Belgium travel: A living remembrance of American World War II sacrifice
November 9, 2011
THIMISTER-CLERMONT, Belgium -- Veterans Day, to Americans, comes once a year. But in this little town in Belgium, it comes once a month.
On the first Sunday of each month, Marcel and Mathilde Schmetz open the doors of the Remember Museum 39-45, a treasure of World War II history housed in a large, converted barn set in the rolling farmland of the Walloon region. The pair gives guided tours in English, German and a handful of other languages to a small group of lucky visitors.
What makes the visitors lucky isn't just browsing the abundance of wartime artifacts, such as tanks, trucks, machine guns, small arms and enough uniforms and gear to clothe and equip more than 100 mannequins, although that alone is impressive and worth the trip.
But what makes the visit special and rare is the museum's living connection with wartime Belgium. You see, Marcel was a seven-year old boy in 1940 when his country surrendered to the Germans. Four years later, he witnessed the U.S. Army's 1st Infantry Division march in and liberate his town.
Marcel's first-hand recollections and conservation of wartime items left behind by both German and American soldiers make this more than a museum: they make it a remembrance site.
"Our aim has, and always will be, to reflect the personal impact of war on those who came to liberate us," said Mathilde, 63, co-creator of the museum. Mathilde speaks four languages and because of this, is the museum's chief spokesperson and tour guide, as well as hostess par excellence.
Their town's liberation in September, 1944 began a defining autumn for Marcel, now 76. Life changed immediately. It went from a normal of food- and freedom-deprivation to a sudden abundance of both, brought by the well-supplied and advancing American troops.
In November, 1944, a 110-man company of American 1st I.D. soldiers bivouacked on his family's farm after fighting in the Huertgen Forest. They stayed for three weeks, and this time Marcel remembers as a "paradise." The food was so plentiful and good, he said, that his mother stopped cooking. American cooks ran her kitchen.
Marcel remembers wonderful daily breakfasts with pancakes, peanut butter and Vienna sausages, hot lunches and dinners, and something different to eat every day. But it wasn't just about the food, said Mathilde.
"The Americans were always extra kind to the children, and to the dogs," he said. "They shared things with us, like new socks, from the care packages they received." He said they also freely gave away another commodity, prized by adults, and which had been scarce during the occupation: cigarettes.
The generosity of these American soldiers, contrasted with the harsh treatment and restrictions during the German occupation, "impressed and forever transformed" the young Marcel, said Mathilde.
The three-week "paradise" ended abruptly when the soldiers, from D Company, 26th Infantry Regiment, were ordered back into fighting as the Battle of the Bulge began.
During this time, two things happened that laid the groundwork for the creation of the Remember Museum, almost fifty years after the war.
One, the 1st I.D. soldiers rushed off to battle, leaving most of their personal items behind. Marcel's family and later Marcel himself kept them stored in a barn out of respect for the soldiers and in anticipation of their return. They remained in the barn for decades, according to Mathilde.
Second, Marcel saw truckloads of the bodies of American soldiers arriving daily at the newly established U.S. cemetery a few fields away from his family farm. During the fighting in the Huertgen Forest, he said, "about 200 dead soldiers a day" were brought to the cemetery to be buried.
Marcel realized then, he said, that so many Americans had given up their lives, an ocean away from their own homes and families, so he, his family and his country, could be free.
Today, the burial site described by Marcel is known as Henri-Chapelle American Cemetery and Memorial, and is located a few kilometers from the Remember Museum. Nearly 8,000 U.S. war dead remain at this location.
The war over, almost fifty years passed before Mathilde, newly married to Marcel, asked him what he planned to do with the vast quantity of left-behind WWII equipment, still in very good condition and still in Marcel's barn.
In 1992, Mathilde had an idea. Encouraged by increased American public interest in WWII due to the approaching 50-year anniversary of D-Day, the pair decided to create their own remembrance site. Their goal was to share their memories of American sacrifice and liberation in order to keep them alive. Together, they renovated the old barn, made mannequins by hand, and built wartime scenes.
The museum had its grand opening in 1994, in conjunction with the D-Day memorials taking place that year in nearby France. 17 members of the original 1st I.D. unit that liberated their town in September, 1944 attended the event as guests of honor, said Mathilde.
At present, the museum contains 102 fully-clothed and equipped mannequins, including a hand-made, full-size Sherman tank. It also has authentic jeeps, trucks and aircraft parts, and more than a dozen dioramas, including combat scenes and scenes of Belgium civilians interacting with both German and American soldiers.
Mathilde said they have plans to build a "Rosie the Riveter" display because, she said, "The ladies, in every war, are not recognized enough!"
The main attraction, however, isn't the gear, or the things you can see or touch. In fact, the museum doesn't even have a gift shop.
What it has are stories, hospitality and the extraordinary thankfulness the Schmetz's continue to express to visitors for the sacrifice American soldiers made on their behalf, nearly 70 years ago. Their energy and enthusiasm for this project humbles many who visit.
For several years, they have hosted -- free of charge -- WWII veteran, war orphans, and more recently, "wounded warriors" from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. After a museum tour, they bring these special guests into their 300-year old home adjacent to the museum and often treat them to local specialties, such as Belgian waffles and Belgian beer.
"We think the Remember Museum is a link between the United States of America and Belgium," said Mathilde. "And we hope that we will be able to accomplish that living mission for many, many more years."
Hours: The Remember Museum 39-45 is officially open the first Sunday of every month. According to Mathilde, those who wish to visit should call first to make an appointment, "just to be sure that we are available, because every visitor has a guided tour, in French, English, German, Flemish or Walloon!" Large groups (over 10 persons) must call first to schedule a tour. "But," Mathilde says, "For the Americans, we always open our doors, even if you are by yourself."
Getting there: the Remember Museum 39-45 sits 15 kilometers inside the French-speaking region of Belgium from Germany and can be accessed by car or taxi. Once inside Thimister-Clermont, follow signs at roundabouts which lead to the museum, which is on a farm, or use GPS navigation. The nearest city in Germany is Aachen, 22 kilometers away.
The Remember Museum 39-45
4, Les Beolles
+32 87 44 61 81
Facebook: Remember Museum '39-'45
Also highly recommended: Visit the Henri-Chapelle American Cemetery and Memorial in nearby Homburg, Belgium (5 kilometers from the Remember Museum.) Nearly 8,000 U.S. war dead from WWII rest at this immaculate and moving memorial site.