Each year about this time, I collude with a Russian. His name is Miroslav. Our goal is remembrance and peace.
We remember sacrifices beyond what we have known. Our fond hope is that in our tiny way, we are soldiers for peace. Our kin were soldiers who knew fully the horrors of war. A monument in Germany marks where their lives intersected.
So when Memorial Day arrives on Monday, I will think of them and others. Our cemeteries tell stories of people who were born and died, when, sometimes how, sometimes a bit about their life.
“Our Father,” or “Dear Mother,” the tombstones often say. We go to remember much more than what the stones say.
Miroslav sends a note without fail on May 7, the day on the calendar in 1945 when Germany surrendered to end World War II in Europe. “I congratulate you on our victory,” it often says, and then mentions, as I do in reply, “peace.” The translation app between Russian and English rarely creates a smooth sentence syntax, but the meanings are clear.
We will likely never meet.
Miroslav lives in a suburb of Moscow. I am beyond the outskirts of Kansas City. We are in the middle of nations worlds apart.
But our family stories intersect at the former site of Stalag 326 near Paderborn, Germany. On a plain where cavalry soldiers on horses trained in the 1800s, and tanks trained in the early 1900s, a Nazi prisoner of war (and slave labor) camp was operated during World War II.
Many thousands of Russian soldiers died there. It also held some prisoners from various other countries.
Miroslav’s father-in-law was a prisoner who survived Stalag 326. He told stories of the war, and of a monument the prisoners built after the camp was liberated to honor those who died there.
Miroslav started a website with information and photos from his father-in-law.
My father, George Graham, served as a scout in a U.S. Army artillery spotting squad. They went to the front lines and on jumpoffs to call in artillery fire supporting infantry. Somehow, he survived the fighting from France into Belgium, the Battle of the Bulge, and harrowing combat in Germany.
Then the war was over, but not trouble.
Another unit liberated Stalag 326. Food riots broke out, and trouble between liberated prisoners and German civilians started. My father’s unit was called in along with others to keep order.
When Dad finally began talking about the war, he mentioned that he had been a one-man honor guard for a wreath at a ceremony dedicating a monument at a liberated camp. He could not remember the name or place.
I finally found Miroslav’s website with the monument that matched the one in the little black and white photos that Dad brought back from the war. After that, I was also able to find still photos and film of the dedication taken by the U.S. Army Signal Corps.
Here’s a link to the one with Dad that I posted on YouTube. He’s the GI that picks up a wreath to hand the general.
Miroslav and I are very far removed from the people who govern our countries. We are infinitesimal specks in comparison, but somehow our remembrances and friendships do matter in this world, as it does whenever regular people are the same.
Maybe when all who seek peace and unselfish understanding are added together, we matter a lot.
On Memorial Day, when we walk among the markers, may we remember what we can that is sweet. But let us also work toward what so many veterans longed for during the bitterness of war, peace.
Bill Graham, who lives in the Platte City area, may be reached by e-mail at email@example.com.