A Handshake in the History Thread

This week’s History Thread celebrates Elbe Day, the occasion where American and Soviet troops met during the final days of World War II. The famous photograph in the header depicts Lt. Bill Robertson of the 69th Infantry Division and Lt. Alexander Silvashko shaking hands after meeting near Torgau on the Elbe River in Germany. The two soldiers had been assigned to lead patrols in search of their Allies, but it nearly ended in tragedy when Silvashko mistook the Americans for Germans and ordered his men to open fire. Fortunately, no casualties resulted, tragedy was averted and Robertson invited Silvashko to American headquarters to meet his superior officers.

This meeting led to a brief moment of Russo-American camaraderie, recorded by reporter Don Whitehead. The next day saw “backslapping, sign language, and drinking between the Americans and the Russians. The men gulped German schnapps and French champagne from beer mugs. Robertson would have to file a report on the day’s events, but that could wait. Before the party was over, Robertson and Silvashko were ushered in front of a hastily painted sign announcing the linkup and a photographer snapped the famous photo.”

The meeting’s camaraderie didn’t last: Silvashko’s two superior officers were arrested and stripped of Party rank (contrary to some accounts, they did not suffer further punishment), though Silvashko would say he was “too young and stupid” to be punished for the action. Robertson was also arrested and interrogated about the contact, though Dwight Eisenhower personally intervened to prevent any further punishment. Any elation Silvashko felt faded when he returned home to Ukraine to find his entire family had been killed by the Nazis.

Silvashko relocated to the village of Morach in Belarus, while Robertson moved to Los Angeles and became a successful neurosurgeon. The two men’s paths didn’t cross again for thirty years, when President Ford and Premier Brezhnev invited them to Moscow to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the event. Robertson and Silvashko held a tearful reunion, discussing their historic meetings and catching up with each other (through an interpreter, of course) while the world’s press recorded the moment.

In 2005, American Ambassador to Belarus George Krol located Silvashko and convinced him to take part in a film commemorating the anniversary of the war’s end (Robertson had died in 1999). The Belorussian government commissioned the film and accorded Silvashko full military honors in recognition of his military service and his historic event. Silvashko, who died a few years later, lamented that friendship between America and the USSR didn’t last long beyond the handshake. With renewed Russo-American tensions in the modern day, we too might lament that the “Spirit of Torgau” hasn’t taken hold.