I visited the Freedom Museum, formerly the National Liberation Museum ’44-’45, in Groesbeek, The Netherlands this week. This was my third visit to this location. My first was in 2015, where I visited on two separate trips and gave a talk about WWII research in their former auditorium. My second trip was in 2016.
The former museum felt more focused on the Airborne experience of the Dutch Liberation. The exhibits were good but not superb. It was well done but did not have the impact and power that the current museum has.
When I walked into the new museum I was immediately taken by the power and impact it holds. The museum is rather dark now, dark blue walls in most places and the entire museum is now covered by what looks like a dark blue or black parachute. For the most part it works. The lighting is different in some areas of the museum, particularly the area that talks about the world war at the start when the U.S. was involved. It is a red lighted room with an enormous Nazi flag hanging in one area. The other side of the room contains brief info and images of what was taking place in the main parts of the world where the war was happening. This room in a sense gave the impression of how much blood was shed during the war years, around the globe.
What Should I Do? What Would You Do?
The museum had four small “rooms” in which they had a few artifacts and a short film asking the question, What Should I Do? Visitors can vote on one of three options. The rooms broached the topics:
- An 18 year old man graduated from the police academy in Nijmegan after the Germans occupied the Netherlands. His choice was to work for the German police in Nijmegan and expel Jews from their homes. This was now part of his job – whatever the Germans say – he must do or lose his job.
- A young woman about age 15 offers to push her baby brother around in the stroller and transport food coupons to her uncle Hans. Another family member was transporting coupons and was caught. She knows her uncle needs help – does she do this?
- A young woman about age 16 has forged identity papers that show she is not a Jew. Her legal papers state she is. Her contact was not able to get forged papers for her mother and sister who are in hiding. Her contact was arrested and she doesn’t fully trust the new contact to ask for papers for her mom and sister so they can be out of hiding.
- A young man near 20 years old has to work for the Germans. Forced labor or he can be taken in one of the Razzias. His choices are to go work or go into hiding (if he is caught he ends up executed or put into a camp) or join the Waffen-SS which provides a good income for his family until he’s killed.
I do not like the What would you do in my situation, questions that many museums and family and military researchers pose to students and family.
Why? Because we have the ability to look at the history that was written since the event took place. We know what happened, who the major players were and see it through our (2019) eyes. There is no way we can go back and step into the shoes of the person who lived through that and know all the 100 choices they made which led to the point they made the one BIG choice that changed their life and probably that of their loved ones. Too many people judge and say, I would never do that! How do you know unless you lived it and had to choose?
I do appreciate this exhibit and the choices each person presented. The exhibit still asks the question, What should I do? but clearly shows some of the choices Dutch people and others in occupied countries faced. In life there is always a choice – we may not like what is presented but we can always choose. Even in the circumstance where my husband’s father was rounded up in a Razzia in Rotterdam late 1944 and sent to Germany for forced labor – he had a choice to try to escape. That likely would have led to his death – but he still had a choice. He had hidden for a long time but that time came to an end.
It is my point of view we should explore what choices people had. Look at what they chose and try to understand it and write about it in our family histories. We should look at it through the historical lens to better understand why they chose what they chose, even without all the information they personally carried, and not judge their choices. We were not there. Americans especially have no idea what it is like to live under foreign occupation and oppression. We should strive to understand rather than judge.
The museum is filled with powerful words which begin with a film you watch before you enter the exhibit area. Between the short film, words, emotive music, and images, I was in tears at the end. I could have watched it a few more times to grasp in a greater way what was being conveyed that was not apparent on the surface.
The words appeared throughout the exhibit space and encourage visitors to think. Words like Occupation. War. Poverty. Oppression. Dictatorship. Freedom. Collaboration. Choice. Resistance. Execution. And so many more.
The exhibit text does not contain endless things to read. What is there is short, powerful, and to the point.
The final exhibit in the museum before you leave is about the victims of the entire war. While the photos do not do it justice, there are columns showing the number of deaths each country had. The Soviet Union was by far the highest with over 24 MILLION deaths. The columns provide a visual example of the high cost of war.
There are so many other things I could say about this museum. It really struck me on a deep level and I plan to return again and spend more time reading and journaling as I walk through the exhibit rather than take a lot of photos. There are deeper messages available if you choose to look.
If you have visited before September 2019, I encourage you to visit again because your experience will be completely different. I would love to hear what you think about this new museum. For now, I leave you with some powerful images of something they kept from the old museum – the artwork of British soldiers coming out of their graves to reunite with their buddies. It is hauntingly beautiful and moving.
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