There are photos that want to speak to us…
This is one of them.
Text from a reader of Souvenirs de guerre that I have translated.
Il y a des photos… la suite
This text was written most spontaneously on 13 and 14 August 2021, following a historical reminder heard on the morning radio.
Fifteen years after the Second World War, on the night of 12 to 13 August 1961, 15,000 armed soldiers of the German Democratic Republic surrounded the part of the Berlin capital which, at the Yalta Conference, had been allocated to the Western countries (USA, UK and France). On the morning of that day, on both sides of the dividing line between “East and West”, Berliners heard on their morning radio that the border between the two administrative and political territories had been definitively closed. More than anywhere else in the world, this was a brutal shock and the pain of it lasted until November 9, 1989, when the Berlin Wall fell.
Let me tell you why this historical event has a special significance for me.
On my sixteenth birthday, October 7, 1972, out of respect for his word as well as prudence, my father had the idea of placing a small transparent plastic box on the kitchen table as a gift without any wrapping or ribbon. I knew it, although I had never explored it. Inadvertently, a few years earlier I had found it one day in a ‘private’ drawer in the house, and my mother had simply told me that it consisted of photos from his time ‘in Europe’. My father referred to his years away from Montreal, from 1940 to 1945, as “Europe”. When he came home from work and I told him of my discovery of this treasure, he simply said that when I was old enough to understand certain things, we would look at the contents together. You can imagine how happy I was that the day in question had finally come!
As soon as the lid was lifted and the first photo was taken out, my questions followed one after the others awkwardly. “When was this? How old were you? Who was that next to you? Where was it?” and so on and so on…
As my questions were repeated according to my pressing need to know things, he appeared to me, with each successive question, as more and more emotional with his answers. Today I understand that these answers were having this effect on him. Fortunately, in order to pull himself together, he almost always had the way, the words, the explanation by which everything fell into place.
Among the photos that motivated my questions was this one:
He told me it was taken in Berlin at the Reichstag. As part of the Canadian troop that was there immediately after the war, his detachment had been ordered to face the Russians in the area shown. And most importantly, that if the Russians advanced towards the building without permission, they were to fire…
The commander had told them that if the war against the Germans was really over, they might have to take away the idea of the Communists taking over the whole city, and that things could very well start in the destroyed Berlin Parliament. And finally, that some of the Allied generals like Patton and others would like to continue the war to “drive them home”.
I felt my father in a strange state, a mixture of sadness and combativeness, and putting everything back in the box, he announced: “And the rest is for another time. Let’s go and eat at the restaurant, it’s past six o’clock.
Of course, there were still a few occasions to discuss this time over the following years. But he never spoke to me again about that particular photo.
When he passed away ten years later, I got it into my head one day to find out more about his wartime journey and, of course, the day came to dig deeper into this photo. With my wife as my accomplice, I found myself in Germany in 2016. And there, from the very first day we were there, I had confirmation that the photo had indeed been taken at a specific location at the Berlin Reichstag. So our investigative efforts had a first concrete result. A first one, because we were really not at the end of our surprises.
For several days afterwards, we travelled around Berlin and a few more victories, which, I’m sorry to say, are not “the topic of the day”, followed. Back home and since then the search goes on. Some time passed and another amazing fact came to us about the 1945 photograph. My father’s photo shows the exact spot where, from above, the most famous photo of the Reichstag was taken in May 1945 (to be really precise, I should say the succession of photos taken between May 1 and May 4). In other words, exactly in line with each other.
A stone statue, a carcass of a tramway, debris on the ground, bell towers, etc.
But that’s not all, because since then, information has been released to the media that gives historians a hypothesis to consider.
Firstly, more or less two years ago, the precise location where the Russians had installed their radio base for communication with Moscow during and after the Battle of Berlin, which they won, was revealed. A place, hitherto kept secret by the Kremlin, from which all military information was sent to Moscow and all orders from Moscow to Berlin were received. In a word, where the Russian radio transmission centre was. This is the same one that historians have shown on the photo dated 2 May, which shows debris in its entrance, a shot in which two Russian tanks can be seen placed around it so that they can crossfire towards the street corner next to it (the one on the left closing off access to the street and the one on the right pointing towards the military lorry that is close to it…
And then, a few months ago, it was announced that since the very beginning of May 1945, the British had been so well aware of the existence of the Russian communication point in question that, under the noses of the Soviets, they had set up a secret listening centre with the most sophisticated equipment of the time in a part of the Reichstag, directly opposite it. This too remained secret until then.
A place, if ever there was one, for the Allies, who certainly had to be protected from discovery by the Russians. And that, no doubt, regardless of the way in which it was achieved…
So, more than 75 years later, not only is there probably still a lot to discover about this war that disfigured Europe and devastated the whole of humanity, but it is up to each and every one of us, modest strangers, and without title for the most part, to participate in it to the extent of what we possess as a trace of this past.
Thank you for reading!
And see you next time, perhaps here, for the pleasure of reading you?