Victory Day, which falls on May 9 every year and commemorates the day in 1945 on which Nazi Germany capitulated to the attacking Soviet armies, is always an emotional day for me. Victory Day is mainly celebrated in former Soviet countries, but it has become a fixture of my calendar since I am so interested in the Eastern Front. 3 years ago, when I was beginning to seriously research for the WWII novel I’m currently writing, I came across mention of Victory Day on the internet. Spring and summer 2011 in general were emotional times for me, because I learned so much about WWII that I had never known, and so much of it was unbelievably poignant and painful.
Some of the stories of endurance and courage that inspired me most back then came from within the crumbling brick walls of Brest Fortress. Located in Brest, Belarus, and built in the 1800s by the Russians, this star-shaped fortress of red brick saw an intense conflict in June and July 1941 when the invading Wehrmacht forces came up against its defenders. The Germans needed to take Brest Fortress, since it held a garrison of almost 10,000 Red Army soldiers, in addition to controlling crossings of the River Bug and the railway to Moscow.
Kholm Gate of Brest Fortress, with battle damage visible. Image from Wikimedia Commons. Attributed to Szeder László
Given the strategic importance of this fortification and the initial enthusiasm of much of the Wehrmacht, this was to be a frenzied battle. However, most people did not expect the Soviets to hold out for long. The forces they faced included an entire Austrian division of about 17,000 men, plus parts of two more infantry divisions and a panzer group- a force that, in all, was twice as strong as that of the defenders. In spite of this disparity, the Soviets fought bravely and ended up defending the fortress for much longer than anyone expected.
Essentially, the siege of Brest Fortress last eight days, from June 22-29; after that, most of its defenders were either dead from the constant German artillery strikes, or in captivity. But many accounts state that small groups or individual Soviet soldiers stayed on long after the battle was over, hiding in the bowels of the fortress and coming forth to cause chaos for the Germans. For example, Pyotr Gavrilov, a major who was later titled a Hero of the Soviet Union, was only captured on July 23, 1941- an entire month after the fortress had been seemingly completely captured.
Portrait of Pyotr Gavrilov. Image from http://brest-memorial.iatp.by/kobrinskoe-ykreplenie.html via Wikimedia Commons. Attributed to unknown author
But there is one story from Brest Fortress that continually inspires and touches me. It is just a fragment of a life, really, but it succinctly illustrates the self-sacrificing determination of those who stayed behind and concealed themselves, without food and without any hope, to serve their country. The ruined walls of the fortress hold many inscriptions made by its last defenders, and one of them reads: “I’m dying but I will not surrender! Farewell, Motherland. 20/VII-41”.
Bronze replica of this heart-wrenching inscription, found at Brest Fortress’s museum. Image from Wikimedia Commons. Attributed to Sergei Semyonov
From the very first time I saw this inscription, I was staggered by the honesty and determination of its words, and have often wondered after the fate of the soldier who wrote them. It is likely that he did perish in defense of the fortress, and his resolve and that of his comrades defines the Red Army of WWII for me. It is a rare occurrence that I read those angular, laboriously carved words and do not feel both sad and grateful.
This very quote is a sort of inspiration for me in my own life, because it embodies the pursuit of a very admirable virtue. As well, it keeps things in perspective for me- if I ever feel overwhelmed or like I want to give up on something, these words remind me that humans can do incredible things with enough commitment.
Once all was finally over at Brest Fortress, both sides had suffered sizeable losses. 2,000 Soviets were dead and almost 500 Germans had perished as well. All the courage of the fortress’s defenders had not been enough to stop the mighty Wehrmacht; a theme which became common in the first few months of the war. What is amazing is that the Soviets knew exactly how outmatched they were- and yet they still did not hesitate to give their lives for the Motherland. They fought bravely, and then once the Germans began to take over, they chose further hardship and death over captivity. That determination was a hallmark of Red Army soldiers in WWII, and is exactly what finally ensured their victory.
Memorial to the defenders of Brest Fortress. Attributed to Szeder Laci from hu.wikipedia.org
Stalingrad was also a hotbed for this characteristic resolve- as well as at the famous Pavlov’s House, fierce battles raged around the city’s railway station, which was entrusted to a Lieutenant Anton Dragan, a junior officer to Colonel-General Alexander Rodimtsev. Lieutenant Dragan and his men of the 13th Guards Rifle Division engaged in intense room-to-room fighting in the station for an admirable three weeks. The Germans would gain possession of a given room only to be attacked again by the Soviets, who had crawled under the floorboards or through the beams of the roof.
However, Soviet reinforcements coming from across the Volga never lasted long. Only about 300 of the 10,000 men of the division who crossed the Volga survived the battle- as the Wikipedia page for the 13th Guards states, “This profligacy with life seems incredible to Western eyes, but was unremarkable during the conflict on the Eastern front”. Thus, Dragan and his men remained alone at the railway station, their numbers dwindling day by day.
Example of the devastation of the Eastern Front: central Stalingrad after the famous battle. Attribution: RIA Novosti archive, image #602161/Zelma/CC-BY-SA 3.0
Eventually, once their supplies had been depleted, one of the men carved a moving inscription on the wall, reminiscent of the one at Brest Fortress: “Rodimtsev’s Guardsmen fought and died for their country here”. Unlike the story at Brest Fortress, however, this one has a relatively cheerful ending- Dragan and the last of his men managed to escape the railway station under cover of darkness, and were later reunited with their fellow Guardsmen.
Victory Day always brings these tales to mind, and in addition to celebrating the end of the war, I spend May 9 remembering what really won the war: huge numbers of individuals who, through their selfless acts of sacrifice and courage, allowed Nazi tyranny to be defeated and freedom to prevail. Although the soldiers of Brest Fortress and the 13th Guards perhaps never saw their nation’s victory, they nonetheless contributed to it, and that is what I remember every May 9.
It is wonderful to know, too, that all of Russia and the former Soviet Union also remembers this. Victory Day is an elaborate and well-loved holiday in those countries, and it is marked with the laying of wreaths on war memorials and giant parades through city centres. Someday I shall attend the Victory Day parade in Moscow, but until then I will continue my own celebration and commemoration of sorts here.
2010 Moscow Victory Day parade. Attribution: http://www.kremlin.ru
I’d also like to mention that today, May 9, 2014, is a national day of honour here in Canada. Today, the whole country is remembering and honouring our troops who fought in Afghanistan from 2001-2014, including the 158 who died. Although Canada does not have the largest or most powerful military, these men and women gave their lives to help others and they have solidified the generous and compassionate spirit of Canada. I know that I speak for the majority of the nation when I say that I am immensely grateful and proud of their actions.
On this beautiful day in May 2014, whether you celebrate it as Victory Day, a Day of Honour, or nothing at all, I hope you will remember the courage and sacrifice of those who ensured our freedom. We should be thankful that we are no longer mired in a worldwide war, and we must not forget the joy of peace and the actions of those who bought it.
Graffiti left on the Reichstag in Berlin by Soviet soldiers. Some examples read: “Here were Brandenburgers”, “Hello to Moscow”, and “Stalingraders in Berlin! 9 May 1945”. Image from Wikimedia Commons. Attributed to Michael Rose
2005 Victory Day fireworks by the Kremlin. Attribution: http://www.kremlin.ru
Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Moscow, bedecked with memorial bouquets. Image from Wikimedia Commons. Attributed to Godot13
(2014). Defense of Brest Fortress. Retrieved from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Defense_of_Brest_Fortress
(2014). Brest Fortress. Retrieved from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brest_Fortress
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