Williamsburg is a wondrous place. People here, from all walks of life and with exciting backgrounds, are never short of curiosity about history, arts, science and many other topics.
Recently, during a coffee klatch with Bill and Judy Althans, the subject of how World War II ended for my wife, Jaroslava, then a young girl growing up in German occupied Prague, came up.
Bill Althans, a student at the College of William and Mary in the 1950s, learned to fly at the Williamsburg airport. He became a marketing executive, selling and leasing general aviation and corporate aircraft. During his 40-year career as a pilot, he logged close to 10,000 flying hours in all kinds of civilian airplanes.
He has a keen interest in military history, particularly the World War II. But he had only a vague idea about how the war in Europe, particularly in Nazi occupied Eastern Europe, come to an end.
To illustrate some aspects of it, I recalled the experience of Jaroslava, who was saved by Gen. Vlasov’s Russian Liberation Army, which was an ally of Nazi Germany.
Andrei Vlasov was a top Red Army general. He received the Order of the Red Banner from Stalin for his role in the defense of Moscow. After his success, Vlasov was put in command of the Second Shock Army and ordered to lead the attempt to lift the Siege of Leningrad. His forces succeeded in breaking through German lines, but other Soviet forces on the Volkhov front failed to exploit Vlasov’s advances and his army was left stranded in German-held territory. In June 1942, the Second Shock Army was surrounded and destroyed.
Vlasov was captured and jailed by the Germans. During interrogation, he was persuaded to lead a Russian Liberation Movement. In practice, it meant he would create an army recruited from the millions of captured Soviet soldiers, who would fight against the Red Army. Hitler opposed the whole idea, not trusting the Russians, but the Werhmacht, in need of “auxiliary” help, prevailed. However, the Russian Liberation Army didn’t face the Red Army until March 11, 1945. It took place on the Oder Front, and the Army endured such a pummeling that on March 15, Gen. Sergei Buniachenko, in command of the division, ordered it to withdraw south. Despite frantic German appeals, the division continued to put distance between itself and the enemy. By April 28, it was back in the Czech lands, camping close to Prague.
US forces, under the command of Gen. George Patton, had already entered Czech territory, but had to stop its advance toward Prague in accordance with the Yalta agreement. The liberation of the Czech capital was assigned to the Red Army.
On May 5, 1945, a spontaneous uprising took place in Prague. The residents believed Patton’s army, a few hours away, would come to their aid. Alas, because of the Yalta agreement, they couldn’t. The German SS troops remaining in Prague unleashed their fury on the civilian population. In the district where Jaroslava lived, they massacred people huddling in the basements of their apartment buildings.
An SS squad burst into the basement of the building where Jaroslava’s family lived, shouting, “ruhe, ruhe” (calm, calm) ready to start firing. Jarolsva’s mother, who spoke perfect German, begged the leader of the group, a sergeant, to spare their lives. She offered them food. After hesitating for a moment, the soldiers left.
Learning of the Prague upraising, Gen. Bunyachenko asked Vlasov for permission to turn his weapons against the Nazi SS forces and aid the Czech resistance fighters. Vlasov, at first disapproved, but finally, reluctantly, gave his approval. On May 7, a day before the war ended in Europe, the First Division of the Russian Liberation Army withdrew from Prague and capitulated to the Americans. Most of the members of the division were turned over to the Russians.
Gen. Vlasov, Gen. Bunyachenko and 10 other leading figures of the Russian Liberation Army were executed in Moscow in July 1946 for “acting as agents of German intelligence.”
Shatz is a Williamsburg resident. He is the author of “Report from a Distant Place,” a compilation of his selected columns. The book is available at Bruton Parish Shop and Amazon.com.