Joe Polowsky was one of the U.S. soldiers who met the Soviet troops on the Elbe near Torgau in April 1945. After the war, he dedicated his life to promoting peace and mutual understanding among nations. Torgau remained an important symbol for him and he was buried there in 1983 despite the Cold War.
Born on 2 October 1916 in Chicago, Joe attended the University of Chicago before being drafted into the U.S. Army’s 69th Infantry Division in December 1941. As the youngest son of Jewish-Russian parents originally from Kiev, Polowsky spoke fluent Russian. On 25 April 1945, as part of a reconnaissance platoon led by Lieutenant Albert Kotzebue, they became the first Americans to meet Soviet soldiers on the Elbe River near Torgau – a symbolic meeting representing the closure of the Eastern and Western Fronts. The photo of this meeting circulated around the world and still stands today as a potent symbol of the end of the war.
Making an oath of peace in Torgau, he dedicated the rest of his life to that mission. He tried in vain to have the United Nations declare 25 April “Elbe Day” – a day for world peace.
In 1955, Polowsky visited Moscow together with Soviet veterans for the tenth anniversary of the Elbe meeting. In 1960 and 1961, he returned to Torgau on Elbe Day to speak at the Soviet-American Encounter Monument. Despite many efforts, he was never able to return to East Germany after a 1961. Instead, he led an annual vigil on the Michigan Avenue Bridge in Chicago.
Polowsky last wish was to be buried in Torgau. He died on 17 October 1983. Overcoming the political hurdles and after gaining permission from the State Council Chairman Erich Honecker, his funeral was held on 26 November 1983 and became an international media event with American and Soviet veterans and other government officials from the USA, USSR, and East Germany.
With his final wish, he succeeded in setting an example that, for a brief moment, brought East and West closer together during the Cold War. In Torgau today, a peace run past his burial place and the Polowsky Peace Rose Garden at Torgau’s castle commemorate him.