Our neighbor up the street, Pam Rufkahr, had a memorable trip to Europe this month, one that sent her heart back to the Netherlands over Memorial Day weekend. After a barge/biking trip with six friends that began May 3, Pam struck off on her own, traveling from Bruges, Belgium, to Margraten, Netherlands, to visit the Netherlands American Cemetery.
Pam had a mission — to locate the grave of Omar Rufkahr, her father-in-law’s brother who served in World War II, his remains buried at Margraten. A resident of St. Charles, Omar Rufkahr went to boot camp in 1942, returned home and got married. Two weeks later, he was called into service. Rufkahr was killed in a Rhine River crossing in 1945, receiving a Bronze Star and Purple Heart. He died six weeks before the war ended. His widow became a nun.
That’s pretty much all Pam knew about him, but the journey she made, and the information she learned about where he’s laid to rest, has helped her make a connection that spawns decades and distances.
She’s Well Traveled
It’s safe to say that Pam has pluck. A nurse at Mercy Hospital Washington, Pam’s a world traveler and over the years has grown comfortable going solo. With each trip she’s gained confidence. Years ago, she was in London on her way to a Shakespearean play when there was an IRA bomb threat in a tube station she was in. A surgical mission trip to Ghana also was followed by a solo opportunity — Pam extended it by going to Malta, a locale she loved.
Getting to Margraten took some doing. It involved a train change, and once she arrived in Maastricht, a nearby town, she got on a bus, leaving her luggage in a locker. At Margraten she inquired about the location of the Netherlands American Cemetery, but no one seemed to know what she was talking about, which could have been the language barrier, she said. Pam didn’t give up — found her way to city hall, where she got directions and set off walking, the cemetery a little over a mile away.
While she was in city hall, a man overheard her asking about the cemetery and materialized on the road, offering Pam a ride. She was cautious, “sized him up,” and accepted. Pam wasn’t too worried; he was an older gentleman and the people at city hall had seemed to know him.
No Mistakes in Life
What a coincidence to find out he was the chairman of the cemetery’s Adopt-A-Grave program. He explained that the group was begun in 1945 because the Dutch people were “so grateful to the U.S. for saving them from the Nazis.” As a way of showing their appreciation, people adopt a grave, place flowers on it and pray for the deceased. Often families pass down this responsibility from generation to generation, like an elderly woman Pam saw at the cemetery doing just that with her son.
The cemetery was making plans for its annual Remembrance Day, held to honor the deceased soldiers. But the kind gentleman from city hall had time to tell her about the Adopt-A-Grave program and show her where to ask for information about the gravesite.
Another man at the office escorted Pam to Rufkahr’s grave. First, he had to get a bucket of sand though, which confused Pam. She soon found out why.
Each of the graves is marked with a simple white cross, “a living stone,” with no name visible until the sand is rubbed across the surface. With a touch of hand to stone, Omar Rufkahr’s name appeared in this hallowed place, cross after cross arranged in the pattern of a huge arch. It was beautiful, Pam said, gorgeous big trees and profuse rhododendrons in full bloom. The man then placed the American flag on the grave and before he left Pam at the site, suggested she take the flag home.
More Than She Imagined
The experience in Margraten made Pam’s trip one of the best ever. She was shocked at the welcome she received and amazed at how grateful the people of the Netherlands still are to Americans. They “want to honor the dead and keep their memory alive for their families and country.” She explained that the families don’t maintain the gravesites; this is handled by a government commission.
Pam spent a couple of hours at the cemetery to locate the graves of other fallen Missouri soldiers. She found two and hopes to connect with their families. At times, those who adopt the graves get to meet the families of the soldiers — other times, the adoptive families prefer to keep their service private.
On May 16, Pam returned to the United States, tired but exhilarated — in her suitcase she carried the little American flag that the Dutch man had stuck in the soil to mark the grave. That flag will go to Pam’s father-in-law, a cherished gift of a brother lost long ago but not forgotten.