Monday, March 17, 2014

Encounter at River Elbe

On April 25, 1945, the Soviet Army advanced from the east and the American Army advanced from the west and met at the River Elbe; with only Berlin remaining for the siege and attack with fusillade. Both Americans and Russians did not know how to greet each other. One word “tovarishch” (comrade or friend) uttered by an American soldier’s slip of the tongue, broke the embarrassment.

They cheered, hugged, toasted in celebration and pledged that youths should never ever confront in war. The Elbe Day was recorded in history, but the pledge was fleeting and quickly vanished as the Cold War soon followed.

A few months prior to the Elbe Day, the city of Dresden, known as Florence of the Elbe, 100 km upstream, had fallen into utter ruin engulfed in an inferno from the Allied force’s heaviest air raids that lasted for two days. There was fire everywhere and everything was on fire! Hot winds from the firestorm killed people as they fled into underground bomb shelters. It is not clear how many perished because the population had not been recorded. An estimated 25,000 to 200,000 people lost their lives.

Amongst the survivors, there was a POW American witness, Kurt Vonnegut (1922-2007). He was detained underground in the now well known “Slaughterhouse Five” that withstood the heat. American POWs, including Kurt, were mobilized for mass burial.

“Our leaders had carte blanche as to what they might not destroy. Their mission was to win the war as quickly as possible, and while they were admirably trained to do just that, their decision as to the fate of certain priceless World heirlooms - in one case Dresden - were not always judicious. When, late in the war, with the Wehrmacht breaking up on all fronts, our planes were sent to destroy this last major city.

I doubt if the question was asked, ‘How will this tragedy benefit us, and how will this benefit compare with the ill-effect in the long run?’ Dresden, a beautiful city, built in the art spirit, symbol of an admirable heritage, so anti-Nazi that Hitler visited it but twice during his whole reign, (and food and a hospital center so bitterly needed) but the city was plowed under and salt strewn in the furrows.”

Kurt wrote this in his Armageddon in Retrospect in 2008, a posthumous book. I have followed him as one of my favorite contemporary writers, and because my first German friend, a young Bosch engineer I befriended, had the same name Kurt. I almost cried when he added “I stand convinced that the brand of justice in which we dealt a wholesale bombing of a civilian population, was blasphemous,” also referring to Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

As to the Russians who discovered that Kurt was an American, he wrote that they embraced Americans, congratulated them on the complete desolation of Dresden, Americans accepted it with good grace and modesty. However, Kurt wrote that he felt he would have given his life to save Dresden. Well said, Kurt!

In 2005, I traveled from Berlin to Prague by express train. Dresden was the first stop. I hurriedly took a picture of the station. The train crossed the Elbe and I saw the city recovering with great effort and sacrifice. Sheer consolation! The city Meissen, nearby, across the Elbe had escaped the bombing. Meissen is the home of the world famous white porcelain manufacturing.

As I approached the German-Czech border along the Elbe, my eyes were fixed on the breathtaking riverside sceneries. The spectacular hills running along across the meandering Elbe River was so awesome and beckoning, I forgot to take photos.

I noted one of the station names: “Bad Shandau.” Later a Google search found that Bad Shandau (bad is spa in German) was the location for the Romantic Saxon Switzerland National Park Center. It is surrounded by the Elbe sandstone highlands, reportedly the source of the Dresden cathedrals and maybe the Meissen porcelain.

Pardubice is a medium-sized Czech town where I spent about a week, with the help of my friend George (introduced in Riosloggers as the silver iron man). The Elbe River comes down from Hradec Kralove (Queen's Town) and runs through Pardubice. Entering the city of Pardubice, a smaller river Chrudimka flows into the streams of the Elbe. I remember seeing a sightseeing boat. I would like to return to the Elbe River someday and visit Saxon Switzerland and Bohemian Switzerland.

Top photo courtesy of DTM Valerie Wagnerova who is currently VP of Public Realtions for the "Pardubice Enthusiasts" Toastmasters Club.

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