This AFK Thursday: serious stuff. No chocolate, no exotic island sunsets, no opulent dessert for lunch. Today, we head south to the Netherlands American Cemetery and Memorial to pay tribute to 8301 American WWII soldiers we owe our freedom to who never made it back home.
When you grow up in the Netherlands, WWII is ingrained in your cultural heritage and identity. Perhaps you have a grandfather who smuggled radios for the resistance. Or perhaps you have a grandpa you don’t talk about who chose the wrong side at the time. Regardless, my generation is the last generation that has living relatives who survived the war, giving an otherwise distant and unimaginable past a personal face. Things might be different for kids growing up now, for whom it really is a distant past. Then again, my immigrant grandparents weren’t in this country during the war, and I still feel like it’s a part of my cultural heritage.
But even if in a few years’ time the last WWII survivor passes, the memorials are here to remind future generations of what happened. We visited one of them last week: the Netherlands American Cemetery in Margraten.
On this peaceful May morning we commemorate a great victory for liberty, and the thousands of white marble crosses and Stars of David underscore the terrible price we pay for that victory – George W. Bush, during his visit to Margraten in 2005.
The American Cemetery and Memorial was constructed on a 65.5 acre piece of land that was given to the Americans in gratitude for their role in securing our freedom. It’s the final resting place of 8301 American soldiers, each with his or her own marble cross or Star of David. The number was much higher in the first years after the war, when as many as 20,000 Americans, Russians, Germans and Allies rested here before being sent back home. The cemetery as it is now was opened by Queen Juliana in 1960.
We visited the American Cemetery on a drizzly, grey yet lovely autumn day, hiking through the woods and countryside for an hour and a half to get there. Obviously, you can just go by car or bus, but being the city dwellers we are, we thought we’d leave the car behind and see some nature for once.
The American Cemetery is meticulously kept by the American Battle Monuments Commission and the area looks and feels very American with all the marble, the wide roads and perfectly kept grass. And, of course, the American flag.
All the soldiers in the American Cemetery have been “adopted” by people who wish to take care of the grave or even stay in contact with their family – a long-held tradition that started in the first few years after the war. If you wish, you can apply to adopt a grave in the future when one becomes available. The fact that there’s a waiting list speaks volumes about the gratitude the Dutch people have for the sacrifices of these American soldiers.
The project Faces of Margraten aims to find the faces and stories behind the fallen soldiers, and they’ve found 4000 faces so far. So in the near future, when the new generations can no longer speak to the heroes of the past, they can still see their faces and read about their lives.
Planning a visit
The Netherlands American Cemetery and Memorial is open daily from 9 AM to 5 PM, except December 25 and January 1. It’s not far from the city of Maastricht, where you can take bus 50 to Militair Kerkhof if you can’t go by car.