The world is celebrating the 70th anniversary of the victory of the allied forces in World War II. And this means a lot especially for Russian people. This is a very special day…
Remco Reiding: Absolutely, and I has everything to do with more than 26 million of war victims in the former Soviet Union, something we tend to forget in the West, because we were liberated by Americans, Canadians, British, so the role of the Soviet Union is sometimes forgotten. But that is one of the reasons I think it’s very important that there is a book now about Soviet soldiers in this case Soviet soldiers buried in the Netherlands.
Why “Field of Honor”? Of course people don’t know what this refers to.
Remco Reiding: It’s a cemetery, where 865 Soviet war victims have been buried in the center of the Netherlands. And it was created because during the war in this town, my home town of Amersfoort there was a concentration camp where 101 soviet soldiers were sent to. These were mostly soldiers from Uzbekistan, so they had Asiatic look, they were very poorly dressed, they didn’t get any food during transport to this camp in the Netherlands and their fate in the camp was also terrible – all 101 died in Amersfoort. And the idea then was that we as Dutch people, as you could say brotherly, friendly people to the Germans, from the same branch of peoples. And they had that crazy idea that the Dutch would choose the German side, if we would see what kind of ‘Unter-menschen’ a kind of lower kind of people Soviet soldiers were. And this propaganda was actually meant to make us change sides and fight against Bolshevism.
Do we know at what stage of the war, what year concentration camp was set up there?
Remco Reiding: Yes, this story starts in 1941. Those soldiers arrived only a couple of month after the camp opens. And by then the population was only Dutch or mostly Dutch and most of the prisoners were actually Dutch communists, because they have been resisting the German occupation from the beginning, and they were arrested after the start of operation Barbarossa – the attack on the Soviet Union. And the idea is probably that the communists were meant to be shown what kind of bad people they were supporting. That was an unrepeatable propaganda campaign, because they brought prisoners all the way from Smolensk to a country in the West. So they were in cargo trains for two weeks before they arrived in Amersfoort.
It’s interesting that you mention this, because so many people I’ve been talking to here in Russia don’t understand how is it that there were concentration camps in such odd places? Now we understands why.
Remco Reiding: That is one of the reasons. Actually after the war Amersfoort was chosen as a meeting point a collection point for other Soviet soldiers buried in the Netherlands. And most of those soldiers actually also ended up in the West, in Germany, but still the west of Germany, where many Prisoner-Of-War camps were and a lot of forced labors were, because there were mines, there were factories – that is why they sent those Soviet soldiers, prisoners of war to the west of Germany, so they could work there. And unfortunately they died of illnesses and ended up in the Netherlands as well.
In that particular camp they all died towards the end of the war or else?
Remco Reiding: No, the first group, 24 of them died within half a year, because they were treated very badly and the other 77 they were hardly alive – but they decided to tell them that the climate was not right for them and they would be transported to France, but in fact they were transported 500 meters further – where they were executed in groups of four, which is a huge war crime, by the way, you cannot just shoot POW without any court decision. And it’s also the second biggest massacre in the Netherlands, and therefore it’s a group that should not be forgotten.
Was that something that became known immediately after the war or a whole period of time had to pass before it actually surfaced?
Remco Reiding: Yes, it was known right after the war. It was not covered up at all – they tried to prosecute everyone who was involved and they managed to for a big deal of them. Some were not alive or not caught right away. But the later commander, at that moment he was actually lowest in rank, and he did many things wrong during the next years – he was executed after the War, and mainly because of the execution of these 77 Soviet soldiers.
How did your interest and your involvement actually start, I believe you were journalist at that time?
Remco Reiding: You could say I was a student of Journalism; I was already working for a local newspaper, the one in my home town, and I got the opportunity in an exchange program with the possibility to go to New York. But I thought that New York is the place I will visit one day – so let’s go to Moscow. I had no connection to Moscow at that time, and as a student of Journalism I was very curious. And I can tell you now that it’s been 17 years, and I’ve never ever been in New York. I’ve lived in Moscow for 8 year.
What was your first impression of Moscow?
