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Remco Reiding: “Unearthing names of Soviet solgiers is a basic human decensy."

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Remco Reiding: “Unearthing names of Soviet solgiers is a basic human decensy."

12.11.2021

Vladimir Emelianenko

The head of The Soviet War Cemetery Foundation (Stichting Sovjet Ereveld) from the Netherlands Remco Reiding has been taken care of the war memorial near Leusden and Amersfoort for more than twenty-five years. There are 865 Soviet prisoners of war and victims of Nazi concentration camps buried in the Rusthof Memorial Cemetery. More than 700 of them are still considered to be missing.

Remco Reiding has been to Russia more than once. This time he came because of the first digital textbook on the search for missing persons from World War II, the Almanac GenExpo. We talked about how he had managed to recover 164 names of Soviet soldiers buried in the Rusthof Memorial Cemetery, and how the search for missing persons changed his life.

Volunteers bring flowers to the graves of Soviet soldiers. Rusthof Memorial Cemetery. Photo credit: The Soviet War Cemetery Foundation/Facebook

- I'm used to the fact that when I come to Russia, I start the conversation by talking about the Soviet War Cemetery (Stichting Sovjet Ereveld) memorial complex. It was opened in 1948 to commemorate the 865 soldiers buried there. These are Russians, Kazakhs, Ukrainians, Yakuts, Uzbeks, Belarusians, Armenians, and sons of other peoples of the USSR. They died either in captivity or in a concentration camp near Amersfoort. It is true that officially the memorial is in the city of Leusden, but the Soviet soldiers cemetery belongs to both cities.

I was told by the Russian Military Historical Society (RMHS) that you had been able to recover 164 names out of 865. How did you manage that?

– I would like to note that some of the names or just surnames can be found on the gravestones. They, as well as data from local archives, served me as a source of information. The data from European archives also help in the search. I worked a lot in Berlin (Germany) - in the Bundesarchiv.

At first, I managed to find the names of eight soldiers. Then, the search was at a standstill (I did not know back then that some of the lists had to be searched in the US archives), so I persuaded the local authorities to exhume the graves without inscriptions. We exhumed 15 graves at Stichting Sovjet Ereveld. They were the graves of those soldiers only whose relatives were found. However, there was doubt as to whether they were them. Out of the 15 DNA tests, eight showed nearly 100 percent matches with relatives. I do not yet have the DNA of the other seven soldiers because their relatives have not been found. It is not yet known exactly who these soldiers are, where they are from or what their names are. Finding out everyone's names is a human way. The archives will hopefully help.

How can a digital textbook on the search for missing persons from World War II, the Almanac GenExpo, help you?

– It already has. There are new contacts and new archives to get in touch with. First, the almanac, albeit virtually, has brought together several search movements, archives, and volunteers from different countries. Second, it led me to the Russian Presidential Academy of National Economy and Public Administration where digital search technologies are worked off, and to the archive of the Russian Ministry of Defense.

We all have the same goal - to reduce the number of missing people without leaving the region of search. I know that not every searcher, let alone a relative of a missing person, can travel from Siberia or CIS countries to the Netherlands, as well as, for example, from Siberia to Smolensk or Rzhev.

The Almanac provides a search toolkit - how to get in touch with archives and work in them remotely. It also guides me through the "traffic light" of complexities - how to avoid getting confused with the terms "regiment" and "battalion", how to understand the intricacies of archival searches, the document flow of Russia, Georgia, Ukraine, or simply the color of shoulder straps and the number of stars on them. It all matters.

Candles in memory of the deceased in the Rusthof Memorial Cemetery. Photo credit: The Soviet War Cemetery Foundation / Facebook

Does the Almanac give you access to foreign archives?

– Oh, that's its value. Its materials are downloaded by up to 10,000 visitors from Russia and about 1,000 from the EU per day. The special value of the new edition is that it includes not only documents from Russian archives and military committees, but also documents from different countries, including the main ones on World War II - in the USA and Germany.

Now I have come across the Prague Archive of the Czech Republic and the US archives. By the way, in your country, they are considered inaccessible to the average citizen, which is a mistake. They are open, it's just that private archives in the USA have a restriction - they allow access to relatives or volunteers authorized by relatives only. By the way, the Almanac gives step-by-step guidelines with translation into Russian and English on how to work in foreign archives.

How did you become involved in the search for the deceased and the recovery of their names?

– Everyone asks me about it. I used to joke that my Russian wife infected me with this affair. Now that we've separated - that happens in life - I realize that playing soccer is interesting, it's also interesting to comment on it, which I did as a journalist when I came to work in Russia. But there are other important things to do as well. So I have finally grown up to them. We have 30 such volunteers, including my son with the Russian name Dmitriy.

Is it true that searchers, when they search, feel as if they are experiencing war themselves?

– Oh, no, it is not. Emotions come when at the cemetery a family member, a daughter, or a son meets the father they thought they'd never find. Then it gets a little uncomfortable: they're silent, but it seems like they're talking. And then you begin to realize that there was a nameless gravestone, and you found a name, and through these people, you understand what a grief the war was.

Remco Reiding (on the left) with a relative of one of the soldiers buried in the cemetery. Photo credit: The Soviet War Cemetery Foundation / Facebook

After the war, Ekaterina Safonova from Siberia did not know what had happened to her father, Arkhip Rudenko, or where he had been for 60 years. And when she found out he had been buried at the Rusthof, she couldn't financially afford the trip for a few more years. When she arrived, there was a feeling that she was face to face with her father, they could not get enough of each other. That's who is going through the war again, while we are mostly sitting in the archives. This is a kind of childhood hardships.

For five years we could not determine the name - Elisbar Chitashvili. They thought that the name "Elisbor" was the surname of the soldier's brother or his namesake, who had been identified earlier and turned out to be from Uzbekistan. But the Georgian Embassy and the archive of the Russian Ministry of Defense helped. We found out that he was Elisbar Chitashaili from Georgia. Now we are waiting for his relatives.

Do you cooperate with searchers in our country?

– As I learned in Russia, searchers are the salt of the earth. That's what they say in your country. We help them, which brings us closer together. Again, I recently heard that the Almanac GenExpo is a navigator for everyone. This is absolutely so. After all, the problem with the global search movement is that exhumations of deceased soldiers are conducted systematically, but the search for civilians or those who were taken prisoners, were in concentration camps, besieged, taken to work in Germany or further to Denmark, Norway, or the Alps, is complicated. Often information about them can be found only in Wehrmacht documents, interrogation materials, and reports from commandant's offices in various countries, which may be kept all over the world. I hope that that the archive of the Russian Ministry of Defense, which is being built in Podolsk, Moscow region, will become a world center for the search of all the missing people without exceptions. And the "digital" unity of people will help to reinforce the horrors of war in memory so as not to repeat them.


Reference by the Russkiy Mir:

The Stichting Sovjet Ereveld Memorial Complex was opened in the Netherlands on November 18, 1948. There were 865 Soviet soldiers who had died in the Netherlands during World War II - in captivity or in a concentration camp near the town of Amersfoort - buried in the Rüsthof Memorial Cemetery. An obelisk, a ten-meter column with the inscription "Glory to the Heroes. To the warriors of the Soviet Army who died in the fight against the German invaders between 1941 and 1945" was installed at the place of their execution.

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