Generations of Dutch citizens still trek to the graves of US World War II soldiers

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Aaron Schachter: Now, here’s a story about remembering American soldiers from a war further in the past, but the people doing the remembering are Dutch. Thousands of Dutch families streamed into a cemetery outside of the village of Margraten yesterday, near the border with Germany. They came to honor the more than 8,000 Americans from World War II who are buried there. The burial ground is one of about a dozen European cemeteries for America’s war dead. What’s different about this one in Margraten is that each of the 8,000 graves has been adopted by a Dutch citizen who cares for the grave site. Ton Hermes is the president of the foundation behind the effort.


Ton Hermes: Local people go to the graves a couple times of year to bring flowers and to thank the liberators for our freedom. They often have contact lists of next of kin in the States, and I think this is a very important gesture to comfort the people in America, that their fathers, grandfathers are taken care of by local people here. We are very grateful for what the Americans did in the Second World War and we want to show that by taking care of the graves.


Schachter: Wow. You care for a particular grave?


Hermes: I have the grave of (? Royce) Taylor. He was a pilot of a B-37 Bomber I think, I don’t remember exactly--but a bomber fighter. He was killed in action, killed by the Germans, and I have contact with his grandson, Scott Taylor, and his wife and three little boys. I think in the future they will visit us as well.


Schachter: Mr. Taylor’s family?


Hermes: Yes, yes.


Schachter: Can you just tell us: what is it that happened in Margraten and why do you feel so thankful for what the soldiers did?


Hermes: Margraten, in 1945, was a very small village; a thousand inhabitants. And the cemetery was placed here because the Allied army was looking for a good location to have this cemetery. So, the people in Margraten, they had a lot of soldiers in their homes, for rest and recuperation, to go on from our territory into Germany. And then they heard that the soldiers that were staying in their houses were killed, they were very sad. They thought, “We have to do something for them,” and that’s how it started in 1945, and then the first grave was adopted. This initiative was taken over by a lot of other people, and in 1945, all the graves were adopted by them. So, it is huge--and until today, people are still very grateful and taking care of the American soldiers lying here.


Schachter: Mr. Hermes, was your family directly affected during the war?


Hermes: We only had--the Germans that took over our lives, we couldn’t do what we wanted. My father had to work in Germany. He was picked up and sent to Germany to work in one of the factories that was bombed by the Allies. So, he was fighting as well, working in Germany, and he saw a lot of bad things.


Schachter: This is really incredible in part because here in America we don’t get thousands of people showing up to graveyards on Memorial Day, and it’s just an incredible thing to hear, that you guys are doing this overseas.


Hermes: We are very proud of it. I think it’s not because of the American soldiers lying here, but it’s more than that. It’s more symbolic. When you come to the cemetery, it has a certain atmosphere, it’s overwhelming. And every time you come there, you have a feeling of “This never again.” So, it’s more than just adopting a grave. It’s cherishing our liberty and our freedom.


Schachter: We really appreciate you speaking with us, and thank you for all that you and the townspeople are doing.


Hermes: You’re very welcome. Thank you.


Schachter: Ton Hermes is president of the Foundation for Adopting Graves at the American cemetery in Margraten. He’s 62-years-old. That made us wonder if whether this practice of the Dutch honoring American WWII dead would fade away as his generation ages. So, we called Maureen Bootink(?). She’s 24. Her family has been caring for the grave of an American soldier since the 1940s.


Maureen Bootink(?): We lay down flowers and make a little prayer and thank the people who are laying down there. It’s so important for us that they gave us back our freedom. Freedom is the most important thing you could have.


Schachter: Last time Maureen visited the burial ground, she brought along her two-year-old daughter.


Bootink(?): She will be the fifth generation that will, in the future, take over the grave. We are blessed with freedom, and she and her generation has to take care of it.


Schachter: Well, there you go. Maureen Bootink(?) and her toddler pay visits to the grave of an American WWII soldier in the Netherlands. On this Memorial Day, you’re listening to The World.