Six years ago, I met Emma, a Jewish survivor who lived hundreds of miles south of Moscow in 1943. Just a little girl then, she was there at the greatest tank battle in history.

The devastation of the SS Panzer Corps at the Battle of Kursk marked the end of Germany’s offensive on the Eastern Front in World War Two. Whether a sandbag she contributed helped stem the tide, it didn’t matter. At Kursk, the deportations stopped. The death camp transports never made it to her home.

Thirty years later, on the holiest day of the Jewish calendar, worshipers deep in fasting gathered at synagogues around the world. There they’d atone over the next ten hours for a year’s worth of sins, but few knew that a tank battle against Syria, one that history would match in epic only with Kursk, would be their divine answer. And it erupted mere hours from a city they’d mention in their final benedictions later that evening, though many Israelis wouldn’t make it to Jerusalem in their prayers that Yom Kippur.

Some say 1,500, others 1,300. But on the afternoon of October 6, 1973, a thousand-plus tanks in two Syrian armoured and three mechanised divisions swarmed across the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights aiming to emasculate Israel by reclaiming the border overlooking the Galilee.

T62s, T55s and T54s churned dust alongside Second World War T34s and long-barrelled SU100s. One hundred and seventy-seven up-gunned Israeli Pattons, Centurions, and Shermans, the latter also from a past epoch, hopelessly parried and thrust at huge cost, their reserves and reinforcements already forming in a record-breaking mobilisation. Syrian infantry with their RPGs and wire guided Sagger anti-tank missiles hurled ambushes. Israeli concrete emplacements paralleling a massive defensive trench, front-wide, begged an impregnable line. Paratroop, special forces, and militia battalions on both sides clashed hand-to-hand; all the while Soviet-born MiG fighter-bombers, US-made Skyhawks and Phantoms, plus an elaborate belt of Soviet SA-6 surface-to-air munitions bit into the sinew of each side’s airborne might. Locales like Booster, Hermon, Hushniya, Nafakh, Tel Faris, and the newly coined Valley of Tears entered household vernacular; as common as the river Jordan and its crossings along the great western escarpment at B’Not Yakov and Arik.

Never again would the Syrians come so close to spilling over the B’Not Yakov Bridge into Israel’s Galilee than on that first night when Hafez al-Assad, Syria’s President, called an historical halt to regroup for a morning push.

By coincidence that girl from Kursk, now a woman, had left Jerusalem only prior. En route to Australia she was now heading to a new home cheating death yet again.

Emma passed away last year, not from Covid-19 but from old age. A gregarious woman, her eyes lit up when she first understood that I knew of Kursk. Historians say that the German defeat at Stalingrad, months prior, formed the turning point of World War Two, so significant was the destruction of an entire Nazi army (the 6th) and its Italian, Hungarian and Romanian allies that crumbled at its flanks in the snow.

Kursk, though, forever ended the German viral spread on the Eastern Front.

Picture: Formation of the Soviet bulge at Kursk after Stalingrad, November 1942-March 1943.

Its outcome was predictable, set up as it was by the dawdling hubris of Germany’s Fuhrer and self-proclaimed head of its armed forces, Adolf Hitler. Protruding west into the environs of Kursk in south-central Russia, the Soviets had formed a bulge in their front lines running out of steam in their Stalingrad follow-up. The Germans could muster a punch for a limited summer offensive in 1943 and stalemated on the north and north-central fronts, that made Kursk the obvious target. So obvious that the Soviets immediately reinforced it with triplicate lines of defence through an all-of-population effort and in July, those lines held firm.

Don’t think for a moment that the Germans were weak at this time. For, as we know, they threw their prestigious SS panzer corps, together with multiple corps of Wehrmacht, some also elite, into the meat grinder. It’s just that in terms of risk, of the personal esteem of the Soviet Union’s Supreme Commander, Joseph Stalin, and the push of both Stalin and Hitler to “not take one step back”, a better reinforced Soviet defence held sway. Hatred of the enemy and protection of the homeland are powerful motivators.

This year, the world will remember the 50th anniversary of the Yom Kippur War and the 80th anniversary of the Battle of Kursk. It will do so amid a continuing global Covid-19 pandemic that in three years has claimed millions of lives and in countries like Australia, has become the third leading cause of death.

Yet, while nations, like Australia, boast of future wars with China and pronounce the expenditure of hundreds of billions of dollars on military equipment for delivery decades hence, during which time the face of warfare will change at a globally unprecedented pace, governments have thrown in the towel against Covid—depleted of the stomach to fight against its debilitating rampage.

At Kursk, with the halt of the Nazi advance, the Holocaust pushed east no more; people like Emma lived; Hitler’s boast of Lebensraum, of new lands in which the German Third Reich would grow for a thousand years began to shrink, and in less than two years further would die out completely.

If only while talking of war, governments today had the courage to wage it while an actual enemy threatened human existence.

Covid-19—not Xi, not Trump, nor Putin (as genocidal as he is)—is today’s existential threat.

Where are the world’s triple lines of health defence now? Where is the social resolve to protect life? Where is the political resolve to move forward to victory and not take one step back?

How has life become so Hitlerite-cheap in a new century that promised so much?

© 2023 Adam Parker.

Picture Credit: Glantz, D. M. and House, J. M. (1999) The Battle of Kursk. Surrey, The University Press of Kansas. (Author’s copy.)