(Remember, if you want to see this in its original format, click on the title: “Here and today…”)
No, no, we are not back in The Netherlands. This is an article Michael wrote for the Independent. Once you read it you will understand why I have posted it here. -janice
Why I Am Here: Gratitude For A Fallen Soldier
by, Michael Hoberman
Margraten is a tiny town in Limburg, the skinny protruding southern section of the Netherlands that’s sandwiched between Belgium and Germany. While it may very well have some claim to fame about which I don’t know, its chief attraction for American visitors is the United States military cemetery there, in which over eight thousand casualties of the final European battles are buried. Facing the broad pool which marks the entrance to the cemetery are long white walls bearing the names of several hundred more American servicemen whose bodies were never recovered. On a brisk but unusually sunny day this past April, my family and I borrowed a friend’s car and drove the two and a half hours from our home in Utrecht to visit the cemetery. We didn’t know what to expect. We were carrying a couple of old photographs, a letter written by a complete stranger to someone else we barely knew, and a yellowed piece of paper that indicated the exact coordinates for one of the eight thousand burial plots. The man whose grave we were looking for had lived all his life in the hills that we call home.
Why did we go? We were motivated by gratitude. I’d followed a complicated path to get there, though. All my life, I’ve never fired or even held a weapon. I’ve never advocated any war, and I am sure that I haven’t been in a fist-fight since second grade. For all of my blessed, easy life, I’ve held to a belief that the world’s problems are always made worse by piling violence on top of violence. Years ago, when certain loudmouth politicians were advocating war in Kuwait and then a few years later in Afghanistan and then in Iraq, I remember saying to several friends, “I could never advocate a war unless I myself were willing to fight in it or send one of my children to fight in it.” As far as I’m concerned, none of the above wars came close to meeting that condition.
At the same time, the skeptical part of me has held off from advocating anything like pure pacifism. It’s not just that I have a dark enough view of humanity that I can’t imagine we’ll ever be free of murderous thugs like Hitler unless we’re willing to kill them. In the last few years, I’ve also had occasion to reflect on the simple truth that, had it not been for certain people who were willing to fight the Hitlers of the world, or send their children out to do it, I would not be here. It’s a very simple fact. My family owes its existence today to the governments and armed forces of three countries—the United States, Great Britain, and Israel, and—more important—to the millions of people whose names we will never know who, for all kinds of reasons, were either compelled or willing to die indescribably miserable deaths in our behalf.
First, Israel. My cousin Pepi Livingstone, who is now eighty seven years old, is the only member of her immediate family to have survived the Holocaust, and she survived it because the Zionist youth group in her birth country of Czechoslovakia sponsored her participation, at age fourteen, in the famous kindertransport, in which thousands of young Jews were shipped out of danger in the years leading up to Hitler’s implementation of the Final Solution. She spent the war years in England, married a Canadian air force pilot and never did end up settling in Israel. All the same, the fact remains: had it not been for the Zionist movement, she’d never have gotten the visa she needed to get out of Czechoslovakia in time. Earlier this summer, when I visited her at her home in London, Ontario, she showed me pictures of her grandparents (my great-grandparents), her parents, and her siblings, all taken in the years before the war. Those people were all killed, and she lived. It was both the idea and reality of a Jewish state that had made this possible, and not a day passes that Pepi doesn’t think about and feel gratitude for this fact.
Second, Great Britain. My mother, who was herself born in Israel (then still Palestine, under the British Mandate) was more fortunate. Her parents had left Europe in the 1920s, well before things began to look desperate. No one in her immediate family was lost in World War II, and the reason for this is that the British Army, thanks in part to the contributions of the famous “Jewish Brigade” (a unit that recruited thousands of Jews from all over the world but particularly those of them who had recently settled in Palestine) defeated the Nazis in North Africa, preventing any German invasion of the Middle East proper. Of course, when my mother was growing up, few members of her family felt a great deal of gratitude for the British; my relatives were busy trying to carve out a new country, and the Brits, like the Arabs, were obstacles in their path to Israeli independence, even if they had rescued them from the fate of the Jews of Europe. The facts are incontrovertible, though. Without a strong British presence in Palestine until the defeat of the Germans, those grandparents of mine, along with my mother, and several hundred thousand other Jews who settled in the country that is now Israel would not have made it.
The American connection is the one that I think of the most, for the simple reason that I have lived here all my life. My father’s family, like my mother’s, was spared the fate of our Czech ancestors because they had come here from Russia way back in the 1880s. As an American and as an American Jew, my dad probably didn’t think twice about enlisting in the military during World War II. I can’t help but think that the war would have felt necessary from his point of view. He was fortunate not to have been sent overseas, but thousands of Jews did face combat, both in Europe and in the Pacific Theater. I have a ninety-one year old step-uncle who, in a letter he recently wrote me about his war experiences, told me something about how it felt to be a Jewish American fighting in Europe in 1945. “My division liberated the death camp Maulthausen,” Victor told me, “and I saw horrors, especially horrible to a Jew.” I don’t entertain the slightest doubt that these men, Jew and Gentile alike, were fighting a war that needed to be fought, and I don’t forget that their having done so is the reason that I am here today.
