For years, my grandma Happy has told me about her brother who died in WWII. She misses him. Before I left for Holland, my aunt had found his grave on the military websites set up to help relatives find those killed in war and not buried in the United States. His grave was discovered to be in the Henri Chapelle cemetary in Belgium, within 15-20 km of where Germany, the Netherlands and Belgium meet. I knew that my sister and I would have to go.
We took the train because renting a car would have been ridiculously expensive. This is not because renting cars is prohibitively expensive in Europe, although it is, or because gas is crazy expensive with government taxes in Europe, which it is. I mean, thinking now how difficult it was to take the train (4 stops each way, transfer times as low as 4 minutes) I know that we would never have been able to drive it in. My sister and I both lack “New York sense of direction.” We have more of an “Incredible Journey” style homing sense.
Four stops and four hours on the train later we arrived in the correct town in Belgium, Welkenraedt. The American Battle Monuments Commission had sent a car for us driven by a French speaking Belgian named Joseph. He was a super speedy driver but would stop the car and take off my seatbelt for me when I tried to take a picture. I didn’t know what was going on or what to expect. When we pulled up to the cemetary I realized that the grounds were immaculate. Joseph led us into his office and introduced us to Michael, a really nice American, retired former military, from Tampa, who was the assistant supervisor to the cemetary Henri Chapelle.
Michael is also the name of the archangel whose statue looks out over the 7992 crosses and stars of David in the Henri Chapelle cemetary. After a short speech and explanation of the cemetary’s small WWII museum, we were led down to where our relative, our great uncle, Happy’s brother Joseph lay. It was June 6, the anniversary of D Day. At the cross, Joseph rubbed sand from Normandy onto the cross to bring the name out in relief, and took a digital photo of my sister and me. Then he left us alone. It is a sad and moving place, Henri Chapelle.
After a while a big man walked over to us, and introduced himself. His name was Walter and he was from New Jersey, visiting the cemetary for three days to spend time with his father who was killed months before Walter was born. We talked about the Yankees, because I didn’t want him to see that I’d been crying. Later, when the cemetary was closing down for the day, Walter helped take down and fold one American flag, and I helped take down and fold the other. My sister, Walter, his wife Marie, and I rode back to the train station in the village together in the same military car.
Before we left Michael gave my sister and I a hardcover book detailing what had happened to make places like Henri Chapelle possible, as well as a folder of information about Joseph Janovich, our great uncle. The digital photo they printed and framed for us. I would like to use my website as another way to say “Thank you,” to Michael and Joseph, and the military for doing such a fine job with the war cemetaries in Europe. After taps had played, when we were leaving, all five of us walking together with our American flags, an old Belgium woman with teary eyes thanked us.
2 thoughts on “The Spiritual Component”
The old Belgian woman asked to put her hand on what she referred to as “The Stars and Stripes” and Mike handed it to her. That is why she was saying thank you. I think the idea of her thanking us, just because we were Americans, is a bit like the idea of doing the opposite of thanking a group of Germans. What I mean to say is that we cannot be credited with anything anymore than contemporary Germans can be blamed. Regardless of the flag flying overhead the men deserve to be honored, and I believe the best honor we can pay them is realizing a free and peaceful world, the possibility of which the men sacrificed their lives to protect.
i’m glad you were able to track your relative down. ’tis sweet.