Joek Hulsmann outside his home in The Netherlands

Honoring the Fallen: Memorial Day Employee Tradition Continues Despite Pandemic

May 20, 2020 – The pictures began appearing, slowly at first, in windows around Margraten, The Netherlands, during the weeks leading up to Memorial Day. Usually black and white, they’re photographs of American servicemen and women, killed in World War II during battles to liberate the Netherlands from Nazi Germany. Word spread quickly. Soon the faces of thousands of American soldiers, long dead but never forgotten, peered out from the windows of their Dutch adopters.

Vivian Gadet's window display honors American soldier Robert Fischer, killed in World War II

Vivian Gadet's window display honors American soldier Robert Fischer, killed in World War II

“We can’t visit the cemetery this year because of COVID-19,” said Joek Hulsmann, a Medtronic employee and a driving force behind the effort. “But we won’t let it prevent us from paying our respects to these heroes.”

Like many other countries, The Netherlands is social distancing due to the pandemic. Public gatherings, including Memorial Day services, are cancelled.

“The virus has temporarily hindered our freedom,” said Vivian Gadet, a Medtronic employee who displays a photo of her adopted soldier in the front window of her home. “Not able to go downtown, to movies, to the cemetery. This is what not being free looks like. COVID-19 helps us appreciate even more the freedom that our American liberators fought and died for.”

The citizens in and around Margraten honor America’s fallen soldiers like no other people in the world. When World War II ended, they began adopting every one of the 10,023 American gravesites in the nearby Netherlands American Cemetery. They visit and care for the gravesites, and the adoptions are passed down through the generations. 

Joek Hulsmann

Medtronic employee Joek Hulsmann outside the window of his home, which honors American soldier Bernard Erickson

In 2015 they went further, launching Faces of Margraten, a project to find, and during the week of Dutch Memorial Day, display a photograph at the gravesite of every soldier in the cemetery. Hulsmann spearheads Minnesota Faces of Margraten, a companion program by Medtronic employees to honor the company’s Minnesota roots by finding photographs of all 234 of the state’s soldiers buried at Margraten.

Researchers have now located photographs for 7,500 of the 10,023 soldiers honored at Margraten, and all but nine of the Minnesotans. They vow to continue until they find them all. 

We can’t visit the cemetery this year because of COVID-19, but we won’t let it prevent us from paying our respects to these heroes.

COVID-19 cancelled the photo displays inside the cemetery, but it can’t stop the tributes in thousands of Dutch windows. “Helden van toen en nu bedankt voor onze vrijheid,” reads the poster with each one. “Thank you heroes, from then and now, for our freedom.”

“The sacrifices we’re making because of the pandemic are nothing compared to what these heroes sacrificed for us,” Hulsmann said. “So we don’t complain. We just commemorate the Faces of Margraten from home.”

Watch our 2018 video news story from Margraten.

Book Tribute

The Faces of Margraten project now includes a hardcover, full-color, 300-page book, which collects the photographs and honors the soldiers memorialized at Margraten. Initially organizers intended to release the book on the same day as the annual cemetery photo display, but the cemetery closure due to the pandemic forced that to change.

The Faces of Margraten book

The Faces of Margraten book

"We wanted to create something that would be permanent, a lasting tribute to every soldier,” said Sebastiaan Vonk, chair of the Faces of Margraten project. “We specifically designed it to be a coffee table book that would have a prominent place in one's house or a classroom, a subtle daily reminder of to whom we owe our freedom."

The book is currently in Dutch only, but they intend to also publish it in English. Here’s a link to pre-order an English version.

Researchers from the Minnesota Faces of Margraten project are still looking for nine photographs of Minnesota soldiers memorialized in the cemetery:

·        Levi A. Arnold

·        John Detlefsen

·        Herbert W. Ellerbusch

·        Roy W. Evans

·        Marvin E. Kayute

·        Richard S. Moen

·        Lloyd M. Peterson

·        James W. Scott

·        Isadore Wolstein

Anyone with information about these soldiers can reach Joek Hulsmann via email: FacesOfMargraten@xs4all.nl