The people of the Netherlands have never forgotten their powerful ties to the United States
Bart Kohnhorst grew up hearing his parents’ stories of the horrors of Nazi occupation in his native country, the Netherlands. Now he’s sharing a story of gratitude for the Americans who liberated them.
Bart is a Plano resident and owner of a training and business leadership development company. When his parents retired to Margraten, a town in the southernmost part of the Netherlands, he learned of its special connection to the United States.
Located near several key World War II battles – including Ardennes and Operation Market Garden – Margraten was chosen as the final resting place for fallen American soldiers. Originally more than 17,000 U.S. soldiers were buried there; many were later repatriated. Today the graves of 8,301 Americans remain.
“When my parents moved there, I saw how the population considered it a hallowed place,” he said. “There’s a powerful and organic love for the liberators.”
Since 1946, local families have adopted every single American soldier’s grave, and there’s still a waiting list of 100 potential adoptive families. They bring flowers to the graves on birthdays, commemorations or special occasions. About 60 percent have established ties with the soldiers’ families in the United States, and many have pictures of the soldiers in their homes.
“During commemorative events, you will see signs up with pictures of the soldiers that the families have posted on banners posted around town, saying “Meet Col. So-and-so” or “Meet Private So-and-so,” he said. “It’s very touching.”
For Bart, the connection is also personal.
“My grandmother was Jewish,” he said. “She survived but her entire family was wiped out by the Nazis in the concentration camps — Sobibor, Dachau and others.”
He also remembers his mother’s stories of serving in the Dutch resistance as a teen, including some terrifying close calls.
“They had networks bringing pilots that had been shot down back through the lines to return to England,” he said. “She also transported cases of money on the back of her bike to fund the resistance effort.”
His mother survived the “Hunger Winter” of 1944-45, when more than 20,000 people died of starvation in the area of Amsterdam, Utrecht and The Hague. “Her family was eating tulip bulbs, which are poison if you eat too many,” he said. “It was very harsh.”
The Dutch people’s dedication to their liberators never faded. New stories emerge every year. In 2009, a Dutch author published a book about the African-American soldiers buried in Margraten. Some fought in nearby battles; others dug the graves of the fallen soldiers, a horrific and backbreaking task. More than 100 town residents turned up at the local library to hear the author speak.
Several years ago, a Dutch teenager, Sebastiaan Vonk, began collecting photos of the fallen soldiers. So far, some 5,000 have been collected, but about 3,000 are still sought. To help support the project, Bart recently spoke to the Dallas chapter of the Jewish War Veterans.
“I wanted to tell the story of the love for the liberators, but it was also a call to action: let’s find these pictures,” he said. Following his talk, three photos of soldiers from Texas, buried in Margraten, were located. This May, the photos of those fallen soldiers from Texas and across the United States will be displayed alongside each grave when Margraten holds its biennial commemoration.
Bart hopes to speak to more local groups to help find more photos to add to the collection.
“This is a story of appreciation,” he said, “And it’s something that I’d love to tell more.”
Photos of the Netherlands American Cemetery and Memorial in Margraten // courtesy American Battle Monuments Commission:
Hear more of Bart Kohnhorst’s story in Plano Podcast’s April episode, “Troubled Waters.”Plano Podcast > Learn More About Margarten >