that is bigger than we had experienced before, a desire to join in some sort of expanded sacred space with people whom we are not otherwise inclined to think of in terms of our commonness.
In their important book, “Habits of the Heart,” published in the 1980s, Robert Bellah and his team of social scientists wrote about the importance of maintaining “communities of memory” in public life. The memories can be about good things, but often the communal sense is reinforced in a special way by sharing painful memories. The Bellah team talked about public experiences that come close to being a “common worship, in which we express our gratitude and wonder in the face of the mystery of being itself.”
I was struck by the feel of the Driebergen gathering. Attendance at that city’s houses of worship is down significantly in recent decades, but on the evening of this year’s Remembrance Day there was a worshipful mood as people gathered to remember very specific losses of life. There was even worshipful music, as during the wreath-laying the band played “Now Thank We All Our God” and “O God Our Help in Ages Past.”
It wasn’t just the explicit Christian references that made me feel somewhat at home at the Driebergen ceremony. There are still overtly Christian themes at work in the public cultures of, say, Sweden and Spain, but because of their “state church” associations they come across as a little strange to me. Dutch society is devoted to religious pluralism, as is our own American context. When Christian themes show up in public commemorations in these settings, they do not seem forced — they come across as specific religious memories that are actually still at work in the culture.
On our own Memorial Day this year I’m going to set the alarm on my iPhone for 7:59 p.m., to remind myself to stop for two minutes of silent remembering. And I will prepare to make my own memories very specific ones, about people who have died in the past — and continue to die in the present — because of the ravages of warfare.