One afternoon in 1985, while he was listening to an East German band tooting out a bit of Dixieland jazz, Torgau resident Guenter Schoene was hit by what he thought was a brilliant idea.
Wouldn’t it be a fine thing, he mused, to put on an international jazz festival in Torgau, right on the old stone bridge that spans the Elbe River there? The tune “Down by the Riverside,” with its anti-war lyrics--"I’m a-going to lay down my sword and shield/Down by the riverside/Ain’t going to study war no more"--would make a perfect theme song.
For Torgau, as it happens, is something more than just a sleepy backwater of the former Eastern Bloc. It was on Torgau’s bridge, on April 25, 1945, that U.S. troops from of the 69th Infantry Division of the U.S. 1st Army, working their way eastward across Hitler’s Germany, first encountered the Soviet troops slamming in from Poland.
For the soldiers who made the link-up, it was an ecstatic moment--proof that fascism had been crushed and that the long, calamitous war in Europe would soon be over. “I never kissed so many men in my life,” recalled American veteran Ben Casmere, in an oral history, “Yanks Meet Reds.”
Together the GIs and the Soviets--a guard division of the First Ukrainian Front--broke out their accordions and balalaikas, toasted each other with beer and vodka, and took an informal “Oath of the Elbe,” in which they vowed to do all they could to prevent another war.
It was this internationalist spirit that Schoene, and other self-declared Torgau pacifists, hoped to commemorate in song.
“My idea was to combine the message of ‘Down by the Riverside’ with the historic oath of peace that was taken here by the Elbe, and apply them to the needs of the world today,” Schoene says.
But now--on the anniversary week of the famed Allied encounter--it appears that the bridge will not be around for a fete of any kind when next year’s 50th commemoration rolls around. The German government is poised to tear it down.
“That’s the plan,” confirms Torgau Mayor Wolfgang Gerstenberg in his office on Torgau’s tidy 16th-Century town square. “The old bridge is really dilapidated. It’s more than 100 years old. It would cost 9 million marks (about $5.6 million) to repair it, and we don’t have the money on hand.”
But such talk is not something a jazz-loving history student of Torgau will countenance. Schoene and like-minded residents of the town are fighting an eleventh-hour battle to save the bridge.
“It was just a historical accident that the link-up took place here,” admits Uwe Niedersen, another would-be preservationist. “It could have happened anywhere. But it did happen here, and it’s the responsibility of Torgau to keep the memory alive, and not leave it as a sentence in the history books.”
Few Americans today could probably even locate Torgau on a map of Europe with any confidence. But half a century ago, it was a dateline of tremendous international resonance. A photographer at the time posed a few of the U.S. and Soviet soldiers on the rubble of the bridge--the Germans had dynamited it as they scattered--and snapped their pictures for newspapers around the world.
The low-ranking soldiers embraced each other and danced--the first and last such brothers-in-arms hoopla between U.S. and Soviets until the end of the Cold War.
In “Yanks Meet Reds” (Capra Press), the oral history, 1st Lt. H.W. (Bill) Shank of the 104th Mechanized Cavalry Reconnaissance Troop, 104th Infantry, recalled the scene:
“The Russians took the five of us to dinner in a makeshift mess hall with a long table. We and Russian officers filled both sides of the table. A refined Russian captain sat next to me. He spoke good German, so we had fair communication. . . .
“The meal was macaroni and meat, salami, small raw fish, raw fat, meat covered with dough, black bread, hard-boiled eggs, hot chocolate, and cookies. Bottles of vodka had been spaced on the table at regular intervals, and half a water glass of vodka set at each place. The waiters wore light-blue tunics; every time I took a drink from my glass, the fellow behind me would refill it. Wishing to appear equal to my Russian hosts, I kept pouring the stuff into my boot, only to have the fellow give me more....
“Of all the experiences in my life, finding and meeting the Russians was the most memorable.... The war made people love each other so much when it was finally over. If everyone intermingled--like we did when we linked up with the Russians--there could be no war.”
