Sunday, November 3, 2013

Travelblog 3: Arnhem, Market Garden and Living Art

Sixty-nine tears ago, the Allies began a military campaign designed to liberate the Netherlands from German occupation. On June 6, they had successfully landed in Normandy and by August they had liberated the city of Paris. Now they turned their attention to freeing another ally controlled and oppressed by the German war machine since May 1940. The operation was called Market Garden. Key to the plan was capturing the primary bridge at Arnhem. This operation was the subject of Cornelius Ryan’s book (later a film) A Bridge Too Far. The fighting that took place in and around Arnhem, as well as other places throughout the region, was intense and bloody. Near Overloon, for example, the biggest tank battle to ever take place on Dutch soil occurred. Now a magnificent museum sits on that battle site, called Liberty Park. My brother Ted, who is visiting this weekend, and our good friend Joop, who lives here on Flathead Lake, were very young men in Holland during the occupation. They both remember Market Garden and the sudden wonderful hope that Holland’s war soon would be over. The operation failed and the Allied forces had to pull back. A good part of Holland remained under German control until the very end of the war seven months later. For me, the connection to those events is strong and palpable, partly through these two fine people close to my heart, partly because of my own empathy for people caught up in combat, partly because of my affinity for all things Dutch, good and bad. Yet, in our several previous trips to Holland I had never gone to Arnhem. This trip gave me my first chance in a roundabout way. Erik and Annemieke arranged a “camping” trip to the east of Holland in an area called Dinkelland (gotta love it), where we stayed for six days in a very comfortable cottage. We arrived on Saturday, September 28. On Sunday, in Arnhem, dozens of street artists and actor-performers were scheduled to set themselves up as living statues for a four hour outdoor exhibit that covered most of downtown Arnhem. Erik wanted to go. With his deep love for and talent with photography, this was an ideal opportunity, hopefully, to get some great pictures. As it turned out, a very large crush of like-minded people had the same idea. In fact, over one hundred thousand people came to see the Living Art exhibit. The performers were wonderful, the costuming and subjects imaginatively and meticulously presented, and each “display” was stationed far enough from the previous one on a pre-determined course that none were lost in the journey. There was one woman posing as Vermeer’s, The Kitchen Maid, her entire tableau looking like it was made of chocolate, including her. There were statues of Beethoven, Joan of Arc, Mary Poppins, Don Quixote, a frontiersman, a pirate captain, and many, many others. My favorite was a young boy seated on a toilet reading a book. I watched him for several minutes, admiring the fact that he never moved an eyelash. The city embraced the moment with delight and well-organized chaos. The crush of spectators and photographers were having a wonderful time. And yet, my thoughts returned again and again to those terrible days sixty-nine years before. The scars of that battle have all but disappeared. I doubt that anyone could find the areas that were shot to pieces without a proper and very knowledgeable guide. Before the Living Art exhibit began, Erik and I had lunch in La Place, inside the largest bookstore in Arnhem. Looking around at the buildings surrounding the dining room, I kept reflecting on that combat and on the war that was so horrific it should have ended all wars for good. It did, within the confines of Western Europe. Yet there was not one shred of evidence to be seen. But the historians knew. On the display tables in the bookstore, not fifty feet from where we dined, were at least two dozen books on some aspect of Market Garden and the fighting in Arnhem. At least half a dozen were written specifically for the youth market. It made me take pause. It seems to me that the Dutch have long memories, and that they want to make sure that future generations mark and remember as well. If they can do that, if they can reach beyond the living memories of people like my brother and my friend, perhaps they can keep memory alive for future generations. Mark the terror that struck Arnhem 69 years ago. Remember what war can do. Then go out and make living art.

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