MARGRATEN, Netherlands — They haven’t forgotten. For 70 years, the Dutch have come to a verdant U.S. cemetery outside this small village to care for the graves of Americans killed in World War II.
On Sunday, they came again, bearing
Memorial Day bouquets for men and women they never knew, but whose 8,300 headstones the people of the Netherlands have adopted as their own.
For the American relatives of the fallen, it was an outpouring of gratitude almost as stunning as the rows of white marble crosses and Jewish Stars of David at the Netherlands American Cemetery. Each grave has been adopted by a Dutch or, in some cases, Belgian or German family, as well as local schools, companies and military organizations. More than 100 people are on a waiting list to become caretakers.
At the cemetery’s annual commemoration, 6,000 people poured onto the 65-acre burial grounds just a few miles from the German border, including scores of descendants of American war dead who had traveled here from all over the United States. They were eager to pay tribute to parents or grandparents who had died to defeat the Nazis. But they also wanted to thank the Dutch families who had been tending the graves of their loved ones, often passing the responsibility from one generation to the next.
For Arthur Chotin, 70, who had come from Annapolis, Md., to finally meet the couple caring for his father’s resting place, the devotion of the Dutch was a source of awe.
“What would cause a nation recovering from losses and trauma of their own to adopt the sons and daughters of another nation?” asked Chotin, the only American descendant to speak on Sunday. “And what would keep that commitment alive for all of these years, when the memory of that war has begun to fade? It is a unique occurrence in the history of civilization.”
The bodies arrived in a procession of trucks and trailers. Everyone in Margraten could smell the death.
It was November 1944, two months after the village’s 1,500 residents had been freed from Nazi occupation by the U.S. 30th Infantry Division.
But the war wasn’t over. In late 1944 and early 1945, thousands of American soldiers would be killed in nearby battles trying to pierce the German defense lines. Booby-traps and heavy artillery fire, combined with a ferocious winter, dealt major setbacks to the Allies, who had already suffered losses trying to capture strategic Dutch bridges crossing into Germany during the ill-fated Operation Market Garden.
Now, the U.S. military needed a place to bury its fallen.
The Americans ultimately picked a fruit orchard just outside Margraten. On the first day of digging, the sight of so many bodies made the men in the 611th Quartermaster Graves Registration Company ill.
“They looked and looked,” wrote Joseph Shomon, the commanding officer of the 611th, in “Crosses in the Wind,” a 1947 memoir, “then suddenly, a few made a break for the latrine.”
Right from the start, Margraten embraced the Americans.
The town’s mayor invited the company’s commanders to sleep in his home, while the enlisted men slept in the schools — welcome protection against rain and buzz bombs. Later, villagers hosted U.S. troops when the men were given rest-and-recuperation breaks from trying to breach the German frontier defenses, known as the Siegfried Line.
“After four dark years of occupation, suddenly [the Dutch] people were free from the Nazis, and they could go back to their normal lives and enjoy all the freedoms they were used to,” explained Frenk Lahaye, an associate at the cemetery. “They knew they had to thank the American allies for that.”
The first burial at Margraten took place on Nov. 10, 1944. Laid to rest in Plot A, Row 1, Grave 1: John David Singer Jr., a 25-year-old infantryman, whose remains would later be repatriated and buried in Denton, Md., about 72 miles east of Washington.
Between late 1944 and spring 1945, up to 500 bodies arrived each day, so many that the mayor went door to door asking villagers for help with the digging.
Over the next two years, about 17,740 American soldiers would be buried here, though the number of graves would shrink as thousands of families asked for their loved ones’ remains to be sent home.
On May 29, 1945 — the day before the cemetery’s first Memorial Day commemoration — 20 trucks from the 611th collected flowers from 60 different Dutch villages, Shomon wrote. Nearly 200 Dutch men, women and children spent all night arranging flowers and wreaths by the dirt-covered graves, which bore makeshift wooden crosses and Stars of David.
