Perspectives: Stalingrad Foes Meet Again – November ’97 World War II Feature

8/19/1997 • World War II

An American diplomat witnessed an extraordinary reunion in once war-torn Stalingrad.

By Peter A. Huchthausen

Some years after the end of the war, a small group of German survivors of the Battle of Stalingrad (now called Volgograd) encountered a throng of Red Army veterans revisiting the scene for the first time since the end of the battle in 1943. The two parties met by chance near the city center, the site of some of the most bitter fighting of the long siege.

As she related the horrific story of the siege, the Russian tour guide accompanying the German veterans was overcome by emotion and withdrew, sobbing, unable to continue translating. I was visiting the city as an embassy attache at the time and happened to be part of the same tour group as the German veterans. The Germans asked me to translate for them as they spoke to the Red Army veterans.

I repeated the question asked by the German spokesman: “Are there no cemeteries here for the fallen?”

One Russian veteran turned toward the Germans to respond. He was tall and slightly stooped but dignified-looking, with dark eyes and Slavic cheek bones. His dark-colored suit jacket was adorned with rows of faded campaign ribbons, and two medals hung from its worn lapel. His rumpled light brown canvas trousers were patched. “I’m not sure,” he said. “We’re back for the first time since ’43, and we’ve seen only the big monument on the hill, to Mother Russia. Where are you from?” he asked .

“Munich,” replied the German veteran, a shorter man who was wearing a Bavarian suit of charcoal with green lapels and no ribbons or medals. He did, however, have a memento of his fighting days–one of his coat sleeves was empty, folded neatly and pinned to his shoulder. He carried a walking stick with a top of carved antler. “We were here in ’43, too.” he said. “We’re back on a tour.”

The Russian stared at him as if confused. “Munich, that’s Germany, right?” he asked.

“Ja,” answered the German proudly; his back stiffening almost imperceptibly. “Were you here that winter when it was so cold?”

The Russian nodded. Then, looking astonished, he gazed directly at the German and inquired, “Why did you come back?”

“I don’t know,” said the German. “I wanted to see this place again, I guess, and visit the graves. Do you know where to look?”

“No, we haven’t seen any graves, only the big markers on the hill with some unit numbers,” answered the Russian, still studying the German’s face with wonder, as if trying to establish some hidden explanation as to why on earth a German would come back to a place that had been the site of such utter destruction and bitter fighting. “Where were you then?”

“Well, I’m not sure,” replied the German. “It doesn’t look the same now. Do you remember where you were?” he asked, looking across the embankment toward the Volga River.

“I was inside the basement of the tractor factory to the north,” said the Russian, pointing up the river. “We were dug in there for a long time when we thought you had taken the city. We were going to take it back,” he added somewhat fiercely.

The German looked around him silently, then said: “We never did take it. But it seems I was near here somewhere.” He paused and spoke again: “We brought flowers. Are you sure there are no cemeteries?”

The Russian exchanged a few words with several members of his group, all of whom were wearing different types of clothing. Clearly, they had all dressed with some care for the outing, since each of them was wearing a suit jacket. Several of them also wore colorfully embroidered skullcaps from central Asia. One sported a wide-brimmed felt fedora, and his wide smile revealed glistening gold teeth. All had campaign ribbons, and some also had medals. Several used a cane, while one man was equipped with a crutch.

“They say there’s a plaque behind the ruined building that mentions some units,” said the Russian spokesman, “but we think there are no monuments with names.” He pointed to a ruined building adjacent to the battle museum. It was pockmarked and partially destroyed, unchanged since the fighting had stopped.

I walked with the two groups of veterans in the hot sun toward the ruined building. The Volga River was visible in the background, brown and swift-running, its far shore blending with the horizon. Two strings of barges in the channel passed one another as they went in opposite directions. The nearer we came to the ruined building, the stronger it smelled–a musty odor like that of a damp basement or ancient catacombs emanated from the ruins.

The two veteran spokesmen walked close together, as if they were bound by some invisible tether. “How long were you here?” asked the Russian man.

“I’m not sure, but long enough,” replied the German. “It’s like a foggy and noisy dream. I just remember it was frightful.”

“I remember, too,” said the Russian. “It was terrible and lasted so long.”

