Early afternoon, on the 16th of April, I found myself standing on top of a little hill overlooking the open field west of the Oder. The view before me was what thousands of German soldiers saw right before they shut their eyes for good, on this same day the 16th of April, 67 years ago. It was here, at the Seelow Heights that the 9th army of the Whermacht fiercely defended the last major defensive line outside of Berlin. It took the Red Army three days of bitter fighting and the lives of some 30 000 men to break open the “Gates of Berlin”.
Standing there, gazing into the empty distance, I took a deep breath and my heart began to beat faster. The initial feeling of excitement – of being there, at this historical site – slowly started to grow into anxiety; I felt uneasy, as if I had a heavy stone pressing against my chest; like if I was embracing one of the many gravestones around me, some of which read the names of their 20-year-old heroes, while others were simply engraved “Unknown”. Indeed… unknown remained their names, unknown remains to the world the cause they died for, and the Motherland in the name of which they fought for has at last sunk into oblivion.
I spent the rest of the day wondering around the area, occasionally driving into some village, a field, or a forest. There wasn’t much to see and quite frankly I do not know what precisely I was looking for; yet I couldn’t, nor did I want to leave. Somewhere north of Platkow, I reached a village of no more than 20 houses. I turned right off the main street onto a black road and drove into a forest. I found myself next to a small cemetery. Amongst the few scattered, obviously forgotten graves, hidden in the forest there was a newly erected wooden cross and a gravestone commemorating the fallen German soldiers in 1939-45. I walked past the cemetery and into the woods. The road had ended a few hundred meters behind me and I was now walking in a mixture of mud, grass and various plants. Drawn by the silhouette of what seemed to me to be the ruins of a small building or a house, I was staring at the ground, hoping to find something, an object, an immediate witness of the events that had destroyed whatever once stood there.
The day elapsed in a similar, hypnotized-like state and a few other stops of the above kind. I came across an airport, first built by the Germans right before the invasion of Poland, and later used by the Soviets for the bombardment of Berlin. Many of the villages I drove through seemed deserted, empty. I remember I stopped in Platkow to take a look at a rather grotesque monument of a soviet soldier. Right across from it was the municipal museum, in which I thought I’d get some information on what are some of the other battle sites in the area that I could visit. I walked through the wide open doors and climbed the stairs. Despite my efforts, I couldn’t find anyone – the building seemed to be completely empty. After a quick tour searching for a bathroom I was out and on my way.