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The Soviet Field of Honor in the Netherlands—The Missing in Action Return
For the past eighteen years, Dutch journalist Remco Reiding has been searching out relatives of the 865 Soviet prisoners-of-war who are buried at the Soviet Field of Honor memorial cemetery in Leusden, not far from Amersfoort. After years of painstaking work he has so far managed to find the families of 199 Soviet soldiers who were thought to be missing in action. A correspondent from Russkiy Mir spoke with Remco Reiding about this work and how it has changed his life.
Remco Reiding has been awarded the title of knight in his native Holland, and in Russia he has received an award from the Ministry of Defense and the gratitude of the Russian President. Russia has become a major part of his life. He speaks Russian beautifully, and Remco named his son Dmitry in honor of a family member he found: the son of the Soviet soldier Vladimir Botenko, who was buried at the Field of Honor.
A Source of Life
“For me this cemetery is always becoming less a place of sorrow and more a source of life,” writes Remco Reidingin his book A Child of the Field of Honor. “If at first I saw these Soviet soldiers as anonymous corpses from a faraway land, now they have come to life on account of the photographs and stories of their relatives, whom I succeeded in finding. They all took on faces of their own. I made them into people, just like you and me, with their own histories and fates, with families who didn’t know for more than fifty years what happened to their beloved husband and father.
– You went a long way…
– I can’t believe it myself! This is my whole life’s work. Of course, I can’t say that I couldn’t live without it, but the Soviet Field of Honor will always be part of my life. I dedicated so many years to it, so much work, so much energy! I have a family that I wouldn’t have if I hadn’t started working on finding the relatives of these soldiers. At this point, I’m probably not a sports writer so much as a professional researcher.
– But you’ve worked in Russia as a correspondent for many years.
– But this is itself a result of my searches. People think that I was working in Russian and occupied myself with Soviet soldiers buried in Holland as a result. In actual fact, when I started making these searches, my life wasn’t connected to Russia at all. It was a faraway country that I didn’t know much about.
I went to Russia for the first time as an exchange student. Being a young journalist, I thought that it would be interesting to be there for a bit, to understand what was happening there, and to verify for myself that there weren’t bears walking down the streets. We were also able to go to New York. But I figured that I could go to New York whenever I wanted, but if I didn’t go to Russia now there was no way I would ever make it there. Now it’s eighteen years later and I’ve still never been to New York.
When I returned from this trip, the editor of the news department of the Amersfoort Herald, where I worked in the sports section, Alex Engbers (the current chairman of the Soviet Field of Honor foundation—Author’s Note), heard me sharing my impressions and told me about the forgotten burial ground for Soviet prisoners in Leusden. He asked me if I wouldn’t like to find out a little bit about these Russians. I was born in Amersfoort and grew up here. I knew that the city was somehow tied to the war, but I didn’t know that there was a large Soviet cemetery here or that none of the relatives of these 865 Soviet soldiers knew anything about it.
– In your book A Child of the Field of Honor you tell the story of your research, recreate the path walked by these Soviet prisoners, depict terrible images of life in the prison camps, and recount the story of who those buried at the Field of Honor died—but you also write very openly about yourself as well.
– The Field of Honor gave me a purpose in life. What’s more, the theme of “dead Russians” isn’t very popular in Holland. It’s not sports or sex. I understood that if I wrote about myself and how my life was changed, that would make it easier to read.
This project has changed me greatly. I grew up with a mother who died when I was sixteen, and in a way I can understand what it’s like to grow up without a dad, so I empathize with the children and grandchildren I’ve been able to find. But I knew what happened to my father, and they don’t. I want to tell them the truth about their dads or granddads. Life has one logical ending: death. Afterwards, mourning begins, and this is the first step toward working through the feeling of sorrow and living on. But “missing in action” is total uncertainty. How many women refused to believe that they had become widows and didn’t try to create new lives for themselves? How many people spent decades afraid to light a candle for the souls of the deceased?
The daughters of these soldiers, who are grandmothers already, go to the graves of their mothers after their trip to Holland and tell them (their gravestones) that they saw dad’s grave—the grave of her husband—and carried there a handful of earth from the mother’s grave, and brought back some earth for her… One of these daughters told me at the grave of her father that now she and his soul were both at peace, and now she could pass away! We keep up correspondence with the relatives of these 199 soldiers. I can say that thanks to this work I have not one but two hundred families. It’s an incredible feeling.