Remco Reiding: That first impression changed my life, I was very much impressed by Moscow and it seemed to be completely different world with positive and negative sides, but still I was impressed. That was 1998. It was a difficult time, but also a bit crazy time, wild time… I was a 21 year old student. And I fell in love with the city, but not only the city – that’s how it goes. And I came back in the Netherlands – and that’s how it started. They told me you are crazy about Moscow, about Russia, you have an interest, you’re curious, you’re young, you have all the time in the worlds, because you are a student, we don’t have to pay you – so maybe then go and investigate those Russian graves that we have. So the idea to investigate those graves came from the local newspaper. It was an old idea. The idea was also very vague, because they did not tell me it was a complete cemetery, they didn’t tell me how they ended up there, they didn’t tell me who they were. The only thing they told me – was: “We have Russian graves and they are kind of forgotten”.
What was the cemetery like at the time? Were there gravestones?
Remco Reiding: Yes. It’s absolutely amazing that those graves were forgotten, because it’s a complete cemetery, it’s next to the entrance of the general cemetery, there are individual graves and they are very well taken care of by the Dutch government. However none of the relatives of those 865 soldiers have ever been traced. So you can imagine the cemetery is already a place of death, and if no relatives come to put flowers, it’s even more and easier to become a place of death and of forgotten soldiers. My task was to give this forgotten cemetery a face, to trace relatives of those soldiers – that was the idea.
Did your heart ‘warmed’ to the project immediately?
Remco Reiding: Yes, but there was certain development and motivation, because my first motivation was curiosity, which is normal for anyone and certainly for a 21 year old student of journalism. And the second thing – it was a challenge, ambition. I had difficult years, my mother have died and I felt kind of lost in the world and here I saw a project that could help me also do something special, and mean something in life. Then of course I realized I was not looking at stones but I was looking at people, people of my age that fought in the war that they hoped never to fight, people who were buried thousands of kilometers from home. And their families didn’t know. I felt it was a moral obligation for all of us, and for me to investigate and try to inform the relatives.
How did you start, what was the first thing you were able to do?
Remco Reiding: It started with that first group and those Uzbek soldiers, but already pretty soon I found out that they have all been buried as unknown soldiers, because the Germans had destroyed the administration. I understood that this group is not the group with the biggest chance of success. So I started to find out where did the others come from, how did they ended up in Amersfoort and after about one and a half years of searching the archives finally I found out additional information that helped me to identify soldiers, because the name is not enough. With this information I was able to start tracing relatives.
What kind of response you got when you made the enquiries?
Remco Reiding: It’s hard to give an answer, because in the end archives are not archives, its human beings working there and most of them understand. And they find a way if it’s not within the rules directly to help. And sometimes there are human beings that don not understand, do not care and they don’t help, and you find those human beings in Germany. And then I try to explain that it’s not about me or about them – it’s about helping people who have been without news about their relatives for 50, 60 now already 70 years. This emotional appeal often helps, maybe it’s needed a bit more in the Netherlands and Germany than here, because here every family understands what the war has done to a regular family.
Did you ever think your project was an example for someone else to follow in other countries?
Remco Reiding: It’s a bit difficult to find similar situations; it’s a bit unusual that there are Soviet graves in the West, because the Soviet army was fighting in the east. However, Germany is full of such graves, and it would be great if the German society also takes part in tracing relatives. In Belgium there are certain people having similar situations. In Russia there are many people the so-called ‘searchers’, who are searching in the woods and fields for remains of soldiers.
Any particular story, any emotional part of it?
Remco Reiding: All 865 for me they all are evenly important, but the story I tell in my book is very important for me – it’s the first family I traced and it’s also the son of the soldier Vladimir Botenko – his son Dmitry, he was the first ever to visit the cemetery. I was lucky also to receive his photograph, so we now know how the family looks like. And I managed to get a lot of information about his life; I visited his place of birth, the house he was living in, the house he built himself just a year before he had to go to the front. It was very emotional for me. Now we have our own child of the ‘Field of Honor’ and we named him Dima, after Dmitry the first traced relative. My life will always be connected to this story.
Do you something to sum up for the people around the globe marking this great anniversary? What should they not forget?
Remco Reiding: Let me answer it for us… We have started a program called ‘Grave adoption’, we ask people to adopt a grave to adopt a soldier, and by doing this we try to find 865 people who want to do this. By doing this we want to preserve the memory of each soldier. I think such initiatives can take place everywhere. And if one person takes care of a soldier, then all of them will not be forgotten.