The world recently celebrated the 75th anniversary of the end of WWII in Europe, a time when the guns became silent and the continent could begin piecing itself back together. Because of the current coronavirus pandemic all the celebrations were quite muted, but Berlin made the 8th of May a holiday this year to at least give people the chance to reflect on what’s happened since 1945.
A memorial to the first “official” meeting of the two allied armies on the banks of the Elbe in Torgau.
Last year I went on several one and two-day rides south of Berlin, along the Elbe river. I wrote about one of these trips in a post from June of last year (Heading south again), where my wife and I rode through Torgau. I knew the name of this small city from the history books, as it’s always mentioned as the place where the Soviet Army and the US Army first met up on the 25th of April, 1945, during the last few weeks of the war in this theater. When I got home from that trip I started reading about the meeting, and found out that it actually didn’t take place in Torgau, but in a small village called Lorenzkirch, about 30 km/18 miles to the south. I wondered why Torgau was named as the meeting point, when the two armies had met up before this. What was the reason? What I found out interested me so much that I hopped back on the bike a week later and headed south to take a look at the village.
The mighty Himalayan near the banks of the Elbe, with the now-serene village of Lorenzkirch in the background.
The Soviets and Americans had originally planned to meet up at the Elbe on the 27th of April, but both sides made more progress than expected, and a the first time the two armies actually caught sight of one another was on the 25th in a small village west of the Elbe called Leckwitz, where a small American patrol fired off green flares to indicate their friendly intentions, as agreed upon previously. The Americans then proceeded to Strehla, on the banks of the Elbe, where at 11:30am they saw Soviet troops working on a pontoon bridge across the big river. The Soviets waved enthusiastically and motioned to the US troops, inviting them over to the other side. A small group of US soldiers. led by Lt. Albert Kotzebue, then crossed the Elbe to the village of Lorenzkirch at 12:30 in a small boat and were warmly welcomed by the Soviets. Both sides had been worried about meeting, afraid they would mistakenly fight against one another, but this first meeting was so joyous that “Most of us had tears in our eyes” according to Joe Polowsky, one of the Americans. Alexander Olshanski of the Soviet army was so relieved he exclaimed “Peace at last. No one fired anything from the west, and no one fired anything from the east – no one”.
This first meeting took place on the broad flood plain on the east side of the Elbe, which by all accounts was a scene of carnage on that day. There had been heavy fighting in the area, and thousands of civilians had been trapped in the open as they tried to flee across the small bridge between Lorenzkirch and Strehla. On the evening of the 22nd the German army blew up the small bridge while 400 people were on it, trying to get to the west. The Soviets also shelled the area heavily. Many people drowned in the river and many were killed while trying to hide in the shallow ditches near the bridge. By the time the US and the Soviets met up, there were hundreds of bodies, dead animals and burnt out vehicles lying about. The Soviets felt the area was not appropriate for “heroic photographs” of an historic event and soon sent the Americans back across to the west side of the river. The Soviets worried they would be accused of killing the civilians if the meeting was given greater publicity, and so the “official” celebrations were moved to Torgau, where the US soldiers and Soviets met at 3.30 the same afternoon. And thus, the meeting in Lorenzkirch didn’t make it into the history books for decades.
The road leading down to the Elbe and the small ferry boat, which takes pedestrians across the river to Strehla, June 2019.
A similar view on the 25th of April, 1945, when the two armies met for the first time. The blown-up bridge is in the background, as are the buildings in Strehla on the west side of the Elbe, some of which can be seen in the photo I took in 2019. (Wikimedia Commons)
The current ferry boat crossing the Elbe from Strehla to Lorenzkirch. A scene of peace and tranquilty, June 2019.
It was so quiet and beautiful the day I was there, it was nearly impossible to imagine the gruesome events that had occured 75 years before, and I doubt many people know the whole story. The area is definitely worth a visit if and when you’re in this neck of the woods. It’s a great place to sit and reflect on the world while watching the big river run its course.
