The Journey Back

The Journey Back profiles the story of SSgt. Max Chotin who died November 3, 1945, nearly six months after the war in Europe had ended. In this film his son Arthur returns to his final resting place to deliver a meaningful thank you to the Dutch people during the 2015 Memorial Day Ceremony. During his journey back, Arthur meets the Naaijkens family for the first time, the family that has adopted his father’s gravesite.

Video Transcript

PRESIDENT HARRY S. TRUMAN: General Eisenhower informs me that the forces of Germany have surrendered to the United Nations.

[music]

PRESIDENT HARRY S. TRUMAN: Much remains to be done. The victory won in the West must now be won in the East. 

NARRATOR:  Japan had its choice. Complete surrender or complete ruin.

[music and sounds of explosions]

NARRATOR: Arrangements are now being made for the formal signing of the surrender terms at the earliest possible moment. Vast throngs of grateful, happy people celebrate the end of fighting, the dawn of peace.

[music and cheering noises]

ARTHUR CHOTIN: Just because there was VE Day, just because there was VJ Day doesn’t mean that soldiers didn’t die. There’s disease. There’s accidents. There’s all sorts of reasons why people are killed. And I think that that’s what people sometimes don’t remember.

[music]

ARTHUR CHOTIN: My father was driving to Belgium to go to the company headquarters to try to make arrangements for himself and for the other people in his unit that had the same number of points that he had to repatriated back to the states so he could be with his family before the end of the year. That was his goal. He was in a jeep on his way from Le Havre, France to Brussels and somewhere in Belgium, either in Liege or Bruges, I’m not sure which, the jeep was in a head-on collision with a British truck, and he was thrown from the jeep and suffered massive cerebral hemorrhaging and died instantly.

SYLVIA CHOTIN:  When the doorbell rang, and I, I said… you know, I said, “Who is it?” He said “Western Union.” So I thought it was the telegram telling me that your father was on his way home. And when I went downstairs I said, “It’s good news, isn’t it?” He said “No, it isn’t.” And when I opened the letter I started screaming. It was such a shock. It was a terrible tragedy. The war was over in Europe and it was just a horrible accident, I guess, that was destined to be unfortunately. And it’s really a shame because he was such a decent person. Wonderful, kind and generous. Handsome. I used to say, “What did I do in my lifetime to have to deserve somebody as wonderful as he?”

[music]

ARTHUR CHOTIN: My father is fixed in time. He’s always the age of the photographs I have of him. He missed having a wife. He missed having a career. He missed having a child. He missed having grandchildren. He missed all of that. We all know that life isn’t fair, but that’s not fair. As a kid it probably would have been better for me if he was buried here. It would have made it more real. It would have made it something I could have dealt with. Now as an adult I am very grateful that he is buried in the military cemetery in the Netherlands. I can’t imagine a more appropriate setting for him to be in. It’s a beautiful cemetery, extraordinarily well-maintained, and he’s been adopted by a Dutch family, so he now has more than one family that cares about him.

[music and birds chirping]

ARTHUR CHOTIN: This past December I had my 70th birthday, and I realized, here I am, I’m more than twice as old as my father ever was. I don’t know how many more trips I’m going to be making to the Netherlands or overseas. So I wrote a letter to Max Cleland, the secretary of the ABMC, explaining who I am and saying that I would, if possible, like to participate in some way in this ceremony on behalf of the families who are buried there to thank the Dutch people, and let them know that what they do is truly appreciated. And so that’s why we’re going.

[music]

ARTHUR CHOTIN: Recently I obtained the name of the family who had adopted my father’s grave, and I sent them a letter explaining who I was and thanking them for doing this, telling them a little about myself and my family and asking if they wanted to get in touch. And right after the new year I received an email from them saying how grateful they were that I had contacted them, and talking about why they decided to adopt a grave.

[music]

BOY NAAIJKENS: We lost two children. In ’98 we lost our son Tom, and in 2003 we lost our son Sam, both of brain tumor. We have seen our boys for four years and for two years only, but we have still met them and known them for those years, but Arthur has never seen his father, and we thought that was so sad. We thought we can do something for those who…the soldiers who fought for us. That’s the reason we now have our freedom.   

ARTHUR CHOTIN: They’ve adopted the graves of five of the soldiers who are buried there, including my father’s.

[music]

ARTHUR CHOTIN: It seemed like a remarkable family. I could try to keep their kids in my memories, even though I never knew them, just as they have kept my father in their thoughts, even though they never knew him. I want them to know that.

[music]

BOY NAAIJKENS: I want to thank the Chotin family that they found us. It’s super that we have friends now, and we can see the face from the soldier, who’s buried here and we take care of every year. So that’s very special.  

ARTHUR CHOTIN: What I’ve thought about in the past couple of days is something I never really focused on before. I never knew my father. I never had a relationship with him. I never had someone who I could either hate or love. He was always just a story to me. And here I am, I’m 70 years old. I’ve lived 40 more years than my father ever lived and the single biggest thought that I have in preparing this speech is that I hope he would be proud of me.

Oh the power these dead have over those they left behind. But for my family and the families of the other soldiers buried and remembered here there was a comfort because we learned about the incredible efforts made by the people of the Netherlands to adopt these graves. What would cause a nation recovering from losses and trauma of their own to adopt the sons and daughters of another nation? And what would keep that commitment alive for all of these years, when the memory of that war has begun to fade? It speaks to the character of the people of the Netherlands that every single grave in this cemetery and virtually every single name on that wall has been adopted. It is a unique occurrence in the history of civilization and it is deserving of recognition and of thanks. By making these dead part of your family, you have become part of our family. You have created a bond between us that will never be broken. So from this day forward, from now until the end of time, hartelijk bedank, a heartfelt thank you. May the kindness and compassion you have shown them and us be returned to you many times over. We thank you. We salute you. We are forever grateful. Bedank.

[music and clapping]

BOY NAAIJKENS: We don’t forget what’s happened here, and we don’t forget what’s happened with the soldiers, who died for our freedom.

ARTHUR CHOTIN: I think it’s a remarkable expression of their appreciation for what was done for their country, but more than that. It’s a sign of their national character, of who they are as people.

BOY NAAIJKENS:  I think now there is an invisible line between Valkenburg, where I live, and Annapolis, where the Chotins live.

ARTHUR CHOTIN: And it’s comforting to know that there are people overseas who care about a person you lost.

BOY NAAIJKENS: Sometimes you meet friends and they leave a footprint, and you never forget them anymore.

ARTHUR CHOTIN: Certainly my family feels that way.

[music and jets flying over]