By 8 a.m., the road leading into Margraten was jammed with Dutch people coming on foot, bicycle, carriages, horseback and by car. Silent film footage shot that day shows some of the men wearing top hats as they carried wreaths. A nun and two young girls laid flowers at a grave, then prayed. Solemn-faced children watched as cannons blasted salutes.
The Dutch, Shomon wrote, “were perceptibly stirred, wept in bowed reverence.”
To the Dutch, the Americans were liberators.
The German occupation of the Netherlands had pushed tens of thousands of Dutch men into hiding to avoid being forced to work in German labor camps. Hundreds of Dutch Jews in Margraten and the nearby city of Maastricht were rounded up and sent to concentration camps, said Frans Roebroeks, a board member of the cemetery’s adoption foundation.
Seven decades later, the memories of those four years of fear have yet to disappear.
Roebroeks’s 84-year-old mother, Gerda Roebroeks-Nelissen, keeps a photo of one American soldier, Ohioan Henry Wolf, on a mantelpiece by a lit candle. Wolf and a few other soldiers stayed with her family after the liberation, when she was 13 years old.
“For my father, Henry was like a child of his,” she remembered.
He was devastated after Wolf was killed in Germany on June 11, 1945. The private’s body was brought back to Margraten, where he was buried in Plot K, Row 2, Grave 22. Roebroeks-Nelissen’s family has cared for Wolf’s grave ever since.
They aren’t responsible for cutting the grass or cleaning the grave’s marble cross — that’s the job of the American Battle Monuments Commission, the federal agency that oversees the 25 official U.S. cemeteries abroad. Instead, adopters periodically stop by their chosen graves, delivering flowers on soldiers’ birthdays, dates of death, Christmas, Memorial Day.
“My mother will call me up sometimes and say, ‘Shall we go to the cemetery? I’ve got a bouquet for Henry,’ ” Roebroeks said. “She usually picks the flowers from her own garden.”
The adoption program was the brainchild of the Margraten town clerk and a local pastor, and it was hugely popular. Two other American cemeteries abroad have adoption programs — both in Belgium — but Margraten is the only one where every grave has a volunteer caretaker and a waiting list.
For years, the Dutch adopters struggled to connect with the families of the American war dead. At first, the U.S. government wasn’t willing to share next-of-kin contact information with the Dutch, partly because it feared some adopters were trying to take advantage of the Americans by pleading for money, Roebroeks said.
Eventually, a system was put in place. If Americans reached out to Margraten officials, their home address (and later, their e-mail) was passed on to the Dutch adopter. And if the Dutch family consented, their contact information was sent to the Americans.
Now, many Dutch adopters can find a soldier’s next-of-kin through Ancestory.com. In the United States, relatives of soldiers seeking their Dutch adopters often contact the American World War II Orphans Network, which organizes periodic trips to the cemetery.
Even so, only about 40 percent of Dutch adopters and their American families have linked up, Roebroeks estimated. Sixty percent remain strangers.
He keeps the relics of his father’s service at his Fredericksburg, Va., home — a pack of Kools, a bar of soap, the letters home.
Gennaro “Jerry” Palmento was just 19 months old when his father, Army Pvt. Jerry C. Palmento, was killed in a field by heavy artillery fire in Alsdorf, Germany, on
Nov. 11, 1944, and buried in Plot G, Row 6, Grave 19 in Margraten. He has kept a trove of his father’s war-zone letters to his mother, Rita Gentile, who later remarried, and he wells up when he reads the references his dad made to him as “Pumpkin.”
Palmento was in his 20s when he first learned that his dad’s resting place was being tended. “I can hear my mother saying, ‘Someone brings flowers to the grave,’ ” Palmento remembered. “I was happy about it. But Holland seemed like 10,000 miles away.”
Decades passed before the retired public school music teacher went in search of the Dutch family after he heard about a neighbor’s visit to Margraten.
And that was how he began
e-mailing the Stienens, who live about 30 minutes away from Margraten in Heerlen and who had been making sure his father’s grave wasn’t forgotten since the 1940s.
