Elbe Day is a distant memory, but it proved the U.S. and Russia could get along
by PAUL HUARD
April 25, 1945 — Elbe Day — marks one of the turning points not only of World War II, but of world history. Nearly 70 years later, it’s a date few remember.
American soldiers advancing from the west met Soviet soldiers driving from the east at the German city of Torgau on the Elbe River. The U.S. Army and the Red Army cut Nazi Germany in half, sounding the final death knell of the Third Reich.
“The Elbe linkup symbolized the comprehensive annihilation of the most hideous, dangerous existential threat the modern world had ever endured,” retired U.S. Army Brig. Gen. Peter Zwack — who served as defense attaché at the U.S. embassy in the Russian Federation — told War Is Boring.
“It showed that nations with significant differences and radically different political systems and ideologies could pull together in common cause to defeat a mutually mortal foe.”
Adolf Hitler’s reaction to the linkup says it all. Five days later, he and his wife Eva Braun committed suicide inside the Führerbunker near the Reich Chancellery in Berlin.
On May 7, Germany surrendered and the war in Europe ended.
Stars and Stripes echoed what many of the gleeful participants in the linkup believed. Under the headline “Yanks Meet Reds,” the story declared that the two armies had closed “the final gap between the Eastern and Western Fronts … The long-awaited junction is the greatest of any war in history.”
In Moscow, the response was even more jubilant. Stalin ordered an artillery salute and crowds went wild in Red Square. Some said it represented the warmest period of American-Soviet friendship before the Cold War froze it.
One of the American participants — Joseph Polowsky — became a staunch anti-war activist after the war. Russian poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko penned a world-famous song based on a simple question raised by the Torgau meeting — “Do the Russians want war?”
What’s ironic is that the initial linkups were simple affairs, involving fewer than 100 soldiers from both sides. Photographers carefully staged many of the day’s most famous images to preserve an image of Allied unity.
Still, Allied leaders knew what Elbe Day meant. Pres. Harry Truman said it best when he summed up the day’s significance.
“This is not the hour of final victory in Europe, but the hour draws near, the hour for which all the American people, all the British people and all the Soviet people have toiled and prayed so long,” Truman said.
Eight Russian armies rolled toward Berlin during the first weeks of April, 1945. Their goal was to encircle Berlin and destroy what remained of the German army — culminating in the Nazi regime’s unmitigated and final defeat.
Within the vicinity of the Russian juggernaut were patrols of the U.S. 69th Infantry Division. These patrols moved eastward, probing in reconnaissance missions ahead of the forward lines. Patrols from the Soviet 58th Guards Army Division moved west on similar missions.
American First Lt. Albert Kotzebue commanded an intelligence and reconnaissance platoon that was part of the U.S. Army patrols.
When Kotzebue saw Russian forces on the other side, he crossed the Elbe River in a boat with three other men.
Lt. Col. Alexander Gardiev, who commanded a Soviet Guards rifle regiment of the First Ukrainian Front, met Kotzebue on the eastern riverbank.
During the next two days, multiple small units of both Americans and Soviets met with one another near Torgau, a city on the Elbe — including Second Lt. William Robertson and Soviet army Lt. Alexander Silvashko.
A Signal Corps photographer posed the duo in front of some flags and posters, then photographed them. The result was the world-famous “Handshake of Torgau” picture used to promote U.S.-Soviet unity during the waning days of World War II.
As generals commanding the larger forces from both sides met formally, American and Soviet soldiers decided to let the good times roll. Many soldiers exchanged bottles of wine and spirits, and drank with each other.
That was when U.S. soldier Polowsky first met his Soviet counterparts. It was a life-changing experience.
Polowsky and several Red Army soldiers saw the bodies of Germans killed by artillery fire. Shaken by the experience, both sides vowed to do whatever was necessary to prevent another world war.
After the war, Polowsky returned to his job as a Chicago taxi cab driver. He called on the United Nations to observe April 25 as “World Peace Day,” but they ignored him.
Despite frequent harassment and charges that he engaged in “un-American activities,” Polowsky held an annual vigil on Chicago’s Michigan Avenue Bridge — a kind of one-man Elbe Day commemoration.
Polowsky died in 1983. In his will, he asked for burial in Torgau, where he was laid to rest with full military honors.
In Russia, poet and songwriter Yevgeny Yevtushenko commemorated Elbe Day with the song “Do the Russians Want War?” The anti-war song became popular around the world during the ’60s with its lyrics that evoked the meeting between U.S. and Soviet soldiers.
Currently, there are no plans for any formal European commemoration of the 70th anniversary of Elbe Day by either the Russian or U.S. governments.
The online calendar of the American embassy in Germany shows no events scheduled for April 25. The website for the Russian Embassy in Washington has copious media briefings about the upcoming Victory Day celebration on May 9, but not one word about any Elbe Day ceremonies.
Zwack said he is aware of an April 24 event at Arlington National Cemetery when Russian representatives plan a wreath-laying ceremony. They invited American and foreign guests to the ceremony, including surviving members of the 69th Infantry Division who first met Soviet soldiers of the 5th Guards Army at Torgau.
Russia’s invasion of Crimea in February 2014 and a resurgence of Kremlin military bravado worried Zwack, but he believes both the United States and the Russian Federation are missing an opportunity that would serve as a reminder of better times.
“We need to find and highlight examples and baselines of former cooperation in difficult times to help pull our nations through this very difficult, contentious and potentially very dangerous period,” he said.