The transatlantic bond and cooperation between allies, institutionalized through the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in 1946, remains the cornerstone to the security and defense of the transatlantic area. Amidst tensions on the eastern borders of Europe, the failure of the international community to halt the bloody conflict in Syria, and other conflicts and atrocities around the world, it seems more important than ever that the transatlantic bond remains a close-knit community, standing to protect the values of representative democracy, peace, the rule of law, and humanity in this dynamic and challenging world. With President Obama pivoting more towards Asia and having a generation rising on both sides of the Atlantic that might not sufficiently appreciate the historic link between the two continents, some argue that the transatlantic relationship could wane over the next generations and that bond might mean something different for generations to come.
But not in a little town in the south of the Netherlands, in a town called Margraten. Just outside of that town, 66.5 acres hold the remains of brave men and women that made the ultimate sacrifice for a free, stable, and peaceful Europe. 8,301 white marble crosses and Stars of David, and two large marbles walls at the Square of Honor with the names of 1,722 MIA look out over the green hills of southern Limburg and remind visitors of the soldiers – often young – who gave their lives for their freedom during World War ll. The Netherlands American Cemetery was commissioned at the end of 1944, just shortly after the liberation of the town and just before the bloody Battle of the Bulge and the liberation of Germany.
There is something special about this cemetery. The citizens of Margraten and those in the wider surroundings in the Netherlands have a special bond with the Netherlands American Cemetery and the Americans buried there. In a way of tribute and gratitude towards their liberators, Dutch citizens took up the idea to adopt and take care of each and every grave. The original idea to adopt graves of the American liberators came up in February of 1945. The adopters were supposed to regularly visit the adopted grave and, in case this was appreciated, keep in touch with the next of kin in the United States. The campaign gained massive support and during the first Memorial Day in 1945 every grave was decorated with flowers. At the second Memorial Day, one year later, all 18,764 graves had been adopted. Today in 2016, the remaining 8,301 graves are currently adopted and there is even a waiting list for those interested in taking up that task.
This May, the Dutch non-profit organization Foundation United Adopters American War Graves organized the second edition of The Faces of Margraten tribute. They were able to put 4,000 faces to the names on the white marble stones. In just five days 22,500 people travelled up to the Netherlands American Cemetery to pay their respects. It goes to show, the gratitude towards their American liberators is still very much alive, even with the generation that lived through the war getting smaller over time.
One of the faces of Margraten is Private First Class Joseph Orsini, buried in Plot P Row 17 Grave 16. I did not meet Joseph until I was 18 and was about to graduate from high school. I met Joseph through his white marble gravestone, upon which are etched his name, army number and date of death; the day Joseph made the ultimate sacrifice. Through adopting his grave, I became its caretaker, making sure a flower piece embellishes his plot of earth on important dates such as his birthday, Christmas, and Memorial Day. Curious to put a face to the name and just about to turn 18 myself, I began a year-long investigation to bring his story to life.
Joseph was living in Jersey City, New Jersey when he joined the American armed forces at the age of 18 on December 20th, 1943 in Newark, New Jersey. He was assigned to the 89th Infantry Division, which went on to capture Ohrdruf, a section of the Buchenwald concentration camp, on April 4th, 1945. Joseph came to the 355th Regiment as a replacement private and jeep driver. Infantry and an accompanying jeep column of the 355th were ambushed on April 12th, 1945. Joseph died that day in the Tannroda area, which is in federal state of Thüringen in the heart of Germany. He was only 18 years old when he made the ultimate sacrifice for Europe’s liberation and peace. His death came just two weeks before Adolf Hitler’s, and three weeks before Germany surrendered unconditionally to the Allies. Joseph found his final resting place on June 20th, 1945 at the Netherlands American Cemetery of Margraten. He was awarded with a posthumous Purple Heart.
Those 65.5 acres of land in the Netherlands are a symbol of the everlasting transatlantic bond between the United States and Europe. It is because of men like Private Joseph Orsini, who was neither awarded the Medal of Honor for bravery nor held the rank of general, that the struggle against oppression, fascism, anti-Semitism, and brutality in the first half of the 20th century is given a face – a face that the millennial generation and those to come may only see in history books or hear about in their grandparents’ stories. Joseph is a face out of the 8,301 white marble stones at the Netherlands American Cemetery; a face that aspiring young leaders should not forget in the current world order.
Lest we forget.
Karlijn Jans specializes in defense and German politics. She received an LL.M in European Law from Maastricht University and MA in European Studies from King’s College London. Karlijn is a part-time modular student at the Netherlands Defence Academy and chairs the Netherlands Atlantic Youth Association. She is also a Europe Fellow at Young Professionals in Foreign Policy.
Image Credit: Karlijn Jans
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