An American rifleman who was there--an English-German interpreter named Joe Polowsky--found himself weeping at the contrast of the warm spring sunlight on the cold bodies of dead German civilians. From that day forward, until his death in 1983, Polowsky would stand every April 25 on the Michigan Avenue bridge in his native Chicago, buttonholing strangers and urging them to join him in renewing the Oath of the Elbe and fighting the arms race. In his will, Polowsky asked to be buried in Torgau--a wish that was granted by the former East German government.
“There will be conflicts forever and ever, but this bridge proves that people from two different systems can meet and in a short time communicate,” notes Niedersehn.
The East German regime had similar ideas. It found in the Torgau bridge a handy plaything for the making of peace-and-brotherhood propaganda. Every few years, it would break out some red bunting, enlist a military band, roll out some Warsaw Pact jeeps and Russian officers tinkling with medals, and hold what Schoene describes as “rigid” ceremonies at the Elbe.
Schoene didn’t think much of the military bands, and believed a jazz festival would be much better.
“But of course, that was impossible,” he says. “Our leaders weren’t interested in letting ordinary people stage such a festival.” Indeed, he adds, he once tried to snap a picture of the official Communist ceremonies and was arrested for his efforts.
Then came 1989. The Berlin Wall was knocked down, and the East German government collapsed. With the reunification of Germany, Schoene believed that his chance to commemorate the April, 1945, proceedings had come at long last.
But what he didn’t reckon on was the reunified German government’s eagerness to bring the former East’s roads and bridges up to Western standards. The Bundestag in Bonn has appropriated a torrent of money for infrastructure repairs, and after four years, it is now Torgau’s turn.
Already, a call for bids has gone out to demolition contractors. Gerstenberg says the wrecking ball could swing as early as May.
Engineer Klaus Grabein, with the roads and bridges department of the state of Saxony, says the steel in the Torgau bridge is too old to be worth saving. And repairs made after the departing Nazis dynamited the bridge were poorly done, he says.
But the really fatal feature of the bridge is a stone pylon that rises out of the Elbe at midstream. In 1984, a Czech freighter steaming down the river misread the currents, hit the pylon and sank. It blocked traffic on the river for days--and the impact to the pylon further weakened the bridge.
“Someone else is free to take over the old bridge and preserve it,” Gerstenberg says, “but whoever does it has to take the middle pylon out.”
Niedersen and Schoene have been scrambling for the funds, but their efforts so far have been fruitless. They have been in touch with officials in local, state and federal German agencies, and even at the United Nations, which by coincidence was founded on the same day as the Torgau link-up. But no one seems to agree the bridge is worth saving.
The preservationists also tried sending a letter to the mayor of New Orleans, basing a plea for help on a purported Torgau-New Orleans jazz connection. But New Orleans has written back that it can’t afford to ship a stone bridge across the Atlantic.
Torgau’s preservationists have even written President Clinton, asking him to come play his saxophone on the bridge, and to the conceptual artist Christo, suggesting he “wrap” the bridge, but to no avail.
Part of the preservationists’ problem is that while the bridge is primarily of interest to Americans and Red Army veterans, it stands in Germany. And few Germans seem much interested in lavishing funds on a structure that reminds them of the past.
“Conservatives think, for us, this wasn’t the hour of victory, it was the hour of defeat,” Niedersen says.
At the Town Hall, however, Mayor Gerstenberg says the demolition is strictly a matter of money and has nothing to do with banishing Nazi ghosts.
“Even if we had the money, I can’t imagine spending 9 million marks on the old bridge,” he says. “There are so many other things to be done.”
Grabein, the engineer, says the state of Saxony offered to save one end of the bridge for a platform where visitors could look out over the water and contemplate the festivities of the hope-filled afternoon half a century before.
But the preservationists have rejected that plan.
“Imagine if Clinton comes for the 50th anniversary and asks the mayor, ‘Where is the bridge?’ ” Niedersen says. “Mr. Gerstenberg would have to say, ‘Well, this little sign is all there is left.’ I just can’t imagine that.”