Volkstrauertag – German Remembrance Day
Today, I attended the German-Canadian Remembrance Society’s annual German Remembrance Day (Volkstrauertag) service at the Woodland Cemetery in Kitchener, Ontario. Honouring the sacrifices made by veterans on both sides as well as the victims of war, this moving ceremony was attended by representatives of the Federal Republik of Germany, the province of Ontario, the cities of Kitchener and Waterloo, the Canadian Armed Forces, the German Armed Forces, and over a hundred visitors.
The site of the service was aptly chosen. Tucked away in a corner of the Woodland Cemetery lies the final resting place of 187 German Prisoners of War who died in Canada during the First and Second World War. One hundred and forty-eight German PoWs from the Second World War are buried in this cemetery while the remaining thirty-nine were civilian prisoners from the First World War. I must also note here that at least two other PoWs who died in Canada have no known grave and are not commemorated here in Kitchener.
While the Second World War has been over for almost seventy years, the German Soldier’s Cemetery has only been in Kitchener for forty. Initially buried in thirty-six cemeteries scattered across the country, the remains of these men were relocated to Kitchener in the early 1970s in an attempt to bring together all of the prisoners who died in Canada. Today, these men lie side-by-side with their comrades under simple stone gravestones.
Each of these gravestones tells a story. Thirty-three year old Max Neugebauer died on March 16, 1944 in Dauphin, Manitoba after being struck on the head by a falling tree. Major Wilhelm Bach, one of Rommel’s commanders in the Afrika Korps succumbed to cancer on December 22, 1944. Twenty-five year old Johann Schäefer drowned while working at an labour project near Thunder Bay. Erwin Stöckl and Wolfgang Bergter went missing from a labour project in November 1944 and eventually succumbed to the elements. Ludwig Krumb was one of thirteen PoWs to commit suicide while interned in Canada. Ernst Müller was one of four PoWs shot while attempting an escape. Two of PoWs August Plaszek were murdered by fellow PoWs, five of whom were executed and lie in nearby graves.
Of the PoWs who died in Canada during the Second World War, ninety-one died of medical causes, thirty-one were killed in accidents, thirteen committed suicide, six died in escape attempts, five were executed, two were murdered, and two of unknown causes.
The service today reminds us that war has victims on all sides. Like the thousands of Canadians buried overseas, these men now rest a long way from home…
“Der gute Kamerad“
I once had a comrade,
You will find no better.
The drum sounded for battle,
He walked at my side,
In the same pace and step.
A bullet came flying towards us,
Is it meant for me or you?
It tore him away,
He now lays at my feet,
As if he was a part of me.
His hand reaches out to me,
Meanwhile I am reloading.
“I cannot shake your hand,
You must remain in eternal life,
My fine comrade.”