April 25 was “Elbe Day,” when Russians and American soldiers met and shook hands over the Elbe River in Germany, marking a major step toward ending that bloody and wasteful war. The impact on the Russian memory of World War II must be understood—yes, even today. When you mention “The War” to an American, depending on his age, he thinks of Vietnam, Korea, or if over seventy, World War II. If under forty he may think you mean Iraq or Afghanistan.. But to a Russian “The War” can only be “The Great Patriotic War.”
The American public, far from the action and involved only in what the media brought us in those black and white newsreel days, still today do not understand what a cataclysmic happening World War II was for the Russian people and the sacrifices they made. Over twenty million Russians died to help turn the war into victory for us all. History is slowly setting this right. For them the color of the war was the color of the blood of their men, women and children.
I met a hero of that war on that Victory Day. It was May, 1995. Sitting proudly across from me on the Moscow Metro was a wrinkled veteran with a kindly face, his threadbare oversized suit coat burdened with medals, including the red-ribboned gold star of Hero of the Soviet Union. As we stood to leave, he asked, “Aren’t you Russian?”
“No,” I answered, “I am an American.”
He stopped in the push of the departing crowd and faced me. With firm hands, he grasped mine and shook them hard. He looked directly into my eyes, said, “Americans brave soldiers. I meet—Elbe River.” He was at that historic meeting of the two allied armies fifty years before. We congratulated each other warmly for being allies fighting a common enemy and went our different ways—as did our countries after that time long ago. I felt small, and yet honored. I remember the feel of his hands, firm, smooth, and warm, friendly hands. He stood and walked straight as an arrow. There was a hero.