Elbe Day

Today marks the 71st anniversary of this unofficial holiday.It heralded the end of WWII in Europe.

I don’t think enough is done to mark this day since it did not only herald the end of World War 2 it also heralded the start of the cold war.

At a river in the heart of Hitler’s Germany, the United States and Soviet Union came together, but while war united them,  peace would split the superpowers apart

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.

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Elbe Day has never been an official holiday in any country, but in the years after 1945 the memory of this friendly encounter gained new significance in the context of the Cold War between the U.S. and the Soviet Union.

The first contact between American and Soviet patrols occurred near Strehla, after First Lieutenant Albert Kotzebue, an American soldier, crossed the River Elbe in a boat with three men of an intelligence and reconnaissance platoon. On the east bank they met forward elements of a Soviet Guards rifle regiment of the First Ukrainian Front, under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Gardiev.

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The same day, another patrol under Second Lieutenant Willi am Robertson with Frank Huff, James McDonnell and Paul Staub met a Soviet patrol commanded by Lieutenant Alexander Silvashko on the destroyed Elbe bridge of Torgau.

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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 ou tseveral 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.”

On April 26, the commanders of the 69th Infantry Division of the First Army and the 58th Guards Rifle Division of the 5th Guards Army (Soviet Union) met at Torgau, southwest of Berlin. Arrangements were made for the formal “Handshake of Torgau” between Robertson and Silvashko in front of photographers the following day, April 27.

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The Soviet, American, and British governments released simultaneous statements that evening in London, Moscow, and Washington, reaffirming the determination of the three Allied powers to complete the destruction of the Third Reich.

Monuments at Torgau, Lorenzkirch, and Bad Liebenwerda commemorate the first encounters between U.S. and Soviet troops on Elbe Day. In the United States, a “Spirit of the Elbe” plaque at Arlington National Cemetery commemorates the day.

In 1949 the Russian film studio Mosfilm commemorated Elbe Day in the black-and-white film Encounter at the Elbe.

During the Cold War the meeting of the two armies was often recalled as a symbol of peace and friendship between the people of the two antagonistic superpowers. For example, in 1961 the popular Russian song “Do the Russians Want War?” evoked the memory of American and Russian soldiers embracing at the Elbe River.

Joseph Polowsky, an American soldier who met Soviet troops on Elbe Day, was deeply affected by the experience and devoted much of his life to opposing war. He commemorated Elbe Day each year in his hometown of Chicago and unsuccessfully petitioned the United Nations to make April 25 a “World Day of Peace.” His remains are buried in a cemetery in Torgau.

American singer-songwriter Fred Small commemorated Joseph Polowsky and Elbe Day in his song “At The Elbe”.

In 1988 a plaque titled “Der Geist der Elbe” (“Spirit of the Elbe”) was mounted on a stone near Torgau at the site of the encounter between troops of the U.S. 69th Infantry and the Soviet Guards.

In 1995 the Russian Federation issued a three-ruble coin commemorating the 50th anniversary of Elbe Day.

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By 2010, the 65th anniversary of the event, Elbe Day events in Torgau were held annually on the weekend closest to April 25, attracting tourists to the city. Also in 2010, the U.S. and Russian presidents for the first time issued a joint statement on April 25 commemorating Elbe Day and the “spirit of the Elbe”.

The meeting at the Elbe is represented in the war strategy game R.U.S.E., released in 2010 and 2011 and based loosely on World War II events.

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