Speech by Frans Timmermans at Margraten
In the first weeks of November 1944 the Railsplitters, as 84 Division was known, arrived here at Gulpen, only a few miles from were we are standing today. In their ranks, 334 inf reg, Pfc Leo Lichten from Brooklyn, New York. Within a few days after arriving here, they were sent into battle, just across the German border, in Geilenkirchen. It was a very fierce battle indeed, since the Germans were determined to defend this Siegfried Line stronghold. They even put crack SS troops to the task.
Only a few weeks earlier, the Railsplitters had left the United States and they had not been in a combat situation before. But they demonstrated determination and courage and conquered Geilenkirchen within a few days, shocking an enemy who had underestimated these inexperienced but unrelenting soldiers.
Great sacrifices were made, also by Leo Lichten, who was killed in action on November 20. He was denied the possibility to live life’s full circle, to continue working on his dreams, to see the aging of his loved ones or to experience the incredible joy of having children and grandchildren. His remains are here, amongst more than 8000 of his brethren. My family and I are honored by the opportunity to take care of his grave. All the graves at Margraten have been adopted by mainly Dutch citizens, an expression of our everlasting gratitude and our determination to keep these memories alive.
Dear Leo, you and your brethren fought to conquer tyranny and bring freedom to Europe, where more than 100,000 American heroes are now buried. You gave your lives in places like Geilenkirchen, Gouvy and Huertgenwald. Thanks to your sacrifice, today Europe is more united, more free, more peaceful than any time in history. Our countries have been friends and allies ever since you were laid to rest here and your success endures, because exactly 20 years ago we put an end to Europe's old Cold War divide. Almost all European countries are now free and flourishing. Freedom and democracy are on the rise everywhere, sometimes against daunting odds.
Yes, we want to make your sacrifice matter. It was Oliver Wendell Holmes who said that “we (should) not ponder with sad thoughts the passing of our heroes, but rather ponder their legacy – the life they made possible for us by their commitment and pain.”
You never fought for empire, for territory, for dominance -- but like many, many Americans you gave your life for freedom. As we stand almost ten years into the new century you never saw, but did so much to guarantee for us, far from fading into the past, your sacrifice is paving the way to our future. It is your legacy that commands our unwavering joint commitment to freedom. That is why we know that freedom will prevail, that democracy will overcome today’s and tomorrow’s challenges both at home and overseas.
Abraham Lincoln, in his memorable dedication of the Gettysburg battlefield in 1863 spoke of the inadequacy of words at occasions such as these: “The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here.”
Leo, the eloquence of words cannot match the power of the sacrifice made by you and your band of brothers. We honour you. We praise you. We remember you.
In the immortal words of Walt Whitman:
The moon gives you light,
And the bugles and the drums give you music,
And my heart, O my soldiers, my veterans,
My heart gives you love.