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‘My Father Wanted the Americans to Know How Many Soviet Citizens Suffered in This War’

POW ID, Joseph R Beyrle. July 1944
POW ID, Joseph R Beyrle. July 1944

On April 24, HSE will host a talk by John Beyrle, U.S. Ambassador to the Russian Federation 2008-2012 marking the 70th anniversary of the meeting of the Allied Armies at the Elbe, and U.S./Soviet cooperation during the Second World War. For John Beyrle, the Second World War is a very personal story.

John Beyrle started learning Russian in his youth, and as a student spent some time at the Philological Faculty of Leningrad State University. Over the many years he worked in Russia (he started out as deputy press attaché at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow in the mid 1980s) Beyrle travelled through the country widely, talking to groups of young people and war veterans. In those speeches he often said that the U.S. and Russia need to join ranks in the ‘war on terror’ just as the two countries did during the creation of the Allied forces to fight against Hitler in the Second World War. He knows many Soviet wartime songs off by heart, and especially likes ‘Victory Day’. His reverence for the War is not merely a formality, the legendary Joseph Beyrle, about whom so many TV shows, articles and books have been written, is his father.

The story of paratrooper with the U.S. 101st Airborne Division Joseph Beyrle is astounding. His Normandy landing did not go as planned, and the wind carried his parachute away from his comrades in arms. He was taken prisoner by the Nazis. He spent six months in concentration camps, and survived two failed escape attempts. His third attempt, in January 1945, succeeded. He headed East, towards the Soviet forces. He was inspected, given a weapon and welcomed into the battalion, where he became a tank gunner in the Red Army. He was seriously wounded and hospitalized. There he met Marshal Georgy Zhukov, who was visiting to inspect the hospital. When he heard there was a U.S. paratrooper who’d escaped the Germans, and fought with the Red Army – he went to meet him. Zhukov asked Beyrle ‘What can I do for you?’ the U.S. soldier answered that he had no documents, no papers attesting to his identity. Zhukov nodded, and left. A little while later his aide returned with a letter. Joseph was not told what was in the letter, but it seemed to have magic qualities – opening all doors, and getting him seats on trains.

Joseph Beyrle returned to the United States before the war in Europe was over, and celebrated VE Day on May 8-9 in Chicago. After the war he returned to Russia six times, and always tried to make sure he timed it so he could take part in the Victory Day celebrations. He travelled widely across America, telling his story to schoolchildren. ‘My father wanted Americans to know how many Soviet citizens suffered in this war,’ John Beyrle said. ‘In America they may know about the battles of Stalingrad and Kursk, but only from books and films. My dad could tell him what he himself had seen, and he said ‘there was only smoke, dust, and corpses.’ I am now in Moscow, at the Embassy, and am also trying to do my bit to bring our two peoples closer together. My father never forgot how the Russians welcomed him – when he was hungry and defenseless. I will also never forget that.’

John Beyrle’s lecture will take place on April 24 at 3 p.m at Myasnitskaya 20, auditorium 311. All HSE students and staff are welcome to attend. The lecture will be given in English with a translation into Russian, and will be broadcast live on the HSE website.

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