Part of the Ceba committee from left to right: Ralph Kohn, Tom Scholtes (seated), Ern Kohn, Raymond Beffort, Lex Elcheroth and Laurent Wies
Photo: LaLa La Photo
Ahead of the 75th anniversary of the Battle of the Bulge, Delano met the volunteers keeping history alive and welcoming veterans to Luxembourg.
It’s a foggy, wet morning when my train pulls into Clervaux station, in northern Luxembourg. The conditions are not unlike those on a fateful December day almost 75 years ago, when Clervaux was invaded as part of the German counter-offensive. And there are reminders all around. In the courtyard of Clervaux castle sits a Sherman tank.
“Surprisingly, not many people know the tank is an original leftover from the Battle of the Bulge,” president of the Circle of Studies on the Battle of the Bulge (Ceba) Erny Kohn tells me. Two young volunteers are emptying the tank, which for decades has been used as a rubbish bin thanks to a hole caused by artillery fire back in 1944. It is one of thousands of artefacts that Ceba has collected since the association was co-founded by Kohn’s father, Camille, in 1972.
Although a child during WWII, Kohn’s father felt indebted to the American forces, who suffered almost 75,000* casualties pushing the Axis army back into Germany from 16 December 1944 to 25 January 1945. “There were two things at the beginning: they wanted to establish a museum and one monument for the ordinary GI,” Kohn explains. Ceba opened a museum in the grounds of the castle on Independence Day 1974 and unveiled a statue on 11 September 1983. It did not stop there; it built archives of research and over the years welcomed hundreds of US veterans.
Last year, Ceba welcomed 96-year-old veteran Dominic Charles Giovinazzo, dubbed the “bazooka man of Eschdorf”, after taking out an anti-tank gun with a bazooka in December 1944. “We had some amazing days when he was here. It’s very exceptional to have people coming here at that age. But they’re still coming. This will definitely have changed in 10 years,” Kohn says. Kohn’s mission to piece together what happened during that brutal winter began as a child playing “war” with his friend Lex Elcheroth, who is today the museum curator. The two even made a home movie in which they recreated a battle scene.
Today, they prefer to direct tourists to the museum, which offers a compelling insight into what happened in Clervaux. “There were so many officers who were killed and nobody could write down these details. So, there’s a history not mentioned on paper or in archives. Sometimes we’re lucky to get interviews from veterans or information from interviews made years ago,” Elcheroth explains.
Among the stories Ceba is researching is one that took place in Oberwampach, close to the Belgian border. A five-year-old boy who took refuge in a farmhouse cellar during an attack panicked and ran outside. “An American soldier ran after him, grabbed him and wanted to seek shelter in the opposite house when a German mortar landed and exploded, killing the soldier and the boy instantly,” Kohn explains. The volunteers were able to identify the soldier’s name and unveiled a plaque in his memory, which his family visited.
The volunteers are now preparing to hand the baton to the next generation of Ceba members. Twenty-year-old Michael Zeimet is probing the Oberwampach story further. “We met the sister of the boy who was killed,” he says. “She showed us some pictures and we did an interview, which was very emotional because she had never talked about this event.” Friend Georges Feyereisen adds: “We’re the last generation to have the chance to meet these vets because they get older.”