Iron Curtain: One Man Survives a Crossing
by Jozef Imrich || Author's Links
Bohemian youth mixed with a desire for freedom defies even the unbreakable barriers such as the Iron Curtain. A daring escape which almost left none to tell the story.
James Bond once said, 'You only live twice.' Once when you are born and again when you face death.
Prologue: My life, all of it, comes down to 7 July 1980.
Monologue: Let me begin with a story I read about in the paper, in the train, on my way to work. I read it and I could not believe it, and I read it again. Then perhaps I just stared at it, at the newsprint spelling out the story of Andrea ... of Houston who killed all five of her children.
Not in a burst of gunfire, but by methodically drowning them in the bathtub. Anyone who's tried to give an unwanted hair-wash to a kid will appreciate the effort involved in holding five struggling youngsters under water. The oldest, seven-year-old Noah, was the last to die. He ran, for his life. But she caught him and dragged him back to the bathroom, and forced him under, legs kicking, arms flailing. He was old enough to know, as he looked up and fought against the weight of her hands, that his own mother was killing him.
Back in July 1980, two burial vaults awaited the caskets of my two drowned friends. Our mother country Czechoslovakia forced them under, legs kicking, arms flailing.
I have put off writing the story of my escape from Czechoslovakia across the Iron Curtain so long, but now the time is here. I do not want to write it. I do not want to remember. I drew iron curtains over the memory. Nothing comes, no images, no feelings, except a sunny day when a sudden storm flooded the Morava River.
Time is like a river, fluid. From time to time, whether we like it or not, we all have to go someplace otherwise inaccessible. We have to go "to the other side of the river." Then we return, still the same, but somehow impossibly changed. Some of us come back from the dead.
When I want to punish myself I begin with a question "if." As I sit in my subtropical study, contemplating the 21st anniversary of my escape from Czechoslovakia, I have not been spared from pondering upon that "if." Most of us have dim corners in our lives, and most of us have one or two that are not just dim, but truly dark. This one is hard to illuminate, but I shall try my best.
Those who know what it was like to be twenty-two years young in communist Czechoslovakia might understand that some of us had absurd and impossible aspirations and we believed that we could achieve them. We used to dream of dancing at the Beatles' concert and marrying Olivia Newton-John ... Then we transferred our dreams to crossing the Iron Curtain.
The day I and my two friends Ondrej Brejka and Milan Dlubac ( as well as our black dog Bessie) steeled ourselves to cross the Iron Curtain and swim across the Morava River is one I will forever remember vividly; it was on 7 July 1980 and we fell under the spell of Charter 77, that maddening but remarkable document symbolising freedom.
An image rises into my mind as from a forgotten river. There are three young men with dark hair, six foot and one inch, six foot and two inches, six foot and three inches tall, no more than twenty-two years old and they are heading for the military barracks near a village called Moravsky Svaty Jan (Morava's Saint, or Holy John).
We drive to the watchtower. The gate opens. Two soldiers who appear in green uniform, each with a machine-gun on his back, smile as they recognise Milan, their old army roommate.
Following the greeting, the conversation moves on to the girl in Milan's life and how the civilian job is treating him. It takes Milan only a few seconds to talk his way into getting hold of one of the machine-guns. There, in a mist, a thick fog of words and misunderstanding, we hustle the two soldiers into a car, disarming them and forcing the two to sit still as we drive through the army barracks filled with hundreds of soldiers having an afternoon smoke.
If Hollywood had filmed this, we would not believe it.
We felt the sun in our eyes, yet within a mile the sky was crying, making the Morava almost double its normal size. It is very hard to explain the sheer terror of the situation. The adrenalin takes over and you keep going as if on automatic pilot. There is no turning back. Everything is experienced on an instinctual level.
As we approach the river, the roar of the hair-raising creature alone is enough to half kill a man. The water is lapping impatiently beyond the edges of the bank with driftwood, leaves and grass.
Our map of the river loses its reliability due to the heavy rain which caused the river to climb its banks by two meters. The Morava seems to flow in every direction: west, east, south, north, making the sign of the cross or the European number 7. Screams can be practically useless at times, but hallucination is always powerful.
Trapped between the sinister watchtowers that punctuate the landscape behind us, and the wild, but hopeful, Morava River, it is little wonder that we decide to run towards the last gateway that promised us some hope of freedom - the gateway to Austria.
