Commemorating the Dead

On 5 May 1945, the Germans capitulated and World War II was over for the people of the Netherlands. Every year on the fifth of May, we celebrate our freedom. But before we can celebrate, we need to commemorate. Because our freedom came at a price.

About 200,000 Dutch men, women, and children lost their lives during World War II. More than 100,000 Dutch Jews were murdered in the death camps in Eastern Europe. Other victims include Roma, Sinti, and people persecuted for their sexual orientation, faith, or disabilities. Dutch soldiers, who died defending or liberating our country. People in the Dutch resistance, executed when their role was discovered.

And then there were the allied forces. Soldiers from the United States, Canada, Poland, the United Kingdom, and many other countries, who gave their lives so we could be free. Many of them are buried in the Netherlands, their graves adopted by Dutch families who maintain it and who put flowers on the graves on the anniversary of their birth and death. Maybe your relatives were among those who died overseas. Know that their sacrifice has not been forgotten.

Every year, on the fourth of May, we commemorate. Because our freedom came at a price. At 8 PM, our entire country grinds to a halt. Trains stop in their tracks, buses pull over. TV channels go silent as the entire country takes two minutes to commemorate all the people who died.

This year,¬†on this fourth of May, for the first time since I’ve been old enough to stay up until 8PM, I am not in the Netherlands to commemorate. I am at the National Genealogical Society Family History Conference in Grand Rapids, Michigan. At 8 PM, I will be standing up during the banquet to share the Dutch tradition of Commemorating the Dead. I am going to ask the attendees to be silent with me. Because our freedom came at a price, and we need to commemorate before we can celebrate our liberty.

commemoration on the Dam in Amsterdam

Commemorating the Dead, 1955. Credits: Wim van Rossem, collection Nationaal Archief (CC-0)

About Yvette Hoitink

Yvette Hoitink, CG® is a board-certified genealogist in the Netherlands. She has been doing genealogy for almost 30 years. Her expertise is helping people from across the world find their ancestors in the Netherlands. Read about Yvette's professional genealogy services.


  1. Pam Anderson says

    Yvette, thank you for this post. Several years ago, Rene Bosma, from the Netherlands contacted our little Franklin County Historical Society looking for information on a gunner from Chambersburg, who was shot down and killed over your country. He has been keeping the memory of many of these men alive. Because of this request, I wrote an article for our annual journal commemorating the gunner, Rene, and the Netherlands. And I made a new friend in the process.

  2. Ann Van..... says

    Very nice article Yvette.

  3. Shirley Crampton says

    Hello Yvette. I met you at the conference on Wednesday. I commemorate this day with you. Even though you aren’t in the Netherlands you are in one of the areas of the US with a large Dutch population so hopefully you feel at home. Thank you for your marvellous presentations.

  4. Cathy Crandall says

    Thank you for this post. What a touching tradition.

    • Hettie van de Pavert says

      I am a Canadian citizen now but on May 10th. I remember hearing the first German bombers arriving over Arnhem where we lived..
      On May 5th in Rotterdam I enjoyed the Allied forces driving into our city. What a re-leave such freedom! – Hettie

  5. Doris Waggoner says


    I was familiar–perhaps from one of your articles–with the touching Dutch custom of families “adopting” the gravestones of a particular soldier/sailor/airman from an Allied country who is buried in the Netherlands. It’s my understanding that in some cases these men get “passed down” from one generation to the next in a given family, and friendships develop between the families of the men commemorated and those who care for the graves of their loved ones. Somehow, though, the commemoration of an entire country standing in silence in remembrance of what other people did so that the Netherlands could remain a free country touches me even more. I think that a country like the United States, where there has never been a war fought on our own soil with another country over which country shall “own” us, doesn’t quite understand freedom in quite the same way as much of the rest of the world does. Yes, our Civil War was terrible, but not in the same way. Thank you for this moving article.


  6. It was a powerful moment Yvette. Thank you again for sharing this history with us.

  7. Carol Swedlund says

    I was in that room in 2018 to hear you talk and view the very moving video as we stood in silence. I am of Dutch ancestry, although my grandparents, most of their siblings, and a great grandparent were already in Michigan prior to WWII. After first hearing about the May 4 tradition from you, I now observe those two minutes of silence in my home.

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