Sunday, March 15, 2015

A Contrast In Cultures: The Military Cemeteries Of Luxembourg

Probably the most well known soldier
buried at the cemetery. The only thing that
sets his gravestone apart from everyone else's
is its location.
Cemeteries are probably not the first place most people plan to visit while on vacation. After all, walking amongst gravestones is hardly an uplifting experience. But it is the very solemness of these final resting places than makes them emotionally moving places to visit. And this is especially so when the cemetery in question is one of the many American military cemeteries that are located around the globe. It doesn't matter how many military cemeteries I visit; whether it be the final resting place for the thousands of young men who lost their lives on the beaches of Normandy, France during World War II, the earlier generation of Americans whose final resting place is in Flanders Field or America's own Arlington National Cemetery, where veterans of every American war lie in their final resting place across the river from the nation's capitol; the emotions that are invoked are the same. The white marble cross--and occasional Stars of David-- headstones are etched with the names, home state, rank and date of death. For an organization where rank matters, death serves as the great equalizer with the fallen systematically buried in perfect military precision regardless of the stars and stripes on their uniforms with officers lying next to the enlisted, Christians next to Jews, young men barely out of boot camp next to veterans of several wars. It is impossible to visit a military cemetery and not feel humbled. These are truly solemn grounds.

Luxembourg American Cemetery
Given all of this, it made perfect sense for us to visit the Luxembourg American Cemetery located just outside of Luxembourg City during our recent visit to this little Grand Duchy. The cemetery is the final resting place of General George S. Patton Jr. and 5,075 other soldiers, most of whom lost their lives during the infamous Battle of the Bulge during the final days of World War II. The cemetery is set on 17 acres of meticulously manicured grass--which even in the middle of the winter appeared green. It was established in December of 1944 and dedicated in 1960 as a tribute to all who had lost their lives. The cemetery includes a chapel, fountains and memorial pylons depicting troop movements through the region and the names of 371 men who were lost in action during the battles. With the American flags flying proudly over the grounds it is a fitting tribute to the men who fought and gave their lives in the name of freedom. But as I soon realized, not all military cemeteries are created the same.

The gravestone of four German soldiers killed during
the Battle of the Bulge
Located just a mere couple of kilometers down the road from the American cemetery lies the Sandweiler German War Cemetery. Here 10,931 German servicemen lie in double or even triple graves with a single squat, dark head stone marking the names of up to six soldiers buried beneath. Over half of these graves were dug and the bodies buried by the neighboring American War Graves Service who was simultaneously establishing the Luxembourg American Cemetery. After the war, an agreement was reached between the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg and the Federal Republic of Germany to move German soldiers who were buried in 150 smaller cemeteries throughout the country and to reinter them into a single burial ground. In 1955, ten years after the conclusion of war, the dedication ceremony was attended by over 2,000 relatives of the dead. The site also contains a memorial plaque listing the names of each buried and missing soldier.

Inside looking out at the entrance to the Sandweiler German
War Cemetery
The contrast between these two cemeteries couldn't be more different. Whereas the entrance to the American cemetery is open and airy, the German cemetery lies across a small moat and at the end of a narrow and heavily shaded path. Even without knowing the history I would have had the sense of walking towards defeat as I approached the entrance. After walking through the narrow doorway of a low stone building housing a tiny chapel visitors step into a sea of squat dark crosses sitting amongst unkempt grass. The mood is definitely solemn in a way that is completely different than the humbling yet airy environment of the neighboring American cemetery. I was immediately struck by the fact that the face of each grave marker bore the
A portion of the commemorative list of
Germany's dead
names of two or three soldiers and to my further surprise the back of each stone revealed an additional two or three names. This compact space contains twice as many graves as the American cemetery yet sits on a plot of land half of the size.

The stark differences in these two burial grounds made me think long and hard about how a country, especially a defeated one, mourns and honors their dead. Both are solemn places of remembrance and reflection and are worth visiting when you find yourself passing through Luxembourg. Don't visit one without stopping at the other because each experience only deepens the meaning of what the other one.

If you go:

Luxembourg American Cemetery
50 Val du Scheid
Luxembourg (Hamm)
+352 43 17 27
Open daily from 09.00-17.00 every day except for Christmas and New Years Day
Free Admission

Sandweiler German War Cemetery
Rue d'Itzig
Sandweiler, Luxembourg
+352 35 50 07
Free Admission

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