I wanted for people to understand what I do and why I do it. I’m very happy that almost all of the responses are positive. This story is really a very difficult one. By the way, not long ago the sixth edition of the book came out in Dutch. (The first was in 2012, in honor of the 70th anniversary of the war’s end; the book has been translated into Russian.—Author’s note) I’m using the money I made from this book on new research. This is logical. After all, this searching isn’t a hobby. I really hate the word “hobby.” What is a “hobby”? This is a moral duty.
– You have been dealing with these Soviet soldiers for 18 years and spent eight years in Russia. You have a Russian wife and a half-Russian son. Does Russia occupy a large space in your life?
– My wife and I have separated. But of course, Russia has become a part of my life: there I found love, friendship, and interesting journeys. But not everything is good in Russia, in my opinion. I also see minuses. When I worked there as a correspondent, there were also rather unpleasant moments. For instance, I was in Beslan at the time of the tragedy. Of course, this is the kind of thing you can’t forget.
– Your son grew up as practically a child of the Field of Honor. How does he feel about this?
– (Laughs)… Dima says: “There you go with the war again…Why are you always thinking about the war?” But he’s at a very peculiar age right now, 14, and so he’s against everything. And when I told him that he needs to get up at five in the morning to place candles at the gravestones of the executed Soviet prisoners, he didn’t react very positively at first. But then he understood that it’s important and moving. He was proud that his father organized it all, and he helped me out a lot.
This is what Remco calls those who lie in the Soviet Field of Honor. We walk along even rows of graves. Today, there’s no one here but us, and everything is much different than it will be on 9 May, when Russian compatriots from all over Netherlands will come here with portraits of their grandfathers and great-grandfathers who fought in the war, as well as official delegations of representatives from Russia and the CIS and Allied countries, and there will be many flowers, solemn speeches, and a requiem. Now, the silence is broken only by the rustle of the wind and singing of birds.
The Soviet Field of Honor was officially opened in Amersfoort on 18 November 1948. Originally, 101 Soviet soldiers were buried there, all of whom had died at the Amersfoort concentration camp. The majority of them were from Uzbekistan. According to the testimony of former prisoners-of-war and camp guards, the Germans brought them here on 27 September 1941 to convince the Dutch to join their side in the battle against the Russian untermenschen (“inferior people” in German), but when they saw the starved and exhausted prisoners, the Dutch embraced them with sympathy. 77 prisoners from this group were executed on 9 April 1942, and the rest died from starvation, sickness, and abuse. They were all buried in the first two rows of the Field of Honor as unknown Soviet soldiers.
Later other Soviet prisoners-of-war were transferred to the Field of Honor, transported by Americans from Germany. The command of the Ninth American Army didn’t want to leave their own fallen soldiers in enemy territory, and they decided to convey the bodies of their own—as well as Soviet, British, and Dutch—soldiers to the Netherlands. They were originally all buried at a single cemetery in Margraten (in the Limburg province). After the Americans decided to build their own memorial there, the remains of 691 Soviet soldiers were transferred to the Soviet Field of Honor. The remains of another 73 Soviet prisoners who died in various parts of the Netherlands also ended up there.
In the prison camps, when they soldiers numbers for identification, the Germans took down their names by ear, making mistakes along the way. There is almost no personal information about the prisoners, although everythingelse was recorded, including the number and appearance of lice. In order to find traces of “his Russians,” Remcoappealed to thousands of archives in various cities of the former Soviet Union, the Netherlands, and Germany and visited all the prison camps and burial sites.
“Here is the grave of Vladimir Botenko, a Crimean soldier who went missing in August 1944. My book is dedicated to the search for his family,” Remco says, indicating a grave in the eighth row, not far from the entrance. “Here stood his son Dmitry Botenko. It was the very first relative I managed to find after year-and-a-half of searching.”
Vladimir Botenko died of tuberculosis in a German military hospital in May 1945 after the prison camp in Hemer, where he was kept, had been liberated by the Americans.
“And here’s Pyotr Koval, also from Crimea,” continues Remco, indicating another grave.
When Pyotr Koval left for the front, he and his wife Galina stopped the clock. During the war, Galina buried her son and daughter, and Pyotr never found out that she was born. Galina waited for her husband until her death, and when she died she asked for the clock to be placed in the casket along with her.
“And this is Minin—whom we still haven’t found. I don’t even know what to do. He’s from Novgorod, but there’s nothing about him there. Here’s Ivan. Where to look for someone named simply Ivan?
On many of the grave markers I see only first names—“Ivan,” “Georgy,”—and no last names or dates of birth and death.
