Europe marks VE Day in the midst of a new war against coronavirus

Europe commemorates VE Day in the midst of a new war: Parades and parties to mark WWII anniversary are scaled back as the continent focuses on winning its newest battle – against Covid-19

  • Countries across Europe are marking the 75th anniversary of VE Day, the day Nazi Germany surrendered
  • But parades and public celebrations have been scaled back as the continent wages war against coronavirus 
  • Europe is the epicentre of the pandemic, having reported more than 1.6million cases and 150,000 deaths  
  • Here’s how to help people impacted by Covid-19

European countries are marking the 75th anniversary of victory over Nazi Germany today – amidst a new war on the continent against coronavirus.  

Parades and public celebrations have been scaled back or cancelled altogether on a continent that has borne the brunt of the coronavirus pandemic, with 1.6million cases and more than 150,000 deaths reported there. 

Modest commemorations took place at the Soviet War Memorial in Berlin’s Tiergarten park early on Friday, which was built to commemorate thousands of Red Army soldiers who lost their lives liberating the city.

Meanwhile people were pictured walking among the headstones at Belgium’s Henri Chapelle World War II cemetery, which houses the remains of almost 8,000 American soldiers who died on the continent. 

French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel are due to mark the occasion later today with wreath-laying ceremonies, but the events will be closed to all-but a small number of officials. 

GERMANY: Russian orthodox priests gather at a Soviet war memorial in a park in Berlin, Germany, during a scaled-back ceremony to mark VE Day, or 75 years since the unconditional surrender of Nazi Germany to the Allies

BELGIUM: Two people walk among the headstones of some 8,000 American troops who died fighting in Europe at Belgium’s Henri Chapelle World War II cemetery on VE Day

FRANCE: An American flag is positioned next to the French tricolore on a bullet-damaged statue in the village of Bennwhir, eastern France, which was liberated by the US Army in December 1944

RUSSIA: A worker washes a monument to Russian soldiers killed fighting in the Second World War in Vladivostok, far eastern Russia, on VE Day. Russia traditionally marks the victory a day later, on May 9

Meanwhile huge parades that were due to take place on Saturday in Russia have been postponed until the pandemic has eased. 

A military flyover is planned instead, with President Vladimir Putin due to lay flowers at a war memorial near Moscow’s Red Square. 

Macron is among European leaders who have compared the fight against coronavirus to a ‘war’, though veterans of the Second World War say the experiences are not comparable. 

Former U.S. army medic Charles Shay, now aged 95, fought on the beaches of Normandy on D-Day – June 6, 1944 – aged just 19. 

‘World War II was created by a madman who thought he could take over control of the world,’ Shay said. But with the virus, ‘we still don’t know why we are dying.’

Now living in the French village of Bretteville-l’Orgueilleuse, he expressed frustration that lockdowns will keep him from reuniting with fellow Normandy veterans who he may never see again.  

In few regions is VE Day celebrated with more fervor than in the former Soviet Union, whose Red Army paid a terrible toll before the final breakthrough to Berlin. 

Valentina Efremova, 96, lives among the memorabilia of her Great Patriotic War when she was a nurse caring for front-line Soviet soldiers. She still dresses for the occasion and carries a chestful of medals.

She, too, had been counting on something better so late in her life and is downcast on the chances of being able to attend some last worthy ceremony.

‘We’re the last remaining veterans. We won’t be able to celebrate the 80th anniversary,’ she said. 

Some say today’s younger generations should put things into perspective when lamenting their lockdown hardships such as closed barbers, restaurants, bars and gyms. Many still have full fridges, and a strange knock on the door will likely be nothing more sinister than an online order delivery.

Two women hold carnations before laying them at the Soviet war memorial in Berlin, which commemorates thousands of Red Army troops who were killed liberating the city from the Nazis in 1945

Graves of French soldiers killed during the Second World War are seen at a military cemetery in Sigolshiem, eastern France

Russia typically sees one of the largest parades in Europe on Victory Day – its own day of celebration on May 9 – but that has been postponed due to coronavirus (pictured, a worker washes a memorial in Vladivostok)

Compare and contrast that with Marcel Schmetz and Myriam Silberman. Through a twist of geographical fate, Schmetz’s family home became part of German territory as the Nazis invaded Belgium, and although he was too young, his brother Henri, at 17, had to join the German army – a potential death sentence.

‘So we succeeded in hiding him at home while we had German soldiers around our house practically every day. He remained locked up like that for a year and a half,’ Schmetz said,

He now runs a war museum with his wife Mathilde, where part of the Battle of the Bulge, Hitler’s last bid to change the tide of the war, took place and he has re-created the old family room, where a mannequin dressed as Henri is sitting. But what was supposed to be the highlight of the year is now spent in isolation in the shut-down museum.

The current-day war comparison especially grates with 82-year-old Myriam Silberman, who as a kid had to hide under a fake identity in Belgium’s southern city of Mons for three years because she is Jewish. If discovered, she would likely have been deported and murdered.

‘Today’s generation might think that there is maybe a link but this is incomparable,’ she said. ‘I was five years old, but I could go out as the danger did not come from the air we breathe. The danger came from potential traitors … we were living with a permanent fear, even as children.’ 

Amid the bleakness of the pandemic, some veterans still know how to win that 2020 war too – spurious comparison or not. Take Tony Vaccaro, 97. He was thrown into World War II with the 83rd Infantry division which fought, like Charles Shay, in Normandy, and then came to Schmetz’s doorstep for the Battle of the Bulge. On top of his military gear, he also carried a camera, and became a fashion and celebrity photographer after the war.

COVID-19 caught up with him last month. Like everything bad life threw at him, he shook it off, attributing his survival to plain ‘fortune.’

But for the longevity that is allowing him to celebrate the 75th anniversary of VE Day he has a different explanation. ‘Wine,’ he said from his Queens, New York, home. ‘Red wine – Vino Rosso.’

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