Field of honour full of life
The four thousand war victims buried at the Netherlands Field of Honour at Loenen include a number of Leiden students who were in the Resistance. The War Graves Foundation is looking for volunteers to take part in a special event to honour the deceased.
It promises to be an impressive memorial on 2 May: four thousand mainly young men and women will stand for two hours at the four thousand graves to honour the war victims. They will be around the same age and the same sex as the victim whose grave they are standing by. There are at least 85 students buried at Loenen. They were murdered because of their involvement in the Resistance or they perished as a result of persecution or some other act of violence. There may well be more students' graves among the four thousand at Loenen, but it's difficult to be sure as not all the stories behind the victims are known.
At least two of the students buried at Loenen studied in Leiden and both were in the Resistance: Erik Verstijnen (1910-1945, † Vaihingen Enz) and Gustaaf Henri Gelder (1919-1944, †The Hague). Other Leiden students for whom there is no known grave - Jan Mulders (praeses Augustinus, 1919-1944, †Vught) and Arthur Schoon (1920-1945, †Neuengamme) - will be commemorated in the chapel at the Field of Honour.
New way of commemorating the victims
What is behind this initiative? Hélène Briaire, spokesperson for the Netherlands War Graves Foundation, explains: 'The first generation of witnesses to the Second World War are slowly but surely dying out, so there are fewer people who can tell their personal stories. A written account with black and white photos doesn't really reach today's young people. They want to experience things for themselves. That's why we have devised this new way of commemorating the victims that will connect them with the young people of today.'
Augustinus and Minerva
Last year was the pilot. This year the Foundation is looking for four hundred volunteers aged between 18 and 80+, the majority of whom will be men between the ages of 19 and 35. Briaire has already spoken with the board members of Minerva and Augustinus, the student associations that had members in the Resistance. Briaire: ‘A number of Leiden students have already volunteered but more are needed. People can register until the end of April, but ideally we'd like to hear from them earlier.'
Leiden archaeology student Auke Heitz has already registered. Why does he want to take part? ‘I believe it's important to honour people who made such great sacrifices. My grandfather and great-uncle were in the Resistance. Luckily, my grandfather survived but my great-uncle was executed by the Germans. It had a big effect on me. That's why I am keen to take part in this memorial event.' His family history was one of the reasons Heitz became a member of the student militia, whose members were active in the Resistance and who are also taking part in this commemoration.
Not a charade
The volunteers will be given training in advance by advisers who are specialists in the therapy of family constellations. They will hear the personal story of the victim, if it is available. Briaire: ‘We are asking a lot of the participants, but it's definitely not intended to become a charade. The participants are there as themselves.' Last year was very successful. Both the participants and the public said that the stories really came to life, according to Briaire. This year RTL 4 will be recording the memorial event and will broadcast it on 4 May.
Recent graves of UN soldiers
The Netherlands Field of Honour at Loenen is special for several reasons. It is the only national cemetery where civilians - from members of the Resistance to whole families - who lost their lives are buried in military style. The majority died in the Second World War, but new graves have been added more recently, such as those of UN soldiers and a Dutch helicopter pilot who was killed in Mali in 2015. The field of honour is a wooded area with a meandering pathway that has graves on both sides. It's familiar territory for young members of Minerva. First-year students have been maintaining the graveyard for the past year as part of their introduction period.
Read more about the Ereveld Vol Leven memorial event organised by the Netherlands War Graves Foundation.
The Netherlands War Graves Foundation collects the stories of Dutch people who died in war situations. Everyone is welcome to add unpublished stories, documents and photos about victims to the Foundation's stories database. It is through such actions as these that the memories will be kept alive.