The Volkstrauertag is a day of silence that commemorates the German veterans of WW1 and WW2, as well as the victims of the tyranny of all nations. In Kitchener, there is a service at the German War Graves Commission area of Woodland Cemetery on the third Sunday of November that coincides with the Volkstrauertag (The German National Day of Mourning).
I am a transplant to K-W, and the first I heard that there was a German War Graves Cemetery was when I was at the Drumhead Ceremony at Knox Presbyterian. The pastor, as part of a lovely sermon about war and remembrance, mentioned it.
There’s no disputing the German roots in the Kitchener-Waterloo area. There’s the Ziggyzaggyziggyzaggy Oi! Oi! Oi! of Octoberfest and the delightful Chriskindl Market in December. As you can imagine, though, the residents of this region didn’t always embrace All Things German. Kitchener even ditched the name Berlin to become more nation-neutral. But the German ancestry of the area cannot be denied, and in 1971, Kitchener became the location for the remains of all German prisoners of war who died in Canada.
The German War Graves Commission took care of their citizen’s graves, wherever they were. To have a dedicated area of a single cemetery for German POWs who died in Canada simplified the obligation of the German War Graves Commission, and allows German nationals to visit their brethren in a single location. There are 187 POWs buried in the graves of the German War Graves Commission area of the Woodland Cemetery, which is now cared for by Kitchener Cemeteries.
I have visited Langemarck German Cemetery in Flanders. And while I was excited to have the opportunity to go, I was anxious about what to expect. In addition to the soldier’s cemetery with heavy stone grave markers, there is a mass grave of 25, 000 unidentified exhumed German soldiers from Belgian battlefields. There are 3,000 German student volunteers with their names engraved on the walls of the Studentenfriedhof. Student volunteers, like, say, cadets. *Very much* like cadets.
I stood in the midst of that and thought about how this cemetery came to be.
Imagine being told by your government that the enemy forces who have decimated your town, maybe left you without shelter, perhaps killed loved ones, certainly killed people you knew, now need to be respectfully laid to rest. Combatants at arms, brothers in death. So put your mourning for your own kindred aside, and pay respects for the enemy who destroyed your world. Imagine how easy it would have been to be vindictive and try to soothe your hurt by committing indignities to the enemy dead. Who would know if you just left them to rot in a field, or set them ablaze with your dead livestock? I have a vicious streak of whitehotfury, and I’m not sure I would have been as gracious. I hope that I will never have to test that theory.
This Remembrance Season, may I remember that it’s not just death that’s the great equalizer, but grief, too.