Which brings me back to Margraten and the reasons why my family went there in April. Besides my own general debt of gratitude for those who fought and died on my behalf, it was a local connection, a Buckland connection, which had set us on that particular path. Almost ever since we moved here in 1996, we’ve bought our firewood from Floyd Parker, who lives up on East Buckland Road, a mile or so from our place on the flats by the Deerfield River. In anticipation of our trip to Holland this past winter, where I was going to be teaching a couple of American studies courses at Utrecht University, I contacted Floyd to arrange for our annual firewood purchase ahead of time; we always have him deliver green wood in April for burning the following winter, and I knew we’d be gone then. Floyd (who is himself a World War II vet) asked me where we were going to be and I told him. We happened at the time to be standing on Bridge Street, just outside the Foxtown, and Floyd’s wife Lurena, who was there as well, heard our conversation.
“My brother is buried over there, over in Holland,” Lurena told me. “He was killed when he was nineteen years old, and Floyd and I have never been over there to visit his grave . . . ” I didn’t let her finish the sentence. All of the excitement, anticipation, and joy I was feeling about our upcoming five month sojourn in the Netherlands suddenly attained a new level of meaning. At the earliest opportunity, we would find our way to the cemetery in Margraten where PFC Albert “Buzz” Purinton, along with eight thousand other American soldiers, was buried back in 1945.
We knew very little when we set out to visit the cemetery. I had with me two photos of Buzz, including a shot of him in uniform with a big friendly-looking dog which was taken in the field behind his family’s place in Charlemont when he was home on leave, shortly before he was killed in the Allied drive to push the Germans out of Holland in early 1945. I had the piece of paper that gave us the necessary information to be able to find his grave among all those other graves. I also had with me a long, typewritten letter that had been sent to the Purinton family by a Dutchman named Ralph Coenen. On the drive down to the cemetery, I read that letter out loud to my family.
Ralph Coenen is a man about my age who is an officer in the Dutch army (in fact, he’s served a few tours of duty on the NATO force stationed in Afghanistan, but that’s another subject for someone else’s article). All of his growing up years, he remembers having gone with his mother or grandmother to visit a particular grave at the American military cemetery in Margraten. Whose grave? Why? As he got older, he found out. Each American serviceman who was killed in the fight to liberate the Dutch from Nazi occupation was officially “adopted” by a Dutch family whose job it would be, for all the years to come, to tend to that man’s grave, bring flowers there from time to time, and keep in touch with the families back home. Ralph’s letter was easily one of the most moving pieces of writing I’d read in years.
The letter was about gratitude. It was about the debts we owe to people we’ve never met, and will never meet. The letter reminded me that, no matter what my own beliefs might be, and no matter how free my own life has been of the kind of strife that blew the world apart between 1939 and 1945 and lead to the deaths of millions of innocent people, I ought at least to feel and express my appreciation for the acts of so many strangers who died to make my life and other lives possible.
When we finally found the cemetery, we walked silently past the pool and in among the graves to look for Buzz’s marker. I kept thinking about Ralph’s words, about his own family’s dedication to memorializing this man that none of them ever knew. I am not one to tear easily, but I cried freely while walking through that cemetery. I couldn’t stop thinking about the picture that Lurena had loaned us, of her nineteen year-old brother and his dog sitting happily in the same Charlemont hills I can see from the front porch of my house every day. I couldn’t stop imagining the awful carnage that was awaiting him.
A few days after our visit to Margraten, I wrote Floyd and Lurena about our time there, and I also sent an email to Ralph. He wrote me right back, and offered more insight into what had just happened and why it was important. “I understand you visited Albert’s grave at Margraten,” he wrote “and can fully appreciate, that by your presence—knowing Albert’s closest relatives and living in his childhood home—in a way you have come full circle. At the very least the Buckland community has, and it must be of great importance to the Purintons.” Ralph gave further explanation for his family’s dedication to Buzz’s gravesite. “The place is serene and silent; you will have experienced this yourself. It is up to us as Dutch, to keep it this way. In the oncoming years, this will take an extra effort as the generation that first laid the fallen soldiers to rest is gradually declining in numbers. Please tell all Purintons,” he concluded, “that we are happy and honored to keep Albert with us. It is only his body as his spirit hovers freely, patiently awaiting— as we airborne infantrymen call it—the Last Link-Up.”