They ranged in age from young adults to their mid-90s, and came from all corners of the Netherlands to a cemetery at the edge of the small town of Margraten about a week and a half ago. There, they sat down with a handful of American high schoolers to share stories of men they’d never met.
Some brought uniforms. Others brought medals. Most brought flowers. All of them did it from a deep love of two countries, and the core values we’ve shared.
Netherlands American Cemetery is just about the most picture-perfect resting place one could imagine. Established by the American Battle Monuments Commission in the late 1940s, it is the final memorial for about 10,000 Americans who died in the course of World War II.
In some ways, the field at Margraten is no different from the 25 other cemeteries managed by the ABMC - the grave stones are gleaming white, and the grass preternaturally green, even in late November. What’s different here are the people, the living.
That small group of about 10 are just a few of the thousands of Dutch members of the Foundation for Adopting Graves at the American Cemetery at Margraten.
Their group’s work began before the war even ended. In the winter of 1945, American bodies were shipped back from the front and buried in this cemetery, just a few miles west of the German border. We’d made a solemn promise that we wouldn’t bury our men in enemy soil.
As the trucks of bodies came back, the cemetery at Margraten grew bigger, and the villagers adopted the graves that spring, decorating them for Memorial Day. They knew better than anyone that their liberation had been bought in part by the lives of these men.
Today, that work is carried on by a second, and third, generation of Dutch citizens who have never, ever forgotten the cost of freedom. They’ve adopted all 8,200 graves and 1,700 names on the tablets of the missing. Nearly all of these grave adopters visit several times a year.
One of my students and I met the man who adopted the grave of First Lt. Jack Sherry. Sherry was a graduate of the Toledo school at which I teach, and was killed when German paratroopers shot down his artillery observation plane.
The gentleman who adopted Sherry’s grave is a middle-aged Dutch Navy veteran named Ben. By any measure, Ben is a Dutch patriot, a man whose service to his nation proves his love of country.
And, to these eyes, he’s more of an American patriot than most people I meet in my everyday life. Ben goes to Margraten once a month and brings flowers to Sherry’s grave. Though Sherry died years before Ben was born, he told us of the connection he feels to him.
The word “patriotism” may not adequately encompass what I saw in Margraten. It was something more profound; a joining together of people from worlds apart committed to common ideals of freedom, the transatlantic alliance, sacrifice and honor.
The program that took us across the pond had our students placing markers along the “Liberation Route Europe,” a hiking trail opening next spring that will connect key places and events in the story of Europe’s liberation from the forces of fascism and nationalism. It’s a literal linking together of our shared history with the western democracies.
The Toledo student who went with me, after hefting one of these markers in Nijmegen, said to me “These are going to be around long after we’re gone, aren’t they?” Without hesitation, I told him, yes, they will be. And, I sincerely pray, so will our commitment to shared values.
Because that’s the deal. More than flowers, what brings us to those graves is our commitment to what they fought and died for.