“Listen to the river sing sweet songs, to rock my soul … “
By Bob Berwyn
SUMMIT COUNTY — The Danube River weaves together a rich and diverse tapestry of culture and scenery, and it’s also an important thread in my life. Both my parents grew up along its banks; my mom in Linz, Austria and my dad in Bratislava, capital of the Slovak Republic. As a young boy, I spent many weeks near the river at my grandmother’s home and since then, I’ve returned to visit as often as possible.
As they easily transcend national boundaries, great rivers hold a fascination for travelers. This summer, I gathered once again with family and loved ones to complete a very special trip started by my dad long ago in another era.
Rivers can connect cultures, but they often also form the borders between countries, or, in the case of the Cold War, between two completely irreconcilable ideologies. As a young man, my dad was on the wrong side of that boundary, trapped behind the Iron Curtain while his spirit longed to fly free. Eventually, he was faced with a tough choice; stay and give in to the ideology of fear, hate and cynicism, or flee, leaving behind his family and loved ones, knowing that it would quite a while, if ever, before they knew his fate.
He chose freedom, swimming across the broad river one chilly morning and arriving in the West with not much more than the clothes on his back. It was a crucial choice for him, and, of course, if he hadn’t made it, I wouldn’t be writing this story. After spending some time in a refugee camp in the American sector of Vienna, he emigrated to the U.S. and began a career working for the U.S. government. Eventually, his work led him to Linz, about 100 miles upstream from his home town. There he met my mom.
For her, too, the river was a divide, because here it was also the boundary between the American zone on the south side of the river and the Russian zone to the north, not far from the border of what was then Czechoslovakia. She and her sister had to show identification each time they crossed from one side to the other, on their way to work and school.
But justice, as it often does, ultimately prevailed. The walls fell, the Iron Curtain rusted and crumbled and my dad was free to return to his native country for the first time in decades. A few years ago, my son and I traveled with him to try and find the place where he started the greatest journey of his life.
That same summer, he and Dylan and I strolled along the river in Linz, played soccer and Frisbee, drank beer and watched World Cup soccer matches. It would be the last time we all spent time along the Danube’s banks together.
My dad passed away last year after a life that was dedicated to public service and to the cause of freedom. His last years were filled with some satisfaction, as his work, in a small way, helped hasten the fall of the Berlin Wall, opening up his native country to opportunity and personal liberty. His wish was to have his ashes returned to the river, so on a damp and gray morning, we gathered there to honor his last request.