The guide, who had regained her composure, rejoined the group, which was by now intermixed, Germans and Russians walking together. She began to rattle forth long, hollow phrases about the battle, pointing here and there and describing where the Germans had been at the finish. Her words flowed over us, waves of memorized phrases sprinkled with the usual Soviet patriotic terms–sacrifice, socialist struggle, sacred duty and motherland.

“I wish she wouldn’t chatter so,” said the Russian spokesman. “We knew where you were then.” He still watched the German spokesman closely, as if hiding a secret smile. The large group arrived at the corner of the pockmarked building and stopped.

“Where’s the plaque?” asked the German.

The two veterans began looking through the high grass near the blackened, shattered bricks, but found no memorials.

The tour guide, agitated by the lack of listeners snapped: “We should go. We’re off the tour route.”

“Silence,” croaked the Russian. “Can’t you see we’re thinking together?” He turned from the guide and looked at the German. “After all, we fought each other, and now we’re thinking together. Isn’t that something?” he asked. He shook his cane at the guide, who was again losing her composure, the corners of her mouth beginning to twitch as if she wanted to cry.

The two men stood silently together for a few moments. A bird sang on a nearby tree. “There weren’t many birds then, were there?” said the German.

“Not many, but do you remember, sometimes we heard those silly partridges? They would sit and look at us during the worst shelling. They were never frightened. I couldn’t understand them,” the Russian responded thoughtfully. “You’re right, you didn’t hear much singing.” He turned just then and looked directly at the German. “How did you get out?”

“Sometimes, when the weather cleared, our planes came in for the wounded, but not often,” the German answered. “I was hit several times, but I was lucky. Near the last I was in a medical center, really not much of a center, just a pattern of shell holes with a cover. An officer told us about an evacuation plane that was coming and said that whoever made it over to the flat area near the back of the Kurgan, where your big statue is, could maybe get out. They had said that before, but no one had ever made it that far.”

The German paused, looking into the Russian’s face, and waited to see his reaction as I translated. When I had caught up with his words, the German continued his story, looking more and more distant as he spoke.

“My friend Walther went with me. He was wounded too but could walk. We made it all the way to the field. I don’t know how, but we did. He helped me into a waiting plane filled with wounded, and it took off.” He paused.

“What happened to Walther?” asked the Russian veteran.

“He couldn’t get in the airplane,” said the German. “He fell over in the field and couldn’t get up. We just rolled away.”

“You were lucky,” said the Russian.

They stood together for a while. The bird sang a few more notes. “Where shall I put the flowers?” asked the German.

“We can’t find the plaque,” the Russian responded, “so here, let’s put them here in the sun. They’ll be nice in the sun. Warm. It was so cold then, remember?”

“Yes, I remember,” said the German. “But we should put some markers here for the soldiers, markers with names. They have them in other battlefields. I saw some of ours in France once. Nicely kept, too.”

“We have lots of monuments around. Big ones, too,” said one of the other Russians.

“The largest in the world,” chimed in the guide, sounding more cheerful again, as though she hoped to be useful. “You see over there, on the square, is the Victory Monument, and on the hill at Mamaya is Mother Russia, the highest monument in the world. It stands over one hundred….”

“Please leave us alone!” interrupted the Russian spokesman. “The place is full of monuments, big, small, ugly and thick ones, not one with a soldier’s name on it.”

“You shouldn’t talk that way in front of foreigners,” snapped the guide at her countryman. “We have the most….”

Again the Russian veteran cut her off. “There’s not one monument with my friends’ names on it. They’re all huge, lumpy, stone shrines dedicated to this and to that glorious thing. There’s not a stone in this city with a soldier’s name on it,” said the Russian quietly. He turned back to the German and said, “Here, let me help you.”

The two old soldiers stooped down and put the flowers between two stones from the ruined building. Then they looked at each other in silence.

“Those are for Walther,” the Russian man said finally.

“Ja,” said the German, “for Walther.” He paused. “And for your friends.”

They stood silently together for a long time, then suddenly embraced. I walked away as they stood together in the sun.

Our German tour boat had come down the Volga from Kazan to Volgograd (the new name for Stalingrad). After visiting the ruins of Stalingrad, we traveled through the Volga­Don Canal to the Don River and on to Rostov-on-Don. We toured factories, dams, enormous hydroelectric works, canals and locks, Lenin’s birthplace (now called Simbirsk), Saratov and Tol’yatti. We saw many massive monuments, but no graves.

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