Separated by 6,071 km and nearly 73 years, two strangers meet to remember and honour a fallen soldier…..Let me start from the beginning!
Every two years, grade 7 and 8 students have the opportunity to spend part of March Break with teachers and interested parents on a group tour of the Canadian battlefields of Europe. Ms. Biljetina and I are the teachers who lead the trip. What I’m about to share began after my third battlefield trip, when my grandmother told me the story of her first cousin, Leslie, who died while serving in the Second World War. His body was never recovered and his name is among those of the missing on the memorial at Groesbeek Cemetery in the Netherlands. With my involvement with the Kingsway College School battlefield trip, it meant a great deal for me to be able to visit this site for my family.
Fast forward to March 8, 2015 when I finally had the opportunity to return to Groesbeek Cemetery, but this time it meant much more to me. Upon arrival, I immediately looked for Leslie Roherty in the register, and there in black and white was his name, the division he served in, his place of birth, age, family information and the panel number (10) where his name is engraved. Instantly something came over me. What was I feeling? It is incredible how emotional I felt considering I never knew him. While hard to explain, I felt an undeniable connection to him and it gave me a new appreciation for how difficult it must have been for my cousin Hazel and her family, my grandmother, and other family members when the message was delivered explaining that he would not be returning home from the war. It made me think about all of those families who lost loved ones and how heartbreaking it must have been. I was quite choked up by this experience and decided I needed to write something in the visitor’s log. What does one say? For someone who always has a lot to say, I found myself relatively speechless. In the end, I wrote, “RIP Leslie Roherty” and signed my name, Jenn MacDonald. I took many photos of the register, panel 10 and the cemetery to show to my family. Little did I know that this was just the beginning.
Nearly one year ago, my cousin Mark Roherty received a letter from Alice van Bekkum, president of the Faces to Graves Foundation. Alice received my aunt’s obituary and it listed Mark as her son. From there, she started her search to find the relatives of Leslie Roherty. Last year, my cousin passed along this letter to my grandmother and asked if I had visited Groesbeek Cemetery. Since I had not left my address, Alice was at a loss in her search for information. Finding my cousin was the break that she needed. In the months leading up to our recent 2017 battlefield trip, I got in touch with Alice to let her know that Groesbeek Cemetery was on our itinerary. We were both extremely pleased that we would get to meet each other. All of my family and I were so touched to see that there are people out there like Alice who make it their mission to put faces and stories to these brave souls. They want people to know who they were so we can always remember the sacrifice that they made.
To understand Alice’s motivation, here is some background information on her involvement and the connection with my relative. In 2002, Alice visited her parents’ grave where she discovered one lone Commonwealth war grave in a general cemetery in Gorinchem. On the headstone was the soldier’s name and a date. This piqued her interested and Alice decided to look into it. She found out he was a Canadian soldier who was killed in the battle of Arnhem. After doing further research and speaking with contacts at Liberation Museum, she had a clearer picture of who he was and where his body was discovered. Alice was also in contact with this soldier’s family back in Canada. This story picked up a lot of momentum in the news and this soldier’s family was able to get answers that they waited decades to hear. The connection to my family you ask….this soldier was in the same storm boat as my cousin.
After many emails and text messages, the time had finally arrived for me to meet the wonderful woman who has taken such an interest in my family. When the KCS contingent reached the cemetery, Alice was there smiling and greeting us in the parking lot. She came with poppies for everyone on our tour, a candle to light, and a beautiful homemade heart wreath made of moss from her own garden. Again, I found myself emotional that a complete stranger took the time to prepare all of this for my cousin. We spoke for over half an hour while we walked around the cemetery. As we were leaving, we placed our poppies on the wreath that she made and left it there by Leslie’s name.
There are moments and people in your life that will stick with you forever. Meeting Alice will be one of them for me. Her compassion and dedication are remarkable and very much appreciated by my entire family and me. The work that she and her organization do is significant. We will never be able to thank the thousands of young men and women who gave their lives for our freedom, but with Alice’s help, we will never forget them!
– Jenn MacDonald
Grade 5 Teacher