“And here lies Lev Petrov. That’s all that was known about him. Well, thank heaven it’s not just ‘Ivan,’ but all the same this isn’t enough to find his relatives. Or more generally, to understand who he is. But I know that he’s Lev Sergeevich, born in 1919, from Saint Petersburg. I know who his mother was and where they lived. But unfortunately, we didn’t find anything more than that. That means, most likely, his relatives aren’t alive, or only distant relatives remain. But how to find them with a surname as common as Petrov?
“And here’s Svetkin from Moldova, Kononov from Krasnoyarsk. You see that I already know this by heart. They are all family to me by now. Khodyakov from Kamensk-Shakhtinsk (in Rostov). Fedorchenko from Balaklava (Crimea)…”
The relatives of “his Russians” live in Vladivostok and in Smolensk, in Syktyvkar and in Uzbekistan, in Georgia and in Belarus.
“Of course, it would have been easier if they all lived in one house,” says Remco. “But unfortunately, that isn’t the case. They all came into captivity from various regiments and units. There are many soldiers from Tula, Moscow, Bryansk, Smolensk. But 95% of the search is done already. There aren’t that many archives left that could help. The majority of them [indicating the graves with his hand] are unknown Soviet soldiers. I identified four, and even that’s a miracle. Even if nothing more comes out of it, I know that I did everything that I could. But I hope that it’s not completely over yet.”
The Living Need This
Every now and then Remco receives a message. Responding to the latest, he explains:
“This is the nephew of one of the soldiers. He’s from Vologda. He’s coming on 3 May. On that day we will place flowers and photographs of the soldiers in the cemetery. It all has to be organized. On 9 May representatives of the embassies of Russia and the CIS countries will lay flowers by the obelisk. In May another of my books is supposed to come out, but not everything’s ready yet. We need to prepare a presentation, press releases, and so forth. I still don’t know how we will organize all of it.
“We founded the Soviet Field of Honor foundation in order to have the opportunity to engage in research, organizing trips for relatives to their loved ones’ graves, and everything connected with supporting the living memory of these persons. This includes, for instance, the photographs that we are placing on the grave on 3 May, my book and its translation, our website, and the documentary film we shot.
“On 9 April we had a memorial event not far from here, where 77 Soviet soldiers, all of whom are now buried in the Soviet Field of Honor, were executed in 1942. A memorial has been installed there. Four years ago, on 9 April, the day of their execution, we went there to honor their memory. There were three of us; we came with candles. We didn’t plan an “event.” We simply invited a photographer and then published the photographs. It got a lot of responses. The following year other people wanted to join us. And this year, there were 250 people, the mayor of Amersfoort, the Russian ambassador, and national television. It was very beautiful. We go early in the morning, at 6:30, when it’s still dark and the candles are lit… We have a very small organization. Of course, we’re all volunteers.”
– You have a program called “Adopt a Grave.” What does it involve?
– These graves have always been forgotten, and we wanted to change this situation. In the end, we understood that if we could find 865 people who wanted to take responsibility for one grave each, then all these 865 deceased soldiers wouldn’t be forgotten. People make a voluntary yearly contribution of 50 Euros. These funds don’t go to preserving the graves—this is a government matter, for which money is set aside—but to the research work and to securing the funds for bringing the relatives we find to the Netherlands. Now more than 400 graves are under custodianship in this way. Of course, this gives us funds that we can use for our work. This is a good outcome, but at the same time it means that there still remain just as many graves that haven’t found someone to take care of them. And these funds aren’t enough. But the Dutch government helps us and in recent years the Russian embassy has given aid. And I think that’s right.
– Who primarily adopts these graves?
– Many local residents, but also a lot of people who simply heard my story or watched a TV program or are somehow connected to Russia. Among them there are also Russians who live in the Netherlands—about 30 of them.
– Out of four hundred?!
– On 9 May many people will gather here, and they all say that we’re such heroes, but the other 364 days a year I don’t see or hear them. I think that’s strange. 80 thousand Russians live here, if each of them gave up one minute of their time or one Euro, we could get along with our work quite well.
– Do you receive help from the Russian government or other Russian organizations?
- I’ve always felt that my activity would have resonance. But we have only started to receive real help in the past few years. We are very grateful. But so far, it doesn’t allow us to do more than what we have already accomplished. The Russian government was ready to help, but when we started resolving these issues at the highest level, there began to be all this political tension between the Netherlands and Russia, and everything came to a halt. Maybe now it would be possible somehow to start afresh and think up a way to continue this work together. If we want to continue our work at a high standard, we can’t do this without help from Russia. And we are ready to talk about this. After all, what I’m doing for those who lie in the Soviet Field of Honor is not a political matter, but a humanitarian one.