Cleanup project honors past, forges friendships
October 10, 2013
HOHENFELS, Germany -- Volunteers from throughout the Hohenfels Military Community joined the Hohenfels German American Kontakt Club in their annual "Make a Difference Day" project of cleaning the Polish prisoner of war cemetery on post, Oct. 5.
Held annually on the fourth Saturday in October, "Make a Difference Day" is the largest community service effort in the nation with over three million people participating worldwide.
The cemetery dates from World War II when Polish POWs from Stalag 383 were interred here, though their remains have long since been repatriated to Poland. The Kontakt Club has been maintaining the cemetery for the past four years.
"When we started we were 20 people, and I thought we were lucky," said Kontakt Club member Edith Vogl. "Last year there was only eight or nine."
Joined this year by the Boy Scouts, Cub Scouts, Girl Scouts, Hohenfels Health Clinic and Soldiers from BOSS (Better Opportunities for Single Soldiers), the number of participants surged to 90.
"Our new American president, Dennis Bartow, motivated a lot of people," said Vogl.
"This cemetery is tangible evidence of a terrible time in history," said Bartow, "and we are here to honor the participants of that time. It's important that we continue to remember them. We owe them that."
Volunteers cut grass, raked up leaves and carted off debris. Headstones thick with moss were scrubbed clean. Despite the hard work, participants felt uplifted by their efforts.
"To me, this is an overwhelming honor, almost to the point of tears," said Kontakt Club member Linda Smith.
Seven-year-old Cub Scout Jase Leible said he was proud to be part of the cleanup effort.
"When I first came out here, it was so dirty, but now it is getting cleaner and cleaner," he said.
Vogl said she feels the annual cleanup is an ideal project for the Kontakt Club.
"The cemetery is part of German history and it's important that Germans help care for it. And it's really nice that the Americans, who freed the POWs, help as well, so we all work together. It's perfect," she said.
Boy Scout Joshua Saxton was instrumental in organizing the various scouting groups that took part in the project.
"I visited DPW and environmental (division) and found out about this cemetery that really needs some work to help preserve it," Saxton said. "So we decided to help out the Kontakt Club and look at maybe putting up some signs to let people know where the Polish cemetery is and some of its history."
Saxton and Girl Scout Brigitte Schnell both wore Polish neckerchiefs with their uniforms as a way to honor the POWs.
"They deserve to be honored, they sacrificed so much," said Saxton's mother, Christine.
One Soldier even stumbled upon a previously buried headstone which the group then uncovered.
"It's on a brick base, so it's one of the originals," said Norbert Wittl, U.S. Army Garrison Hohenfels public affairs officer, noting that the brick bases were replaced with more durable concrete slabs decades ago.
The sense of history was not lost even on the youngest volunteers.
"My dad knows a lot of World War II history, and we go to a lot of World War II places, so it's very important for me to be here today," said 8-year-old Cub Scout J.D. Mayfield.
Along with the honor of preserving a World War II memorial and the pride of giving back to the community, the cleanup provided volunteers with even more rewards.
"We have a lot of new Soldiers in our group and I told them this is a great opportunity to meet the Kontakt Club, who are really friendly people who love to show what's around in the community," said Staff Sgt. Roland Reyes, Hohenfels Health Clinic.
"So, Soldiers get to learn some history, volunteer for the community, and maybe make some new friends with the Kontakt Club," he said.