O P I N I O N
by Roland Binet (Braine-l’Alleud/Belgium)
I happen to live near the town of Waterloo that in June 1815 had been one of the bloodiest battlefields at the time. My wife’s grandfather and my own grandfather fought during four years in the trenches of Flanders during the “Great War.” One of my father’s uncles, a resistance fighter, was captured and beheaded by the Germans during World War II. And for seventeen years I worked with survivors of the Holocaust. I feel a bit acquainted with the significance of wars and victims.
As we approach the bicentennial of the Great War, my wife and I have decided to visit again some of the commemorative monuments, military cemeteries, remnants of trenches or craters, mausoleums, museums, in Belgium and France. Of course my own country – Belgium – has many such remnants of the atrocious military campaigns, battles, fights and coups de main that took place between the German (Hun) invaders, the Belgian army, and the troops of the countries that came to our rescue.
Every time that I visit such places, not only in “Flanders’ Fields” but also in the regions of Artois, Nord et Pas-de-Calais and the Somme in France, I am amazed to see how these places are well-kept, neat, the grass so green, the roses and other lovely flowers in full bloom but, also and chiefly well attended, sometimes even crowded. For example at Thiepval (the Somme/France) there were school classes from England and France with very well informed teachers (I eavesdropped as I am something of a “war buff”) and quite attentive and serious adolescents. And, when, for example, such at the Pozières British Cemetery (in the Somme, in France), I took a look at the visitors’ book, I was astounded to see from how far people had taken the time to pay their tribute to these soldiers’ tombs or mass graves – many of them “soldiers known unto God” (meaning unknown). But, we have to remind ourselves that there were soldiers from far away (Canada, India, Australia, New-Zealand, South Africa, French Africa, Portugal, etc.) who came to our rescue to fight against the Huns.
As far as the British Expeditionary Force cemeteries are concerned, the ground of these places of remembrance and tribute ― such as Tyne Cot in Passendaele (formerly known as “Passchendaele”), Polygoon Wood in Zonnebeke (Belgium), the Pozières British Cemetery (the Somme) ― where the cemeteries are situated and where the tombs and mass graves have been put were retroceded by Belgium and France to the United Kingdom.
These sacred grounds are legally extraterritorial British territories, the upkeep and administration being the sole responsibility of the “Commonwealth War Graves Commission.” When you drive by car on secondary roads through Flanders or Northern France, you can see small plots of military cemeteries sometimes in the very center of agricultural fields. “Corners of foreign fields.” There are similar arrangements with Germany (for example the military cemeteries of Langemark and Vladslo in Belgium or “Maison Blanche” in Neuville-Saint-Vaast in the Artois region in France), the ground on which the cemeteries stand has been retroceded to Germany and the administration lies in the hands of the “Volksbund Kriegsgräbefürsorge.”
There is a well-known poem by Rupert Brooke that was perhapsthe basis of the idea of retrocession of “a corner of a foreign field” in cases when soldiers shed their blood – or died – helping another country against invaders:
- If I should die, think only this of me;
- That there’s some corner of a foreign field
- That is for ever England. There shall be
- In that rich earth a richer dust concealed;
- A dust whom England bore, shaped, made aware,
- Gave, once, her flowers to love, her ways to roam,
- A body of England’s breathing English air,
- Washed by the rivers, blest by suns of home.
After having recently visited such World War One battlefields, cemeteries, monuments and remembrance “corners of a foreign field” in Belgium and France, I had to think of my visits in the preceding years of similar places where a large number of people had had their blood shed, dying in equally horrible but totally different circumstances.
In these remembrance and worship places I visited last year, there was, though, a fundamental difference. These other places to which I refer and of which I think where places where Jews had been slaughtered on a huge scale. Civilians: babies, children, women and sometimes pregnant women, men, old men, elderly. Sick and healthy, able to walk or bedridden, they were forced by brutal armed Germans and local enthusiastic helpers out of the ghettos, out of their homes, or places of habitation where they had been driven and compelled to live in inhuman conditions, transported by trucks or put into long rows. Then, after having been obliged to undress they were put in front of mass pits and killed by bullets. The people responsible for this genocide on a mass scale were German invaders who had systematically transgressed all rules of war and human behavior. And, as we know from historical works and memoirs of Jewish survivors, these murders occurred with the help of Nazi helpers from Latvia, Lithuania, Ukraine, etc.
When I visited Auschwitz-Birkenau, in 1982 and again in 2006, I saw that that sacred ground, administered by the State of Poland, had many visitors, and most of them came from Israel, whole school classes waving the Israeli flag, proudly making their presence felt and reminding us, the Gentiles, that Auschwitz-Birkenau is – and rightly so – an integral part of the Jewish heritage, and of Israel as the legal and moral inheritor of the plight of the slaughtered Jews during World War II. But Auschwitz-Birkenau is administered by the State of Poland and the ground on which the installations stand has not been retroceded to any country, not even to Israel.
Why then doesn’t Israel plead to have these places where the Jews died in mass graves instituted “some corner of a foreign field that is ever Israel’? And why should it not ask for the legal retrocession of these remembrance places, to be able to take charge, be responsible for the administration and the upkeep of those sacred grounds where all or the majority of the victims were indubitably of Jewish origin such as for example in Riga (Rumbula), Vilnius (Ponar), Kaunas (Ninth Fort), and so many other places in Ukraine, Belarus, Russia, Estonia, Poland?
And, to me, Israel has also the moral obligation to encourage its citizens to begin visiting these neglected places of mass murders of the Jews in East European countries, and not solely concentrate its interest, activities and promotion campaigns on just Auschwitz-Birkenau. The fate of the hundreds of thousands of Jews who were slaughtered in these other “corners of foreign fields” are as worthy of attention, tribute and remembrance as those who disappeared in Poland.
 The title of a well-known and publicized poem by John McCrae, written in 1915.
 1887-1915, author of ‘The Soldier’, died April 23, 1915 and buried on a Greek island.