The first adopters were Theo and Maria Stienen. After they died, responsibility for the grave was passed on to their oldest son, Theo, a retired coal miner, and his wife, Irene Stienen, who worked as a caterer.
They continue to visit the cemetery three or four times a year to place flowers by the grave. Their children and granddaughter, Maureen Butink, 24, also go.
Some of Butink’s favorite childhood memories are of visiting the cemetery with her grandfather. They’d pick up white roses and place them by Palmento’s white marble cross.
Though her own life is far removed from the war, Butink said she feels a strong connection to the cemetery because, as her grandfather always told her, the Americans buried in Margraten are “the founders of our freedom.”
“My daughter, who is 2 years old, she will be the fifth generation,” Butink said, “and I hope that when I can’t take care of the grave, she will take it over.”
Almost five years ago, Palmento flew to Holland to connect with the Stienens. When he met Butink’s grandfather, Theo, for the first time, they just hugged.
“I was speechless because of the moment, and thought, ‘These people have been going to my father’s grave for years,’ ” Palmento said.
On Friday, Palmento, 72, and his wife, Beth, 76, reunited with the Stienens at their apartment in Heerlen, where photos of Jerry and Jerry’s son and grandchildren are tacked onto the kitchen wall.
As Theo, 74, opened the door to the apartment, Palmento, wearing a pin with a photo of his father clad in his military uniform, instantly became emotional.
“We love you so much!” he exclaimed, kissing the Dutchman on the cheek. “We meet again! What a pleasure!”
Everyone was giddy as the Palmentos pulled out gifts. “We brought some little things for you,” Jerry said.
Then Irene, 73, got her camera to show photos of her and Theo placing white flowers at Palmento’s father’s grave a few days earlier. As Palmento scrolled through the images, Butink translated what her grandparents were saying: “They put hortensia flowers there because they last longer.”
On Friday, Arthur Chotin stood teary-eyed in front of his father’s Star of David headstone. Standing beside him was Boy Naaijkens, a Dutch health food store owner who adopted Army Staff Sgt. Max Chotin’s grave in 2006 and has been placing flowers there ever since.
This was the first time both men paid their respects together.
Chotin was 11 months old when his father died in a car crash in Belgium on Nov. 3, 1945, about six months after V-E Day. Max was on his way to process the paperwork that would have sent him and his men home.
Chotin, who grew up in Brooklyn without his dad, became a Justice Department attorney, then the financial director for Sen. Ted Kennedy’s presidential campaign, then a deputy director for the Israel lobbying group AIPAC, all before launching a printing business that submits legal briefs to the U.S. Supreme Court.
It wasn’t until late 2014 when Chotin reached out to cemetery adoption officials, got Naaijkens’s name and address, and wrote to him.
At Max’s grave, where Naaijkens had placed roses the day before, the men talked about the deaths they’d endured. Naaijkens and his wife lost two of their three sons at early ages to brain tumors.
“All loss is terrible,” said Naaijkens, 56.
“But the loss of children,” Chotin said, trailing off.
“But you never met your father?” Naaijkens asked.
“Well, we met when I was 6 weeks old,” Chotin said. “I’m alive. I have a wife. I have children. He never knew any of that. That’s the ultimate unfairness.”
Naaijkens removed his glasses and rubbed his eyes.
Netherlands Prime Minister Mark Rutte and Air Force Gen. Philip M. Breedlove, NATO’s Supreme Allied Commander Europe, were among those listening as Chotin spoke to the crowd gathered at the cemetery Sunday.
Clad in an orange tie to honor the color of the Dutch royal family, Chotin said his mother never mustered the strength to visit Margraten, but would have loved meeting Naaijkens, his wife, Petra, and their son, Pim. All three were sitting in the audience.
“Door het maken van deze dode deel van uw famile,” Chotin said in Dutch, before translating. “By making these dead part of your family, you have become part of our family. You have created a bond between us that will never be broken. So, from this day forward, from now until the end of time, hartelijk bedank, a heartfelt thank you.”