Memory Lane Chronicles: Finding a Grave at El Alamein – Part 1
I grew up collecting postcards. It started when I went on a school tour in Standard 7 (now Grade 9) when I bought a few postcards of birds at the Transvaal Museum in Pretoria and more when visiting the Kruger National Park. I already had one postcard in my collection – dated in 1970 when I was almost two years old and he was in the Air Force already. It had a painted picture on the front of a pretty boy and girl and my much older, beloved big brother’s handwriting on the back, telling me that he missed me and that he was looking forward to come visit, so that I could bake him some cookies.
From that school tour on, I bought postcards whenever we went somewhere and even had people giving me their old ones they wanted to get rid of. I had an interesting collection of postcards written in my native language, Afrikaans, English and even German. The German postcards were from a dear older friend at work who frequently received post from her family back in her homeland. I so loved those pictures of the many different places I longingly looked at. My father once visited Germany, Venice and Italy and my eyes were treated to more beautiful places. It must have been where the dream to travel the world started. Later on friends were asked to send postcards when they visited far off places and my assemblage got bigger. But, as I grew older and busier, looking at my postcard collection was limited to moving them to different storage places in the house every five years or so. Recently, when we moved to Egypt, I decided to donate them to a more suitable collector – our friend, Adri, who had a wonderful collection herself and actually spending a lot more time appreciating it.
I did keep a few postcards though. I kept that one my ouboet sent me so many years back and also a 3D one he bought on a school tour to the planetarium in the late 1960s. I also kept two precious ones that I got from my mother. Both were of uncles who fought in WWII in Egypt. The one had a picture of the Nile on it with a photo of the one uncle inserted in the upper right corner. The other one was of my mother’s uncle Koos Coetzer, posing next to an empty chair as was the fashion back them for some reason. I always looked at them, wondering what their stories were and what happened to them being so far away from home. The man in the inserted picture I was told, came back home safely, but committed suicide. The other one didn’t come back. He died in a foreign country, fighting for foreign people against foreign people in a foreign war.
When we heard that we were moving to Egypt, I took a picture of the two postcards and decided that I will try to find out more, once we are here. We are supposed to attend the commemoration of the Battles of El Alamein in October, but we were fortunate enough to visit the place on a work related trip much earlier than I thought.
I did some initial research on the website to try and find my uncle’s information, but with no success. My mother got his detail from her cousin, but being a bit discouraged by my first unsuccessful attempt, I didn’t bother doing any research until two days before we went on the trip. I think I was delaying the search because I was afraid that I wouldn’t find anything. But in the end I got the information and searched. The reason I couldn’t find it initially it seemed, was because my mother had his names wrong, but she also got his service number and that did the trick. I found the inscription on page 71 of the records on the web page and with it his grave number. Something in me stirred. I didn’t know my uncle and I think I saw my aunt (his daughter) once before in my life, but somehow I felt connected to this young man who died fighting a fight that wasn’t his to fight and lost his life for it so long ago. I wondered if any of the family had ever been to his grave and I wondered how his death had influence his immediate family.
Although I was glad that I found the information, I was still a bit fearful that it might be difficult to find the actual grave when we get to El Alamein. Fortunately, my husband’s assistant and Mustafa, the man working at the cemetry knew the place very well and was very helpful. First, we looked up his name in the book and then Mustafa offered to show us where it was.
At this point of the story I must mention that I have a fascination with burial places from a historical point of view. Whenever we visit small towns I always like going to see who is buried there. Graves tells history like very few other things in life. Pilgrim’s Rest, Haenertsburg, Sabie and those places have ‘treasures’ with regard to the past buried in their grave yards. On the other hand, I hate visiting family graves. I hated it when my mother wanted to visit her mother’s grave in our old family grave yard on the farm on Sundays. My father and I would walk behind her with the flowers and the water and my father used to whisper to me: “Please don’t ever do this when I die.” (I don’t.)
The place was really well kept and easy enough to navigate. We walked through the rows of precisely planted grave stones, in awe about the precision of stones. Being the Commonwealth burial site, there were graves of fallen soldiers from the United Kingdom, New Zealand, Australia and other Commonwealth nations. Christians and Jews were buried alongside each other. The first tears found its way through my lashes when I recognised the little Springbok head on a group of grave stones, planted ‘shoulder to shoulder’. South Africans. My own people. In the hard, dry Egyptian desert sand. I wondered briefly if they died shoulder to shoulder also or what the reason was for them being placed so close to each other.
At the fourth last row, I saw Mustafa, Muhamed and my husband, Deon, coming to a standstill. My heart raced. It was really there! I reached the grave and saw a name I have seen before on funeral letters back home of family members with the same surname. Blood of my blood. It was a strange feeling, standing there, looking at the grave of Jacobus Herculas Coetzer – knowing that he was buried there 73 years ago by strange hands. I wonder how his wife felt when she visited his grave in 1954. We were the only other family members as far as we know to have visited his grave. I wondered about his children, growing up without him, and his daughter, Isabel’s words from her WhatsApp message echoed in my head. “…put a nice flower on his grave and tell him that’s from his little girl, now an old lady of 75. I was six months old when he left and two and a half when he died…”
I didn’t have a way to get flowers before we came, so I was posing behind the grave when suddenly Mustafa appeared, in a typical wanting-to-help-and-not-even-being-asked-to Egyptian way with a hand full of flowers…
For someone who doesn’t like visiting graves of family, this will go down in my memory bank as a pretty wonderful experience. Who knows, maybe Isabel will still have the opportunity to visit her daddy’s grave before she meet him in person one day.
Watch my picture journal of our visit to the El Alamein War cemetery on You Tube at http://youtu.be/yOotbqRM6gM
For more information visit the Commonwealth War Graves Commission website at http://www.cwgc.org/.
© 2014 Riëtte de Kock
I am trying hard to be a Proverbs 31-woman – excellent wife, finest mom, greatest lover and successful entrepreneur and freelance writer all at the same time!
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