A year ago, when the filthy tide washed back, it was hard to tell what was left of Europe. Would the detritus of Nazi conquest bury a civilization, leaving its survivors in a confused struggle among the ruins? A year later it was still too soon to know. Many glimpses of Europe yielded gloomy answers. But for a scene full of hope that Europe was in truth rising again, the world could turn to Vught, in southern Holland, on May 3, 1946.
The sun shone so brightly on the lake, the pines and oaks stood so peacefully in the quiet parkland of Vught, it was hard to believe that during the war this was one of the worst of the German concentration camps.
"The torture rooms were over there."
"A scaffold stood just here."
"I see the lime pit has been filled in."
The people who walked quietly in the park last week remembered Vught, for many had spent months behind its electrified wire fence. They stopped walking and talkingbut they did not stop rememberingwhen an automobile drew up and a dumpy old woman got out.
Undaunted. She wore a plain black coat, a soft felt hat with black and green ribbons. But to the thousands gathered at Vught, in the soft light of the Dutch evening she did not seem just a plain old woman. In dead silence she walked 500 yards along the firing range where the Nazis used to practice. The last 25 yards of her way she had to struggle with a laurel wreath almost as tall as she. Among the lilies and tulips at the base of a 15-ft. cross commemorating those who died at Vught, Wilhelmina of The Netherlands laid her wreath.
For two minutes she stood silently facing the wooden cross, then walked to a microphone. "We are looking forward to a better world to come." The words were clear and steady. "May the same unselfish and unflinching spirit of those who fell here prevail in the rebuilding of The Netherlands."
A choir began singing the Te Deum. Two boy scouts, bearing a chair, approached the old woman. Firmly, almost indignantly, she motioned the chair away. She stood through the hymn of jubilation and through the national anthem, William of Nassau. "A Prince I am, undaunted, of Orange, ever free. . . . Let no despair betray you, my subjects true and good."
Then Wilhelmina walked the 500 yards back to her car and rode, through a countryside that bloomed again as no other in postwar Europe, to her summer home at Apeldoorn.