After hearing that Jeff Mangum has started touring again this year I was compelled to write about one of my favourite songs of his for a college project. If anyone knows when he’s playing in Europe, let me know! :)
‘Holland 1945’ is a song written by my favourite band Neutral Milk Hotel and is, in my opinion, one of the most emotionally powerful pieces I have ever heard/read. It is a song about war, death and injustice, centring around the story of Anne Frank in Holland, 1945, and the holocaust, but also referencing war in general as the whole world was corrupted by violence in that same year with atrocities such as the atom bombs being dropped on Nagasaki and Hiroshima. The first verse of the song is relatively straightforward
and refers directly to Anne Frank, who was buried in 1945 with her sister, just two months before the allies invaded Holland. The ‘roses in her eyes’ are symbolic of innocence, the innocence that war takes from a child’s eyes when they have witnessed horrific violence and had to fear for their own lives. The roses could also be connected to war victims who had roses placed on their eyes when being buried.
The song hints at reincarnation in the following lines – ‘Now she’s a little boy in Spain playing pianos filled with flames on empty rings around the sun, all sing to say my dream has come’, but may also be merely switching the attention to another child, reminding us that death and war are universal and that at the same time that Anne Frank died, children all over the world were dying with her. The writer is constantly referencing different people in this song, and the perspective is always changing- ‘we’, ‘you’, ‘I’, ‘they’.
‘All sing to say my dream has come’ could be a tongue in cheek remark to war veterans (as many lines of the song are) relating to all the young men and women who were either killed in crossfire or in battle, who had dreamed of fighting for their country but didn’t realise their own mortality and worth. It is a statement about the ludicrous nature of war, the idea that young men, as young as 17 or 18 could sing together that their dream had come true to die in battle is just a ridiculous image. If these young men could see themselves from some place on high that Mangum references then they would certainly not be singing of dreams come true, but instead of dreams that war has robbed them of.
There are certain motifs and images that appear repeatedly in this song, one is the image of a ‘ring’ or ‘wheel’. These images could be symbolic of the process of reincarnation that Mangum believes in, that when Anne Frank and the little boy in Spain died they would ‘ride the circus wheel’ meaning that they would be born again as the wheel represents life, death and reincarnation. This is how Mangum can be in love with Anne Frank, as he believes that she is alive somewhere today. ‘Your dark brother wrapped in white’ refers to someone that Mangum knew, a friends brother, who committed suicide. He empathises with the boy who killed himself and seems to speak to the family for him, ‘the earth looks better from a star that’s right above from where you are’ and assures them that ‘he didn’t mean to make you cry’.
The line ‘he didn’t mean to make you cry with sparks that ring and bullets fly’ could also be referring again to war veterans, satirising the nonchalant approach that many (not all) soldiers had towards killing people in the war, as if it were ‘nothing personal’. The next line is my favourite line in the whole song, it is just so desperate and hopeless and honest, as if it were being screamed with a dying breath. You cannot hear this line sung without feeling something grab your heart- ‘the world just screams and falls apart’. I think that very poignant but straightforward line sums up the entire song and sounds all the richer for its sibilance and the choice of short, sharp sounding words.
The ‘chorus’ of the song –
‘But now we must pack up every piece
Of the life we used to love
Just to keep ourselves
At least enough to carry on’
Is another reference to the holocaust in my opinion. It seems to be referring to the Jews who were forced to move from their homes to the ghettoes during the Nazi occupation. It is an incredibly sad chorus but also a defiant one, there is a sense of strong endurance and determination in these lines. It could also be a another metaphor for reincarnation, the continual cycle of loss and re-creation.
The final verse of the song is the most poignant and memorable, because it address us personally, reaching into our lives and placing our own loved ones at the heart of the loss and pain described in the song, to show us that these are every day occurrences for some people, that it could happen to you or someone you love. The word ‘sleeps’ is probably referring to death in this verse, but is juxtaposed with the word ‘born’ in the next line, another hint at reincarnation. I love the line ‘where their bodies once moved but don’t move anymore’ and I cant in all honesty describe exactly why. It just feels so sad and final, but so gentle and beautiful and vibrant all at once. I think I love it because it describes how I feel about death, that we have a life and we should enjoy every moment of it because after it there could be nothing more.
The last three lines describe Mangum’s remorse and sadness at the fact that we live in a world that allows the innocent to suffer and die. It relates to poverty, disease and death ‘their faces filled with flies’ (brilliant use of alliteration in this line) and then expresses the wish to ‘keep white roses in their eyes’, returning again to this image and metaphor for innocence and purity referencing victims of war. This is a truly touching song that leaves a mark on my heart every time I hear it.