Soldiers and civilians gathered at the Main Post Cemetery Wednesday for an annual tradition — German and Italian Memorial Day. Originally held on separate days, the memorial ceremonies for the two countries were combined in 2008 at the site where more than 50 former prisoners of war from both nations are now buried.
“The meaning of our ceremony is to recognize our brotherhood and how people are bound to their soldiers,” said Maj. Ulderico Ricci, the Italian liaison officer. “In Italy and Germany, we commemorate our fallen soldiers during this time of year. The reason is that without the sacrifice of our soldiers in the past and the present, we cannot have a free country or a free world. We are here together to honor (their) memory with hope in our hearts and willingness in our minds to not repeat mistakes and tragedies that war brings with it.”
Italians celebrate Nov. 2 as the Day of the Dead and Nov. 4 as National Unity and Armed Forces Day — Giorno dell’Unità Nazionale e Festa delle Forze Armate. Germans remember their fallen on Volkstrauertag, held on a Sunday in mid-November each year. “The Volkstrauertag memorial day is a day of solidarity between generations (and) over borders,” said Lt. Col. Frank Schuster, the German liaison officer. “Fort Benning’s main cemetery shows we all can overcome hostility. These 44 German soldiers died as prisoners of war far away from their homes and families, but they are resting in peace shoulder to shoulder with American Soldiers. “We should use this day as a day against forgetting. This day is a day to remember in silence all the victims of war and violence and to reflect at the same time what we can do these days for peace, freedom, justice and humanity in the world.”
Close to 20 members of the local German-speaking Klub Heimatland, or “homeland,” attended the ceremony. Since the club’s inception in 1974, members have regularly decorated the graves of the German POWs with flowers and flags. “These soldiers should not be forgotten,” said club president Ingeborg Wills. “Since their relatives could not be here to honor them, we do.”
Laura Grant, a native of Italy who came here in 1995 and married an American Soldier, said she and other Italian spouses attend the ceremony in memory of the seven Italian soldiers, POWs from World War II, who are buried in the cemetery.
“We like to support the German Italian Memorial Day every year,” she said. “Their families are far away, so we are the only ones here who can come and pay our respect to them at least once a year. We find that it’s very honorable for (Fort Benning) to still remember them even though at one time we were not friendly.”
Lutz Görgens, German consul general and keynote speaker, said laying the POWs to rest in the post cemetery was “a grand gesture of generosity and reconciliation” on the part of America.
“The legacy of the dead shall be a constant reminder to promote and to preserve peace,” Görgens said. “Here at the grave of American Soldiers and German and Italian POWs of the 20th century, we remember the more than 60 million victims of two world wars. And while we remember the dead, we also hope and pray for the safe return of all the soldiers fighting on this day in Afghanistan, Iraq and other conflict zones in the world. The former enemies who lie here together endowed us with a legacy of friendship. I trust that we live up to this legacy. I trust that we’ll be not only partners in creating jobs and in conquering the space, but friends always.”