Postcard from... the Elbe


By Paul Scraton:

At Torgau we stood by the river and watched as a group of soldiers in camouflage uniforms pulled the bright pink life jackets over their heads and climbed gingerly onto the inflatable rafts. The Elbe was passing quickly beneath the road bridge, the waters of Bohemia pushing on downstream, forward, ever forward, towards Hamburg and the North Sea. We watched as someone important in a motorised launch called out instructions through a loudhailer and a chilly-looking civilian snapped a few photographs and then they were off, the currents taking them around the bend and out of sight before they could even break the surface with their paddles.

We walked back up the quiet street, towards the castle and the sleepy town centre. It was Saturday but in small German towns the shops only make a token gesture at opening on the weekend before closing in order that their owners and staff can do something more civilised instead. In front of the castle a terrace looked out over the river. It was all that remained of the old bridge, the one that used to cross the river before the Second World War.  By the time Soviet forces approached the river from the east on April 25th 1945 the bridge was collapsed, half sunk in the high spring waters of the Elbe as it rushed through war-ravaged Europe. On the other bank they were greeted by American troops who had been pushing west. And so this spot, in the shadow of the castle, was where the Allied forces met for the first time as they squeezed Nazi Germany from either side. In Berlin, down in the bunker, the endgame was in sight.

As we watched the river and tried to imagine those scenes 71 years ago, as kids played on the steps of the memorial the Soviets erected to mark the spot. With texts in Russian, German and English, the Hammer-and-Sickle flag “flew” next the Stars-and-Stripes, both chiselled out of stone, for the entirety of the Cold War and beyond. Torgau would, after the famous meeting, find itself in the Soviet zone and thus the German Democratic Republic, to become infamous as a place political prisoners were sent. And throughout it all, the Elbe kept flowing. Now the tales of war and the divided country are told on information boards and in an exhibition at the castle. Meanwhile, in the town centre and with the shops closed, the locals warmed up in the coffee shop on the main market square. We took one last look at the river, and headed into town to join them.

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