HEIDELBERG, Germany - German citizens observed Volkstrauertag, literally people mourning day, Sunday. The day is a national day of mourning for those who died during World Wars I and II.

Every year since the end or World War II - 63 years ago - the citizens of DAfA1/4hren, a small town south of Sinsheim, have gathered to honor the 51 men from their town who died in World War II, along with 25 missing.

Also among those remembered are 13 German soldiers who died April 2, 1945 - Easter Monday - in defense of the town against American Soldiers of the 397th Infantry Regiment, who were clearing towns on their march toward Heilbronn.

Between April 1 and 3, 1945, 21 Americans died in the Sinsheim area, just more than a month before the German surrender on the western front May 7.

On Sunday, the citizens of DAfA1/4hren chose to remember the American sacrifice as well as their own.

To do so, they asked if a U.S. Army chaplain could speak at an ecumenical church service followed by a memorial service and an unveiling of a memorial plaque at the village's war graves site.

Chaplain (Lt. Col.) Joel Harris, operations chief, U.S. Army Europe Chaplain's Office, came out to speak on behalf of the Army.

As the church bells rang, people filed into the small Nikolauskirche, filling the rows of pews from front to back.

The service was opened up with organ music from the second floor balcony, followed by an organ-accompanied gospel duet performed by Perry Blake and Sandra Salm. The organist, Patty Harris, wife of Chaplain Harris, accompanied the duet during an a cappella song as well.

The service continued with songs sang in both German and English, scripture reading of the beatitudes (Matthew 5:2-10) delivered in both languages and a sermon by Harris translated into German.

Harris opened his sermon in German, and apologized for his limited German before making a joke that he wasn't used to speaking from such an elevated pulpit.

He thanked the citizens of DAfA1/4hren for honoring the Soldiers and for their commitment to freedom.

He said the plaque they had placed represents the sacrifice made by allied forces from many nations were willing to make for freedom.

"Our collective presence demonstrates our collective commitment to remember those who have gone before us," Harris said, "... to ensure the purpose for which they fought is never forgotten."

During an intercession prayer, Pastor Dietmar Coors spoke about the opportunity to further peace on earth by gathering with a former adversary, who is now a partner.
At the memorial ceremony that followed the church service, DAfA1/4hren Mayor Walter Zahn, spoke about Volkstrauertag as a day of sorrow, remembrance and mourning for all who fell victim to war.

Through a translator, Zahn said the German citizens "must never forget the insanity of extremism ... the guilt our nation bears today is greater than 30 years after the war."
Today, "the readiness to use force is a worldwide threat ... it has become part of normality," Zahn said referencing the terror attacks in America, Madrid, London and suicide bombings in Israel and Iraq.

Noting the more than 200 armed conflicts since World War II, Zahn said, "The past has not past despite our attempts to ignore it."

Focusing on the day at hand, Harris said," On this day DAfA1/4hren is a place of peace. On this day DAfA1/4hren is a place of honor. On this day DAfA1/4hren is a place of forgiveness. On this day DAfA1/4hren is a place of healing."

The Volkstrauertag in DAfA1/4hren Sunday was a day to remember the "darkest days of German history," said Sinsheim Mayor Rolf Geinert. "This stone (memorial) is a very good start to work toward freedom and peace."

Geinert was then interrupted by two protestors exercising their freedoms, who quickly left after voicing their opposition to the memorial plaque.

In German, Geinert said the American Soldiers have created freedom in our world, freedom in our nation, freedom in our city and freedom in our families.

"The American Soldiers are part of our history," Zahn said. "From this day forward, we will remember them."

(Editor's Note: Jason Austin writes for the USAG Baden-Wuerttemberg newspaper, the Herald Post.)