Annual gathering honors memory of American children buried in Kaiserslautern
May 14, 2016
KAISERSLAUTERN, Germany — It’s been 45 years since the last American child was buried in the Kaiserslautern city cemetery, in a section known simply as the Kindergraves.
The tiny gravestones are tended year round by a group of Americans and Germans who have vowed to continue to honor the memory of the 451 children buried there even though their families have long since left.
As they do every spring, the German American & International Women’s Club and the Ramstein Area Chiefs’ Group came together Saturday for the annual memorial ceremony at the Kindergraves.
It was the 55th such ceremony and organizers made clear it would not be the last.
“Some people say ‘oh it’s so long,’” said Bruni Puetz. “It’s a memorial now, to think about the little children and the parents, but also a kind of celebrating of German-American relations here in Kaiserslautern … and think about a good cause.”
Puetz is the treasurer of the German American & International Women’s Club and the club’s chairperson for the Kaiserslautern Kindergraves Memorial Foundation — the latter a partnership between the women’s club and the Ramstein Area Chiefs’ Group.
Most of the children buried in the Kindergraves died in infancy between 1952 and 1971. The U.S. government at the time did not pay to send the children back for burial and many parents — civilians and U.S. servicemembers stationed in the Kaiserslautern area — could not afford to do so, Puetz said.
The foundation uses donations from local groups and family members to lease the site from the city and maintain the graves, replacing older gravestones on which engraved names have begun to fade.
On Saturday, the grass was newly mowed and each grave was decorated with a fresh pink carnation and an American flag. A priest blessed the graves and German community and U.S. military leaders spoke at a formal ceremony inside the Daenner Chapel, next to the cemetery.
“When I think about the children” left behind, “I certainly couldn’t think about a better community to” be left behind in, said Air Force Lt. Gen. Timothy Ray, 3rd Air Force commander.
The women’s club held its first ceremony for the Kindergraves in 1961, Puetz said. “Because we are mothers, we thought it was a good project to remember the children, but also the parents who really were in pain when they had to leave,” she said.
But even as those early ceremonies were held, for many years the actual gravesites were forgotten, she said. “It was just wild. The city mowed it over but it was forgotten for many years,” she said.
That changed in 1986, when the club forged a partnership with the chiefs’ group to run the foundation.
Most Americans didn’t know about the Kindergraves back then, Puetz said. The women’s and chiefs groups share upkeep duties. American volunteers mow and plant flowers and the women’s club cares for the greenery around the three large stones at the front of the site.
The foundation renewed its lease with the city for the Kindergraves three years ago for another 20 years, Puetz said. In Germany, gravesites are leased, not bought.
The goal “is to make sure that the families that have moved on and aren’t here to pay the respects to their children, know that there are Americans still here that care about them and their families and recognize the sacrifices that they gave while they were here,” said Air Force Chief Master Sgt. John Robbins, chairperson of the foundation for the chiefs’ group.
For Stefanie Darlington, knowing that the Kindergraves are so well cared for gives her family much comfort. Darlington’s older brother, Ben Leroy Johnson, was buried there after he died in 1961 from a staph infection when he was just six months old.
“It’s just overwhelming, that care, that love and that respect that continues”all these years later, said Darlington, 55, who lives outside Cincinnati.
“As my mom would say, ‘It’s the thing that I would do if I was there,’” she said.