Suddenly, the universe is filled with a gravity that I have never experienced before.
On the bank of the river, three hearts are beating as one. The hundred-meter run from the car to the river makes us somehow more primitive. As if we were running into the dark heart of our own soul.
The water is cold, freezing. As the water gushes past, we whisper in unison, shakily : "Plavaj," "PPP-PP-P-L-A-V-AJ!" (Swim). We baptise ourselves in the Morava. The force of water is so great that I quickly find myself dragged under water. Weighed down by my backpack, I realise that I won't be able to carry it across and struggle to offload it, now totally unable to see my friends amid the fury of the river. Beside me, Bessie struggles like a matchstick, but manages to keep abreast of me.
Every stroke is like walking uphill. I grow more forceful swimming, counting strokes in groups of 10. My hands seem to feel smaller than matchsticks and the pain is unbearable. With every breath I draw or don't draw, I feel the pull and Satan's temptation to give in. Everything is soaked in brown: my hand, the trees, the sky, the world - as if some kind of sewer juice has splashed across everything.
The loud, bass thumps made by the murderous current drown all our voices. Gritting my teeth, I drag myself towards the bank inch by inch. I swim for a long time through what looks and feels like a pool of molten lava. The evil shadow of the barbed wire towers looms overhead.
The undercurrent swallows my backpack, then my socks and jacket, then my shirt. My trousers stick tightly to my body, dragging me down, pulling me in all directions, my hands freezing, lips trembling. When the first machine-gun shot is fired in the distance, I dive-bomb deeper and deeper under water.
I inhale, and, to my surprise, it is water. I inhale water. I seem to defy all laws of physical science and common sense by swallowing big gulps of water. Next, a helicopter hovers somewhere within my earshot. Fear encompasses me on every front.
A scream dies in my throat. But my muscles scream. I feel like ice not flesh. A gulp of thick mud has a deathly taste as I am sucked down into the bottom of the river.
The moment is like watching a car crash in slow motion: mud colliding, bubbling and absorbing the impact of water. I think so much in those few seconds when I am faced with death. While my hands and legs feel like lead, my mind races at lightning speed.
I feel defeated and the other side of the bank of Morava River is still so far away. Bessie growls low. The bark is distanced. There is still no sign of Milan or Ondrej. I am too powerless to save myself. There is nothing left between the sky and the river. In a ghost story I read ages ago, a man wakes up in the depth of the night and immediately feels that his nails are helplessly scratching on the inside of his coffin.
To the murky depths of the river, I am nothing but repetitious whisperings: "I must, I must, I must ..." There is just my whisperings and water. And the liquid is winning. I have become one with the water. I feel myself rising, watching the world I have known slowly disappearing beneath me. I don't feel I am floating so much as being lifted, as if some force is drawing me in. Everything seems to grow white, pure, warm.
As I surface one more time, I can see the sodden fur of Bessie- a lifeline. I touch her fur long enough for a single gasp. My mouth and throat are filled with a murky fluid. It is the taste of death. In the strange nook of me that craves immortality, I am as unable to take death seriously as ever. A moment later, I am thrown against a branch of a tree and cling on, pleading with nature to let me go. I climb back from the threat of death back to safer ground. I can't breathe, but I can. I drink in the July air. I cheat death.
Three days after the crossing I identify Ondrej's body in the mortuary in Vienna. Two days after that I identify Milan's swollen body.
Those who cheat death have it on Shakespeare's authority, no less, that the tide of time brings in its revenge. But at an age of 43, can there ever be any revenge or revolution of our time so meaningful as the news that the crossroads of Europe, my old country, are again free to accept any traveller and trader it likes?
Each country and person chooses a different path to success. My path led me to CrossroadsPub.
My story casts a shadow over the complicated story of freedom. However, in war as in peace, the last word is said by those who never surrender.
I knew not a soul in Australia twenty-one years ago. Today, I have a soulmate, Lauren, who has blessed me with two children. Our first born is a child of the Velvet Revolution; her name is Alexandra, alias Sasha, born exactly nine months after the Revolution.
Due to the nature of my book, entitled 'The Cold River: A Tale From My Heart,' portions of it may not be suitable for the weak of heart.
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