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Long Ago and Far Away: Remembering the U.S.-Soviet Embrace at Torgau on the Elbe

December 1, 2019

Encounter at the Elbe – Soviet 1949 film about the meeting of U.S. and Soviet troops at Torgau. It is available for $15 at RAREFILMSANDMore.com

 

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(Note – Right now anti-Russian hysteria has reached unprecedented levels in the United States, even worse it seems to me than during the Cold War. Time to remember some things about Russia in World War II)

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Getting there…

I still remember vividly watching the plane I was scheduled to fly to Berlin taking off as the plane I was on, landed in Vienna. There it went. There I was, not quite on the ground yet.

I was among a number of other foreign guests stranded in Vienna at the time. Eventually we were able to get visas to pass through what was then Czechoslovakia on into East Germany by train, arriving a day later than expected, but a few hours before the festivities marking the fortieth anniversary of the defeat of the Nazis was about to begin.

Exhausted from the travel, having not slept for more than two days, I gave what was easily the worst speech of my life, impressively bad, and that in front of some 25,000 spectators. To this day, I regret my lack of eloquence on that occasion, for that event, the total defeat of Nazism is nothing short of the most significant event of the Twentieth Century, the event that shaped the post World War II world like none other. I would have liked to have been able to express my appreciation for the fallen of all countries, who participated in defeating both German and Japanese fascism more effectively.

Nothing before or since compares to that moment, frankly, when the Swastika was pulled down from the Berlin Reischtag and the system that had created so much terror for so many was turned to dust.

Torgau and the Seelow Heights

My embarrassing two or three minutes of fame over, three or four days days of activities followed, among them a memorial meeting at Torgau, on the Elbe one day and another day a visit to Seelow at what was at the time East Germany’s border with Poland (and remains today, united German’s border with its eastern neighbor). I might have written about that trip at the time, but hardly since. That said, beyond my embarrassing performance in Berlin, I think about that trip every April and May, about Torgau and Seelow.

Very little has been written about either event in English here in the United States.

There are a few books on the subject of the Elbe meeting. The 1988 book edited by Mark Scott and Seymon Krasilshchik “Yanks Meet Reds: Recollections of U.S. and Soviet Vets from the Linkup in World War II”  is still available. Studd’s Terkiel’s The Good War: An Oral History of World War II has an interview with Joseph Polowsky (see below) just before he died.

One exception on the storming of the Seelow Heights by Soviet forces  in English is – David Downings “Potsdam Station” – about as decent a description of the collapse of the Nazi army in the face of the Soviet juggernaut towards Berlin. More recently I stumbled across a song by Fred Small memorializing the “meeting at the Elbe”, a rare contribution to the public dialogue. Here are the first few lines of the song.

Mister I just overheard you talking through your drink
How the Russians lie like rugs, how they pushed us to the brink
Now sit right here beside me – I’ve an old man’s tale to tell
How Yanks and Reds were friends once – at the Elbe

I  write about these events both because that precise moment, in April and early May, 1945, lost – or rather buried – in time,  when the U.S. and the Soviets were not just friends but allies. If it made an impression upon me it is because forty years later, in late April, 1945 I had the good fortune to be present at Torgau for the 40th anniversary of the American-Soviet meeting at the Elbe. It was at Torgau that the at the Elbe that U.S and Soviet soldiers embraced and promised to work to prevent future wars, the so-called “Oath of the Elbe”. The next day, with an international delegation of peace activists and leftists – people from Vietnam, Argentina and Italy – I visited the Seelow Heights.

Many veterans, both America and Soviet of the Elbe meeting were at the 1985 ceremony. Although forty years had passed, many of their frames – both American and Soviet – somewhat paunchier – their commitment to the oath they had all taken to do everything in their power to prevent future wars.

In 1949, the Soviets made a movie about the Elbe encounter, that was popular in what were then Eastern Bloc countries, all of which had been occupied by the Nazis. The music for the film was composed by the great Russian composer, Dmitri Shostakovich, although a number of books and articles particularly in the Left and Peace press have covered the meeting.

A November 30, 2019 article in The Progressive by Jeremy Kuzmarov (reprinted by Portside online) features the life of Joseph Polowsky, the Chicago taxi-cab driver and moderate Republican, who for the rest of his life after the historic meeting and until his death in 1983, did what he could to revive the Elbe reunions at Torgau and to work for U.S.-Soviet detente. As Kuzmarov relates about Polowsky:

Every year on April 25, prior to his death from cancer in 1983, Chicago taxi driver Joseph Polowsky would stand on the Michigan Avenue bridge and pass out leaflets calling for a halt to the spread of nuclear weapons. When approached by passersby, he would tell them about a historic meeting between American and Russian soldiers at the end of World War II, along the Elbe River in Central Europe. He didn’t just know the details of the meeting, which marked a crucial step toward the end of the war, he took part in it.

Those fortieth anniversary events touched me deeply.

Forty years after the event, long after U.S.-Soviet relations had soured and broken down, at the height of the Cold War,  I saw American and Soviet veterans of the Elbe meeting embrace each other again, this time coming together calling for an end of the Cold War and the nuclear arms race. We also visited Polowsky’s grave. His request to be buried at Torgau was honored. 