Reading about Winifred Wells’ death in February made me think about other women who have played an important role in stretching the boundaries of motorcycling and/or who have written wonderful stories about their travels. It seems their stories seldom make the press splash that men’s stories do, and in most cases these women had to overcome a number of hurdles before being accepted as riders, or before even being allowed to ride. I’d like to write about a few of the ones I’ve read about over the years. The first woman is Maria Therese von Hammerstein, who I recently read about in Hans Magnus Enzensberger’s The Silences of Hammerstein (which I can highly recommend).
photo credit: charybde2.wordpress.com
A photo of Maria Therese von Hammerstein, later Maria Paasche, on her motorcycle on one of Brandenburg, Germany’s innumerable tree-lined avenues in 1933. She looks like she’s really enjoying herself, and undoubtedly knew how to ride well! She was the daughter of General Kurt von Hammerstein, who was the head of the German army from 1930 to 1934. Maria was one of seven children who, despite their father’s profession, were “allowed freedom to prowl a broader intellectual and political landscape”. In the early 1930s she inherited some money from an aunt and bought herself a motorcycle (unfortunately I couldn’t find any information about what kind), which she rode for several years. When the von Hammerstein family became active in anti-Nazi circles, Maria used her motorcycle to transport Jews, communists and intellectuals to Prague before the Gestapo could pick them up. She and her husband left Germany in 1934, first going to Palestine and then Japan, after the war emigrating to the USA, where she died in 2000 at the age of 90.
For more information about Maria see the following link: https://www.nytimes.com/2000/02/13/world/maria-paasche-90-helped-jews-in-germany-flee-nazis.html
“First and foremost, all of us have to do whatever we can to protect one another. In society I mean. This should be the case all the time in life, but in this moment I think it matters more than ever. I’ve said before that football always seems the most important of the least important things. Today, football and football matches really aren’t important at all.”
Never were wiser words spoken by a football/soccer manager! I’m not the biggest fan of the current Liverpool manager, but there’s no denying he is very good at what he does, and it seems like he’s no dope when it comes to philosophy either. His words have made me reconsider one of the things I like to do most when time allows, i.e. motorcycling. Considering everything that’s going on right now, it just isn’t (or shouldn’t be) a priority to hop on the old beast and go for a ride. Doctors are telling riders to stay off the streets so as not to cause any accidents and injuries, as the hospitals really are full enough right now. I’ve heard some riders complain about this, and go out anyway, but they’re skating on very thin ice. This is a siuation very few of us have been in before, and no one knows how it will end. Take it seriously.
I do try to remain optimistic, however, and in my mind’s eye I can see my friends and I chugging along a narrow, shady, tree-lined Brandenburg “Allee” on our way to one of the area’s innumerable lakes for a cool swim. Better days will come. Until then, it’s time to hunker down and take care of each other.
The Coronavirus pandemic has changed almost everything in our lives these past few weeks. Nothing is the same, and I can’t seem to satisfy my need for more information about what’s going on, about what’s been decided. The news of the past 24 hours is really from yesterday, though, as everything changes so rapidly. Germany may soon go into full lockdown mode, as has happened in other European countries. All of this is hard to get my head around, and I’m happy I can still get out for the occasional ride to forget about all the misery and uncertainty for a while. Michael, on his old BMW, feels the same. It’s good to feel the wind in your face and listen to the sound of the old one-cylinder engine chugging along, to smell the fresh aroma of the pine forests that whirl past and try and remember which side the brake is on, which side is the shifter. Who knows when the next restrictions will limit our abilty to move around even more. Sure, it’s all necessary, but it’s mighty scary nonetheless.
I’ve been out riding a few times lately when time and the weather has allowed. Not much traffic on the rural roads south of the city these days. Still no winter to speak of, but it is often cool, wet and windy, so my trips have been relatively short. Still, wonderful to be able to get out on two wheels in February. This is the third year in a row with mild winter temperatures, and it doesn’t leave much doubt in my mind with regard to the big picture.
