SALT LAKE CITY — As they gathered to honor German prisoners of war buried in Salt Lake City, faith and civic leaders said Sunday it's important not just to remember the fallen but to reflect on how to prevent atrocities of war in the future.
"Every day can and should be a day of mourning and reconciliation," said Elder Dieter F. Uchtdorf, of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints' Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. "It has to be our commitment and heartfelt effort to craft peace."
The service was one of several around the globe on Sunday, Germany's National Day of Remembrance. The Utah contingent mourned the 41 soldiers with song led by a choir and a wreath adorned with red and yellow roses at the Fort Douglas Military Cemetery at the University of Utah.
Elder Uchtdorf, once a fighter pilot in the German Air Force, called the day "a solemn reminder" of the causes of war.
"Nazi Germany, my country, started the events of World War II," he said. "To recognize that and find ways to prevent these things in our future, that is our task."
He joined Gov. Gary Herbert and others in speaking broadly and urging about 200 people in attendance to do their part in day-to-day life to help and forge bonds with others, regardless of their differences.
Many on Sunday came with several generations of family members, some clutching hand warmers as they listened on the brisk, sunny morning. Others took video on their phones of the German Chorus Harmonie leading the group in singing the German and American national anthems, while Boy Scouts from Kaysville held the flags of both countries.
Elder Uchtdorf and Herbert said the gathering is also a testament to the possibility of peace and friendship between former enemies. Elder Uchtdorf's wife, Sister Harriet Uchtdorf, has sought to help strengthen the relationship and was recognized for the effort when she was awarded the German-American Friendship Award last year.
The gathering Sunday comes a week after the 100th anniversary of Armistice Day, marking the end of World War I, Herbert noted. But tragedy and the impact of war are not things of the past.
They have been demonstrated profoundly in the death of Maj. Brent Taylor, the Utah National Guardsman and North Ogden mayor killed Nov. 3 while on duty in Afghanistan, Herbert said. Taylor leaves behind a wife and seven children.
Like Taylor, the soldiers interred in the cemetery were mourned by their own families, Herbert said. The Germans at Fort Douglas are buried alongside 12 of their Italian counterparts and one Japanese prisoner of war.
"Some of them, halfway around the world, died here on Utah soil," Herbert said. "They labored, they lived, they died, without any opportunity to return to their homeland."
James Burton, Utah's honorary German consul, said he traveled to Berlin in the spring and visited the Brandenburg Gate with several German couples in their 70s and 80s. His companions at the gate remain amazed nearly 30 years after the Berlin Wall fell that they can cross from the city's east side to the west, he said. He has come to realize that he probably can't have the same extent of appreciation for his own freedom, he said, but he can still learn from earlier generations.
"It is my hope that each of us is never in the position of having increased gratitude for the freedom we once had because that freedom has been taken away," Burton said.
James Vanderwel, 77, recalled after the ceremony that he was a small boy when his hometown of Rotterdam, Netherlands, was under German occupation. A German soldier came to his family's door on Christmas eve in 1944, he said, and his mother allowed the soldier to join their family at the table even though they had little food, aside from bread made from flour purchased on the black market.
A week or so later, the soldier came back with two loaves of bread and sausages, Vanderwel recalled. And he returned to the family's home several more times after that, Vanderwel said with tears in his eyes.
"It goes to show you — enemies are not born to be enemies. Enemies are made to be enemies," said Vanderwel, who now lives in Lindon with his wife, Joanie. "There are no enemies. We're all born on this little planet."12 comments on this story
Vanderwel, a former U.S. serviceman who was stationed in California during the Vietnam War, said he has attended the remembrance ceremony six or seven times. On Sunday, he brought his neighbor, U.S. military veteran Kirtland Stout, who was on active duty in Germany in the 1970s.
Stout noted that Germans after the first World War were spurred forward by Adolf Hitler's powerful speeches to support the extermination of Jews.
"We have to be very, very careful, or the same thing could happen to us as happened in Germany, where the people were swept away by the rhetoric and the thoughts, and what was thought to be so great," he said. "Before they knew it, they were in ashes and dust and shambles."