in New York State (April 2021)
April 2021 – 10th Russian American History Month in NY State
Elbe Day, April 25, 1945, is the day Soviet and American troops met at the Elbe River, near Torgau in Germany, marking an important step toward the end of World War II in Europe. This contact between the Soviets, advancing from the East, and the Americans, advancing from the West, meant that the two powers had effectively cut Germany in two.
For years, Soviet troops had been inching slowly westward, pushing Nazi troops back all along the Eastern Front. On June 6, 1944, D-Day, American and British troops opened a second front in Europe and began fighting the Nazis on the ground from the West.
Finally, on April 25, 1945, Soviet and American troops cut through the Wehrmacht divisions and met in the middle of Germany near the town of Torgau, 85 miles from Berlin, on the Elbe River. The allied forces had effectively cut Germany in two.
That Soviet and American troops would meet in this general area was known, and signals had even been worked out between the allied leaders at Yalta to indicate to the troops on either side that they were friendly. But the actual meeting itself was decided by fate. The moment, which came to be known as the Meeting on the Elbe, portended the end of the war in Europe, which came less than two short weeks later, when the Red Army stormed Berlin.
Lt. Bill Robertson of the 273th Regiment of the 69th Infantry Division, driving on the morning of April 25 into the town of Torgau, knew that he might encounter Soviet troops, and knew he should greet them as friends and allies – Gen. Courtney Hodges, Commander of the First U.S. Army, had told his men to “Treat them nicely.” But Robertson was not prepared to carry out the protocol that U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt, Soviet Leader Joseph Stalin and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill had worked out several months before in Yalta.
The first American soldiers to make contact were to fire a green-colored star shell – the Soviets, a red one. Robertson and the three men in his patrol decided the best way to show they were Americans was to present an American flag. As they didn’t have a flag, they found a white sheet and painted it as best they could to look like the stars-and-stripes.
Soviet Lt. Alexander Sylvashko was skeptical at first that Robertson and his men were Americans. He thought the four men waving a colored sheet were Germans playing a trick on the Soviet troops. He fired a red star shell, but did not receive a green one in return.
Sylvashko sent one of his soldiers, a man named Andreev, to meet Robertson, in the center of a bridge crossing the Elbe. The two men awkwardly embraced and made the hand signal of “V for Victory.”
The following day, a huge ceremony was held on the spot with dozens of soldiers from both sides. They swore an oath, in memory of those who had not made it so far:
“In the name of those who have fallen on the battlefields, those who have left this life and in the name of their descendants, the way to war must be blocked!”
On this partially destroyed bridge over the Elbe, the Soviet and American soldiers built a new one, between countries — a bridge of friendship.
That day, the soldiers met as comrades-in-arms, embraced each other, and exchanged buttons, stars and patches from each other’s uniforms. Later, this exchange of “souvenirs” was carried out at the highest levels. Officers exchanged their service weapons.
Soviet Marshal Ivan Konev presented U.S. General Omar Bradley with his war horse, a magnificent Don stallion; Bradley presented Konev with the Legion of Merit – and also gave him a jeep. Marshal Georgy Zhukov, the top Soviet general, awarded Supreme Allied Commander Dwight D. Eisenhower the highest honor of the Soviet Union, the Order of Victory. Eisenhower gave Zhukov the Legion of Honor.
Eisenhower, who loved Coca-Cola, shared a drink with Zhukov. The Soviet commander liked it so much a special version of Coca-Cola, White Coke, was made for him. The drink was colorless so that it would look like Zhukov was drinking vodka.
This exchange of culture and customs was indicative of the spirit of the Meeting on the Elbe.
In 1988, a book called Yankees Meet the Reds came out in both English and Russian, commemorating the meeting on the Elbe River. In it American Lieutenant Colonel Buck Kotzebue made an interesting observation: “I think that all soldiers definitely have something in common. They understand the meaning of war. And if we could let them choose, there would be no war. Yes, you can doubt the spirit of Elbe. You can say that these are just dreams about the impossible. But I think that it is necessary to dream about the impossible. Only then will it become possible.”
Also in 1988, the first monument to the Meeting on the Elbe was dedicated – a plaque was mounted on the spot in Torgau where the meeting took place.
A memorial in Arlington Cemetery in Washington also commemorates the spirit of Elbe. It is a bronze plaque, immortalizing the historic handshake between Soviet and American soldiers with an optimistic sign reading: “The spirit of Elbe lives on and conquers.” Wreath laying ceremonies take place at the cemetery each year on April 25 with military bands playing the national anthems of Russia and the United States.
With time, the memory of that powerful moment on the Elbe has faded, but it is necessary to preserve the recollections of that profound meeting.
In Moscow, the Spirit of the Elbe organization in partnership with the Veteran’s Union, carries out educational activities and conferences dedicated to the anniversary of the allies’ meeting.
The 1949 film “Meeting on Elbe” is still popular in Russia.
It begins with the “Song of Peace,” composed by Dmitri Shostakovich. The film ends with the words of the two protagonists, a Soviet and an American: “The friendship between the people of Russia and America is the most important issue that mankind now faces.” With Shostakovich’s soulful music playing in the background, these words still have a significant impact, especially today.