This May 8, 2020, marks 75 years since Victory in Europe (V.E.) Day. This is the day on which war with Germany was officially over, and the war machine put into action by Adolf Hitler finally surrendered. The war with Japan would continue for almost another four months, but this day, this V.E. Day, would signify forevermore the day when the Allies could start reliving their lives.
During World War II, not only soldiers but also people at home, especially in Europe, had their lives transformed. Food was rationed, access to regular activities was limited, and daily routines faced upheaval – from heading to communal shelters as German planes dropped bombs indiscriminately, or to nightly blackouts and wardens enforcing curfews. Luckily, life in the United States faired well by comparison. Even so, American factories started making equipment for the war, food was rationed, and families were split up as soldiers went off to fight.
When Germany unconditionally surrendered, there were enormous celebrations across Europe, and in America. As President Harry S. Truman enjoyed his 61st birthday, he wrote to Winston Churchill, saying, “With warm affection, we hail our comrades-in-arms across the Atlantic.” He considered it to be a “great birthday present.”
There were also private celebrations, as people realized their lives could now continue with a little less fear, a little less hopelessness. Here are some of their stories.
A Train Stop
On May 8, 1945, a train controlled by SS officers stops on its way to Theresienstadt concentration camp. A 16-year-old Polish boy, Arek Hersh, describes what happened:
“We came to a railway station in a place called Roudnice, a few miles from Theresienstadt. After a few minutes we were ordered to get off the train…
I saw that on the other side of the transport a Czech policeman was giving boys some bread and meat. One of the Ukrainian SS guards also saw this, and he turned his rifle round to get hold of the barrel to hit one of the starving boys in the head. A Czech policeman saw what was happening and drew his revolver. He pointed it at the SS guard and said, ‘If you touch this child, I will shoot you.’ I saw the SS guard immediately put his rifle down and walk away: An SS guard taking orders from someone else.
It was difficult to comprehend that we had survived. I remember how we asked one another what we felt at that moment, as if to make sure it wasn’t just a dream.”
A Secret Radio
In the Kanburi POW camp in Thailand, British officers, listening on their secret radio, had heard the news of Victory in Europe. Prisoners located in Europe could cheer and applaud, knowing that their fight was over, but for those in Kanburi, which was under Japanese control, to show any sign of what they had heard meant almost certain death.
A signals officer, Eric Lomax, had been discovered hiding a radio and a sketched map of the Burma-Siam railway, known as the Death Railway. He was beaten and tortured for this. Other stories of officers being murdered for hiding radio equipment are well-known. In Kanburi, even just a small smile would have alerted the guards that something was amiss. Imagine knowing that your ordeal was almost over, but that any sign of relief could spell your death.
Waiting for Midnight
In a factory in the Sudetenland, Czechoslovakia, Oscar Schindler stands on the shop floor with 1,200 workers, many of whom are Jews that he had saved. They have heard that Churchill has announced the end of the war in Europe, but outside there is gunfire. The workers know that the SS could capture them and force them on a march to escape the Allied forces, during which time they could be killed, die of starvation, or worse. They want to take up arms to defend the factory, but Schindler, knowing they would be slaughtered in any attack, urges them to wait patiently for midnight and the ceasefire to take effect.
Having escaped the atrocities of the concentration camps, to wait quietly, in fear, while the world begins its V.E. Day celebration must have been mental anguish few of us could comprehend. The SS attack never came.