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75 years in freedom, 7,500 faces

Both 2019 and 2020 will be remarkable years. During these years, people from all over the world will commemorate and celebrate the 75th anniversary of the end of World War II. The end of the war in the Netherlands came closer when U.S. soldiers crossed the border near the town of Mesch on September 12, 1944, which became the first town to be liberated. However, it would take until May 5, 1945 before the country was fully liberated. And that liberation came at a heavy price for those who fought for it. That is why we will say thank you to our American liberators who have been buried in the Netherlands American Cemetery and Memorial in the town of Margrten. We pay tribute to them by decorating their graves and names on the Walls of the Missing with a photo. We gave our liberators our face. And for this 75th anniversary, we are looking for at least 7,500 faces. Join us in our quest and help to put a face to those who sacrificed their all for our freedom.

 

Remarks Deputy Chief of Mission Sterling

Adam H. Sterling, Deputy Chief of Mission of the U.S. Embassy in The Hague, shared remarks on behalf of the United States. "We should not allow the uniformity of the headstones to cause us to forget that each headstone tells an individual story," Sterling said. Read his speech in full here.

Plaatsvervangend Commisaris van de Koning Koopmans, Burgemeester Akkermans, Superintendent Stadler, Geachte dames en heren. Goedemiddag. Het is een eer om hier vandaag te zijn, op deze laatste rustplaats van zo veel moedige, jonge mannen en vrouwen.

Listening to my nation's anthem here on Dutch soil is deeply moving. So is looking across this backdrop of white marble carefully aligned across the hilltops. This alignment, enhanced by the uniformity of the headstones, is starkly beautiful and symbolically meaningful.

 DSC7876 klBut we should not allow the uniformity of the headstones to cause us to forget that each headstone tells an individual story - a story of a young man or woman who fought and fell here - a story of their courage and ideals, of their hope that, in the end, risking and ultimately losing their lives helped bring lasting peace, freedom, and justice.

And today, their stories come to life. Today, many of these headstones have a face. In faded black and white photographs, soldiers look back at us in the full glow of youth.

To those of you who have adopted, cared for, and lovingly maintained their graves, these photos put a face to the name.

If they could, I know they would thank you for preserving the dignity of their final resting place and for giving solace to their families and loved ones.

They would thank you for remembering them and grieving for the lives they did not get to live.

They might also tell you about the first Memorial Day commemoration at Margraten on May 30, 1945, when more than 200 men and women worked day and night to place wreaths and flowers on every newly dug grave.

How they came on foot, by bike, on horses, and in carriages. How they adopted the new graves and honored the fallen.

In the words of one Dutch citizen that first Memorial Day: "You who enter this cemetery, look. Remember the price your freedom took."

When we reflect on this traumatic period in our history, we easily forget the personal stories of those who sacrificed.

We are overwhelmed by the numbers: 60 million casualties, 300,000 here in the Netherlands. 400,000 American soldiers killed; 8,301 American soldiers buried here and another 1,722 immortalized on the Wall of the Missing. But behind these numbers are people, just like you and me, with a history, a name, and a face.

That is why today is so important. We at the Embassy are proud to be part of this Faces of Margraten initiative.

And since this is a day to honor individuals, I have to share a story about an inspiring young Dutchman I met early in my nearly two years in the Netherlands. His name is Sebastiaan Vonk, and he is today about the same age as most of the soldiers buried here were at their deaths.

I met Sebastiaan during a working visit to Groningen, which included a stop at the university so I could speak to American Studies students.

After my talk, a soft-spoken but clearly ambitious young student approached me. He told me about the work he was doing in his free time to collect, organize, and publish personal stories about the soldiers buried at Margraten.
He also told me about his vision to give a face to each grave, and how he planned to collect many of them by May 2015, in time for the 70th anniversary commemorations.

This was in February 2014, mind you. Sebastiaan handed me a document that described his vision and laid out his plan.

While I thought it was a great idea, I was skeptical that this young, full-time student – living way up North in Groningen – could actually pull this off.

But Sebastiaan is persistent. He talked us into giving him seed money to help get the idea off the ground.

Since many of the photos would need to come from families of the soldiers in America, Sebastiaan worked with our public affairs team at the Embassy and with the Foreign Ministry – even catching the attention of then-Foreign Minister Frans Timmermans, himself a grave adopter, who stressed the Dutch government's support for the project in a speech at Arlington National Cemetery in Washington.

Sebastiaan also appealed to American media to publish stories in the communities once home to these soldiers.

Many local media outlets jumped at the opportunity to support this project. Stories were published across America. Photos have been trickling in.

Today, less than a year and a half after my first encounter with Sebastiaan, he has managed to locate more than 3,300 photos.

I am impressed and touched to see the results of Sebastiaan's efforts, and the efforts of so many other volunteers who have brought this idea to fruition.

Sebastiaan is living proof that, as memories of the liberation become history, the liberators will not be forgotten.

Thank you.

Photo The Faces of Margraten/Municipality of Eijsden-Margraten, Sluysmans Photography

Donate

Would you like to contribute to keeping the memory alive? By donating just 12.50 dollars, you will enable us to give a face to one soldier. You can directly donate 12.50 dollars via your credit card or PayPal by clicking the button below. Click here if you want to read more or donate another amount. Thank you for your support!

Mollie

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