These comments do not express the emotions I felt on that day, standing next to Arthur Sulzberger, NY Times publisher in Torgau watching the US and Soviet veterans reminisce on that historic moment when the southern ring around Berlin was closed. Late April, 1945 was at the height of the Cold War. Sulzberger would go on to write a typically snotty little piece about it.

I carry the memory of them – of American G.I.’s and Soviet  soldiers bridging the Cold War gap that separated the one from the other on both sides of the Cold War, able to see through the bullshit they had been spoon fed, to each other’s humanity. To see Soviet and American veterans hug each other, in tears of joy…ahh…that was a special moment.

People, particularly Americans in the current environment of anti-Russian hysteria – forget that there was a U.S.-Soviet alliance to defeat fascism. The more one studies what actually happened in that war, there is little doubt, that whatever the U.S. sacrifice – which was considerable, of course the Soviet sacrifice – and contribution to the victory – was immeasurably greater. Period.

Another place visited during that trip celebrating the 40th victory over the Nazis, was a small town called Seelow that stood on a cliff above the Oder Valley at the German border with Poland. It was there in early April, 1945 – a little earlier than the time that American and Soviet troops were meeting in Torgau – that Soviet troops stormed the Seelow Heights on the last leg of the liberation of Berlin and the complete defeat of Nazism. The Seelow Heights are 56 miles east of Berlin and overlook the Oderbruch, the flood-plain of the river Oder that marks the border here between Germany and Poland.

There is – or at least there was in 1985 – a memorial at Seelow honoring those who had fallen in capturing the Heights. Once having scaled the Seelow Heights from the Oder Valley below, the Soviet military had a clear and unobstructed path to Berlin which they liberated without Allied (U.S., UK) participation, on their own. That final offensive was organized by Marshall Zhukov, the victor at Stalingrad. Seelow in 1985 was a quiet place, a farming community with, as I recall, an attractive nursing home which we also visited.

Over a three days period, from 16–19 April 1945, close to one million Soviet soldiers of the 1st Belorussian Front, commanded by Marshal Georgi Zhukov, attacked the the heights to the west, referred to as “the Gates of Berlin.” Referred to both as “the Battle of Seelow Heights” or “The Battle of the Oder”, after the first day of the assault the resistance of the 110,000 soldiers of the German 9th Army, collapsed opening the road to Berlin. It was at Seelow that the Nazi defense of Berlin essentially collapsed.

I have a little coffee cup purchased at a tourist shop in Seelow. I try to remember to drink from it once a year on the anniversary of the storming of the Seelow Heights.

Rob Prince, in Berlin, May 1985 commemorating the 40th anniversary of the defeat of Nazism. I have reflected upon this event every year since and marked it in some modest way. Being interviewed by the press, I was probably saying “I’m tired and want to go to sleep.” The woman to my right in the photo – I don’t remember her name – was my interpreter throughout my travels through East Germany that week. If I don’t remember her name, I do remember her kindness and recall her competency as an interpreter and her general decency. I also recalled driving her crazy.

 

3 Comments leave one →
  1. William Conklin permalink
    December 1, 2019 8:45 pm

    Yea, most Americans think the United States won the Second World War, it was actually the Russians, if Stalin hadn’t kept Hitler busy in the North, the Americans that hit the beach would most likely have failed. Then the worst war crime in history, the atom bomb, started the Cold War and here we sit today. As I understand it, Stalin had declared war on Japan and could have finished off the terminal Japanese, but Truman didn’t want to let Stalin take Japan, so he had to finish the game and scare the Russians. I get tired of arguing with Americans who understand fake history and who think the Atom Bomb saved lives. It actually created the situation that may end life on earth. Then before the end of his term, Truman signed off on the abomination called: Israel, which has been called by Finkelstein: “A Nation of Murderers.” Americans have since then conducted massive war crimes all over the world to keep the resources coming our way. The first time I went to Russia, was during the cold war, and I couldn’t get the toilets to flush, so I really wondered how Russia could be a serious enemy. But, Russia survived a revolution and the First World War and still came out on top of Hitler. Pretty amazing, it is too bad we can’t work together, because if we don’t, it may be the end of organized human civilization.

  2. Gene Fitzpatrick permalink
    December 3, 2019 9:10 am

    A 2014 Democracy Now program, which featured retired professor Stephen Cohen (Russian Studies), introduced me to the Russophobia element in 21st Century American government and culture. Cohen was commenting on the Obama administration’s efforts at regime change in Ukraine and his ‘take no prisoners’ pugnaciousness and self-assuredness were fascinating to watch. An outcome for me is an appreciation of the extent and entrenchment of a “New Cold War” mindset in some of the American political power players, with particular emphasis on a faction of the Democratic Party and their media support team. The likelihood of a Hillary Clinton presidency’s provocative anti-Russia stance was added reason to shun her in 2016.

    Kudos for this article. In 2019 it has a certain ‘off the main political discourse path’ that is refreshing to read and to conversationally dissect.

    • December 3, 2019 9:44 am

      How come it is that you always hit the nail on the head.

      One question (not so much to you but to that great hole in the cyberspace world) – how come that it has been so rare that since that Democracy Now! interview that Stephen Cohen has not be re-invited on the program?

      Cohen is “the best” – critic of the Soviet Union during the Communist years, critic of Yelsin-Putin since…but with an understanding of what Russian foreign policy is all about and the machinations of Washington on the subject.

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