At any rate, I’m getting more and more used to the old Goose, and she seems to run well. I still hit the shifter sometimes when aiming for the rear brake, but it hasn’t been as bad as I thought it would be. I’ve even been in a couple of situations where I had to stop in a hurry and the old drum brakes have worked as well as other riders said they would. I wanted a “practical” oldtimer, and so far this has proven to be the case.
On the Kawasaki-side of things, it was time to get the two carburettors cleaned, as the old girl was really starting to run poorly. The last time the bike was at the mechanic’s, he mentioned dismantling the two Vergaser, as the Germans call them, and putting them in an ultrasonic cleaner overnight. In the end, he (MTH in Berlin) also put in a new set of gaskets and had to replace the fuel tap, as the old one was leaking a bit. It wasn’t exactly cheap in the end, but what an amazing difference it makes. The bike feels smoother and accelerates quickly from much lower rpms than it ever has. I should have had this done long ago! And speaking of “having it done”, I decided at some point that I really don’t like working on this machine, as it is much more complicated than old Moto Guzzis or BMWs, and my mecahnical abilities are limited. It would have taken me ages to get everything taken off, especially because the carbs are attached to the cooling system (something to do with preheating the carbs) and are not easy to get at. The mechanic took everything apart, cleaned the carbs, rebuilt and adjusted them and had me back on the road in less than two days. As this is my main private means of commuting (weather permitting), that was important. And I guess it’s not too much to expect to have the carbs cleaned every 19 years!
Aside from routine maintenance, we’ve put a fair bit of money into the Plum (her name due to the dark purple color) in the last couple of years (new tires, steering bearings, chain and sprockets, rear shocks), but she’s in great shape now and runs like a top, and all in all is still a relatively cheap means of transport. Now if I could just do something to improve the front forks, and maybe get some spoked rims on her…
I also changed the bike’s blinkers. The photo of old and new doesn’t really do the swap justice, but I had always hated the huge, ugly orange blinkers that looked like they belonged on a much bigger, older bike (in fact I think they were used on a wide range of bigger Kawasakis during the 1990s). I know its important for other drivers to be able to clearly see me when I want to turn, but I just couldn’t get used to these big, clunky abominations, and felt they broke up what were otherwise quite nice lines on the bike. I found some smaller blinkers at a local parts place for a fair price and replaced all four of them a couple of months ago, and am happy with the result. The new ones are still bright when activated, but detract much less from the overall aesthetics of the bike. Might seem a bit unnecessary, but I read somewhere that replacing blinkers is one of the first and most common modifications owners make on their motorcycles, and the HUGE variety of available replacement parts seems to support this. For instance, Louis (“Europe’s number 1 for motorcycle clothing and technology”) has 165 articles on offer in the “Universal Motorcycle Turn Signal” category. You name it, they have it. Want classic bullseyes, mini-blinkers or high-tech LEDs? No problem. Just scroll down the page and get your credit card out!
I just read that Winifred Wells died on the 1st of February, and wanted to put a link to a story about her on here. She was truly a motorcycling pioneer who must have had amazing amounts of willpower to do what she did, which was to cross Southern Australia from coast to coast (and back!) on a 350cc Royal Enfield Bullet in 1951. She rode the 5,500 miles alone in only 21 days, crossing the Nullarbor Plain in the middle of the blazing hot summer. Her exploits are not well-known outside of Oz, and apart from a few Enfield enthusiasts in that country her story is not widely known either. It’s time that changed.
In this photo taken on her dusty return to Perth, from where she had started. She looks like she’s ready to go again. And it was not to be her last trip, either: She and her father circumnavigated the entire continent on two Bullets a couple of years later. I find her story inspiring for a number of reasons, but especially because almost no one expected her to be able to make such a strenuous trip on her own (which is obvious judging by the expressions on people’s faces in the photo). In the end, she proved them all wrong. Her trip is also a great example of the fact that you don’t need a big, modern machine with tons of gear to go travelling. A well-maintained bike of any kind and good planning will generally see you through. And, as they say, the best bike for the trip is the one you already own!