Oath of the Elbe, by Walter Kempowski

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Oath of the Elbe


From Swansong 1945: A Collective Diary of the Last Days of the Third Reich, edited by Walter Kempowski, out this month from W. W. Norton. On April 25, 1945, Soviet and American troops met for the first time at the River Elbe, near Torgau, Germany. “Jewish Press Agency,” or “J.P.A.,” was a slang term used by concentration-camp inmates for rumors circulating within the camp.

renata laqueur, in transit from bergen-belsen concentration camp, germany

At half past five I was up again and wanted to get organized. We had nothing left. On my way back to the car, having forgotten something, I heard excited discussions and loud, joyful cries. A woman came toward me, gesticulating violently, and told me breathlessly about the arrival of the Russians.

I couldn’t believe it; too often J.P.A. had fooled us with “safe” reports. I needed to see for myself. I ran along the tracks until I reached the street, where a soldier stood about a hundred meters away. I recognized a gray-green uniform, a long coat, a rifle — nothing special. He turned to me, I saw his face, his cap, and the red star. It was true!

else gloeden, gross jenznick, poland

Two horse riders come to the farm, I jump out of the window and hide, now here, now there, and soon I don’t know what’s what, I climb through the window into our kitchen. Then the Russian comes up to the open window outside and tells me he wants hay for horses. He insists: “You show.” As soon as we’ve reached the stable, he grins at me and throws me with all his might into the dung in the stable, pulls my underwear off. It isn’t going quickly enough for him, so he uses his rifle butt too. I’m dizzy, a jolt inside, a rush of blood, I’m lying in a pool of blood. He jumps up, hits me with his rifle a number of times: “German swine,” and steps aside. He wipes the blood off himself and goes outside cursing.

hugo hartung, breslau, poland

They bring a deserter to our command post. He is a Breslau mechanic, father of several children, trying to get away from defense duties, which became pointless a long time ago, and save himself for his family. The man has a good face and a decent attitude. But when the colonel asks him the reason for his action, he doesn’t reply. He knows his fate is sealed. The hearing takes a nasty turn when we are joined by a young lieutenant who insults the young man in the most obnoxious terms and tells him bullets would be wasted on him. He should be stuffed in a latrine, covered with quicklime. In the evening the lieutenant comes back to the command post to check whether the deserter has been summarily executed.

alexander gordiev, soviet officer on the elbe

I went with my deputies to the ferry-landing stage, where the Americans were. We were all very excited. The American soldiers respectfully studied our guard badges, orders, and medals, asked about their meaning, and wanted to know what the red and yellow braids on our field tunics were. When they found out that they were wound badges, they were very impressed by the heroism of our soldiers.

On lengths of tarpaulin spread out on the meadow, Russian vodka and a simple lunch were served. Then the American soldiers and ours exchanged toasts — that there should never be another war, to friendship sealed in battle against a common enemy, to peace.

joseph polowsky, u.s. soldier on the elbe

There was a tremendous burst of lilacs as we approached the Elbe River. This exaltation of being alive, after all those days trapped in a trench war. There were even jokes that we were approaching the river Jordan, crossing into Canaan.

The Elbe is a swift-running river, about a hundred and seventy-five yards wide. Fifty yards on each side of the river were literally covered with bodies — of women, old men, children. I still remember seeing a little girl clutching a doll in one hand — it was right there. And her mother’s hand in the other. She couldn’t have been more than five or six years old. They were all piled up like cordwood at the bank.

At this historic moment of the meeting of nations, all the soldiers present — ordinary soldiers, Americans and Russians — solemnly swore that they would do everything in their power to prevent such things from ever happening in the world again. We pledged that the nations of the world would and must live at peace. This was our Oath of the Elbe.

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