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Another generation learns to be grateful

Canadian and Dutch students make a special connection with the soldiers who liberated the Netherlands

From Thursday's Globe and Mail

Holten, Netherlands — It was a day for passing the torch, and Conal Slobodin accepted the challenge. So did Koen Gruyters, Andy Meester, Robin Levy, Tom Isenor and dozens of other young people eager to honour what Canadian soldiers did six decades ago.

A day after the glittering ceremony that kicked off a week of Victory in Europe activities leading up to Sunday, the event staged yesterday was decidedly more cozy. No royalty was on hand, and the stars of the show were young people, not ambassadors, politicians or generals.

It was homespun simplicity itself. Dutch schoolchildren read poems and placed flowers on the graves of the 1,355 men who are buried in the cemetery at Holten, in the middle of a forest where Canadians and Germans fought a 12-hour house-to-house battle on April 8, 1945.

Not to be outdone, young Canadians sang songs and showed off their new-found appreciation for the sacrifices made by the men old enough to be their great-grandparents.

Mr. Slobodin, a 17-year-old Grade 11 student from Whitehorse, talked quietly about what he had learned in researching the life and death of Frederick Cheverie, a sapper with the Corps of Royal Canadian Engineers who died while carrying a land mine 11 days after V-E Day.

Ms. Levy, 16, from Mississauga, Ont., outlined the life of Mac Smith, a captain in the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders of Canada, who was killed crossing the Ems River in Germany a month before V-E Day. Mr. Isenor, a 17-year-old from Grand Forks, B.C., spoke about his research into Billy Boltz, a private with the Seaforth Highlanders of Canada who died when hit by a shell on April 12, 1945.

All three teenagers, members of a 13-member youth delegation to the Netherlands, choked up as they spoke and hugged each other tightly when they were done. The tears came as something of surprise to Mr. Isenor.

"When I was writing this, I thought it was ridiculous. I don't even know this guy," he said, moments after catching his first sight of Private Boltz's grave and laying an old photograph at its marker. "But, now, there he is."

The same magic was working on Ms. Levy. "I've gotten to know this person," she said as she pointed at Captain Smith's grave. "I get really emotional because you feel like you knew them, that you met them."

That was the point of the exercise, according to the Veterans' Affair official leading the youth delegation.

"They find out they [the soldiers] were no different than they are," Jim Johnston said. "They played hockey, they played baseball, they went to school dances, they had girlfriends, they had hopes and dreams for their futures."

But everyone -- Canadian youths and veterans alike -- recognized that they were only catching up to the Dutch in commemorating the 7,600 Canadians who died while freeing the Netherlands from five years of brutal Nazi rule.

The Holten cemetery is a prime example. It's an official Canadian war cemetery, but the 9,000 people in the town nearby take a proprietary view of it.

Schoolchildren help tend the graves and they light a candle at each one every Christmas Eve.

Yesterday's commemoration of the liberation of the Netherlands, attended by 6,000 people, was organized by the community in the hopes that a new generation would take up the task of ensuring that the valour of the Canadians and the lessons of the Second World War are not forgotten.

It was an exhortation not lost on 11-year-old Koen Gruyters or his classmate, Andy Meester, 12.

Both had given up a precious day of their weeklong holiday that celebrates V-E Day and the birthday of Queen Beatrix to attend yesterday's ceremony. Koen, who studied Canada's role in the war, had no second thoughts about making the effort.

"It's a very special day," he said. "They gave us our freedom."

The two boys joined more than 250 of their fellow pupils from the local elementary school in placing a narcissus on each grave and in handing out special "Fifth of May" bread rolls to the Canadian veterans to mark the day the Germans were defeated.

A Dutch Air Force helicopter also dropped poppies on the crowd as it hovered 50 metres overhead.

The sincerity of the Dutch gratitude did not go unappreciated.

"The legacy of the Canadians who fought here can be found in the smile of a Dutch child, just as it was 60 years ago when they cheered on the end of the war," said Senator Art Eggleton, who was pinch-hitting for Veterans Affairs Minister Albina Guarnieri.

Morley Bogues of Regina, an 81-year-old former private in the South Saskatchewan Regiment, spoke of "a swelling in my throat, huge tears in my eyes" as he watched the young people pledge to remember the war.

"It just blows you away," he said.

Ralph Kearney, who was a trooper in the Ontario Regiment, was asked whether he thought the legacy of his generation will live in memory after its members had died.

"I would hope so," the 81-year-old said. "That's all you can."

For his part, Mr. Slobodin said he has been cured of thinking that "passing the torch" is just a cliché.

"Frederick Cheverie is just one of the millions of people who died to prevent what could happen in the future," he said of the dead soldier he grew to admire.

"You can't forget that."

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