Travel: Cold War memories along the Danube

John Berwyn stands near a monument on the banks of the Danube built to memorialize thousands who escaped, or died try to escape from the Cold War prison of Eastern Europe.

Don’t ever take the freedom to travel for granted

By Bob Berwyn

With last year’s focus on the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, it’s important to remember that the Wall was just the most visible manifestation of the Iron Curtain, a much larger enclosure that kept millions imprisoned in eastern Europe.

We take our freedom to travel very much for granted; it wasn’t so long ago that people died trying to earn that right by tunneling under walls and fences, swimming through icy waters or even making homemade hot air balloons to try and soar to freedom.

I grew up in Germany during the Cold War. My parents met as a direct result of that era’s geopolitical upheaval. My dad worked for the American government in Germany and my mom lived in Linz, a city that, at the time, was cut in half by the ideological divide, with the Danube River forming the border between the American and Soviet sectors.

So a few years ago, when my dad suggested that we visit a Cold War memorial site near his hometown in Slovakia, my son and I jumped at the chance to join him and explore the banks of the Danube, near Bratislava. And we weren’t just there to look at a statue. My dad wanted to find the exact spot where made his own escape more than 50 years ago by dodging border guards and swimming across the chilly river.

Dylan takes a break from capturing frogs in a murky pond while my dad looks at the monument near the river’s edge and translates the inscription. The concrete slab is pock-marked with replicated bullet holes. An iron grate is bent up at one corner, symbolizing escape from tyranny. The marker was dedicated here on the former Cold War frontier to memorialize thousands of people who were killed trying to flee Eastern Europe between 1945 and 1989. Countless others never had a chance to escape. They were sentenced to jail or deported to forced labor camps without fair trials for questioning tyrannical Communist doctrine.

My dad was one of the lucky ones. As the three of us wander along the river, he describes how he watched Czech soldiers from his home and timed border patrols along the riverside road. One evening, he snuck down to the water, jumped in and swam to freedom. He left behind family and friends, hopes and dreams. As a defector, he  can’t go back to visit for the next 40 years, not even as a tourist.

Today, however, we are free to roam, so we hike up to the partly restored ruins of Devin Castle, overlooking the scene. Fortified settlements at the site date to the 9th century, and human habitation has been documented back to the Stone Age. Sitting at the confluence of the Danube and Morava rivers, the 600-foot-high point strategically controlled important trade routes. The Cold War isn’t first time this territory was disputed. The great clash between the Ottoman the Austro-Hungarian empires had its western boundary here, and centuries later, Napoleon’s army demolished the stronghold on a sweep through the area after besieging Bratislava.

They clipped my wings’
Flash back to the late 1940s. The Iron Curtain casts a deep shadow across Central Europe. The continent is starkly divided after WWII, the western half flowering with promise, the east mired deeply in a dead-end totalitarian rut. Mass displacement is common. Almost 3 million ethnic Germans are expelled from Czechoslovakia. Moscow-leaning socialist parties make gains at the polls across Eastern Europe.

Czechoslovakia is toying with democratic reforms, but in 1947, Soviet leader Josef Stalin calls the Czech prime minister to Moscow. A short time later, the 12 noncommunist ministers in the government hand in their resignations, while the Communist-controlled interior ministry deploys troops, police, and organizes a worker militia. The prime minister accepts the resignations and installs a new cabinet, hand-picked by the Communist party — freedom lost.

Meanwhile, my dad pursues his dream of flying. He gains admission to the Czech Air Force Academy. But he’s never been willing to follow dogma, so he freely talks politics with his friends. Suddenly, one of them disappears, shipped off to work in an underground uranium mine. My dad realizes that he’s already been branded as politically unreliable, suspecting that he might defect by plane. He tells us that’s exactly what he had in mind.

“They clipped my wings. They were never going to let me fly,” my dad says as we walk down a narrow path to the river. Swatting away mosquitoes, we look for the exact spot where he took the plunge so many years ago. The river has shifted, just like the political tides, so it’s hard to tell for sure. As we scour the shoreline for landmarks, he tells us about a boyhood lived as fierce battles raged in the region.

He downplays the story of his escape and jokes about his arrival at a refugee camp near Vienna with nothing but his brains and the clothes on his back. Later, as we zoom comfortably along the highway, a guard casually waves us through that very same border.

My dad visited Berlin in 1990 and chiseled off a few pieces of the Wall to memorialize his own personal Cold War history.

”You can bomb the world to pieces’
I’m optimistic that, in some small way, my dad’s stories have an impact on Dylan, a child of privilege in 21st Century America. We all need to learn from the past, and our stay in Linz, my mom’s hometown, is part of the process. She also shares stories of growing up in a divided world.

Linz straddles the Danube, halfway between Vienna and Salzburg. Here too, the river marked the great ideological divide of the late 20th Century. On one side was the Russian zone, on the other, the American sector. A bridge in the heart of the city was an Austrian version of Berlin’s Checkpoint Charlie, where commuting to work and school involved a daily encounter with armed soldiers.

In many ways, mom’s childhood mirrors my dad’s. Her stories come to life as we wander cobblestone alleys where she played as a child, and hike up to the summit of a local hill to an overlook.

She tells Dylan how her older brother, Karl, was forcibly drafted as a teen when Nazi soldiers went door to door, looking for cannon fodder — any male old enough to carry a gun on the Russian Front. She never saw him again. Bombers sought to destroy a strategic bridge and industrial facilities within miles of her home. Once, when the air-raid sirens howled while she was sick, her family and neighbors carried her, mattress and all, to the musty and dark basement shelter.

Dylan listens to the stories closely and asks me serious questions. I try to keep it simple,making it clear that we must protect and cherish treasures like peace and prosperity, that we can’t take them for granted. That war, with all its horrible suffering, should always be a last resort.

Michael Franti provides the soundtrack for our trip, and both of us sing along:  “You can bomb the world to pieces, but you can’t bomb it into peace.”

Last year, on the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, I asked my dad to reflect on the events. Here’s what he had to say:

“At that time, 21 years ago, it was the healing of a wound caused by a deep cut into the body of Europe. That cut was one of the consequences of various peoples’ permanent struggle to dominate each other, cynically called ‘inevitable’. I think there are many other less visible wounds that might be healing, while we are already creating new ones on other fronts.

Realistically, the Wall was a tangible proof that the philosophy that produced it is not viable. We know it and we are smarter, now, we think. We, the humanity, are now creating invisible walls, based ostentatiously on economic needs but having the same objectives: to be stronger militarily, culturally and politically in order to achieve hegemony  of one group over the other. The Chinese are now extremely active on this front, particularly in Africa.

As you might recall, I went to Berlin in June 1990 and chiseled off a few chunks of the Wall to be sure that I have the real thing for a souvenir. By that time our beloved Capitalism had shown its first achievement and peddlers were selling fake chunks of concrete as tourist souvenirs to naive buyers. I still have some of it. I gave each of you boys a chunk, back then.

For me personally, the Fall of the Wall meant that I could again travel to my old country and see my mother. It was a half of century after my personal opening of the Iron Curtain, bringing me to the West.”

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