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Moments Like this Never Last

Border Czechs

After Joseph Stalin and the Red Army drove the Nazis out of Eastern Europe, the continent was left with ill-defined borders and new ideas about who was running shit.
August 2, 2009, 12:00am

By Pavel Cejka and Tomas Zilvar

Photos Courtesy of the Security Services Archive, Police Museum Prague Archive

Translated By Matthew Blood-Smyth

After Joseph Stalin and the Red Army drove the Nazis out of Eastern Europe, the continent was left with ill-defined borders and new ideas about who was running shit. Things had to be sorted out, so leaders from the US, USSR, and UK convened at the 1945 Potsdam Conference in Germany to decide how the host country would be punished for its sins.

After much handwringing and deliberation, it was concluded that the USSR would take control of the territories buttressing its border, while most Western European nations joined together to form NATO. And presto: The Iron Curtain was hung. Over the following years, the Soviets erected hundreds of miles of high-voltage barbed wire and dispatched approximately 20,000 soldiers to guard their imposing mega-border. It was a very shitty time for Eastern-bloc inhabitants, who knew much about very shitty times already.

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Escape was the only option for those unwilling to be confined to Communist rule. And there was no time to waste—the Iron Curtain grew increasingly impregnable with each passing year. By 1948, searchlights were installed, and shortly after that, barbed-wire barricades, electric fences, mines, and other death traps were scattered across every conceivable point of exit like arsenic sprinkles on a death cupcake. Still, more than 150,000 Czechoslovakians and other nationalities decided fleeing was worth the risk.

Ivo Pejcvoch of Prague’s Military History Institute and author of the obscure

Heroes of the Iron Curtain

cites specialized carriages, horses, sleds, stilts, hang gliders, and even balloons as means of escape employed by enterprising Czechs. Few were successful, but Ivo told us, “It is important that we remind the young what sort of face Europe had before it was possible to move about in her freely.” We agreed. So in honor of the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Iron Curtain, here are some the ingenious and less-than-ingenious ways a few brave Czechs parted the red drapes.

In 1953, Václav Uhlík unleashed his monstrous “Freedom Tank” on unsuspecting patrol troops. He managed to transform the burned-out wreckage of an Austrian artillery Saurer RR-7 transport vehicle into a reliable, bulletproof, and durable liberation machine with two chassis. It safely carried Václav’s friends and family through three lines of barbed-wire fortifications and into West Germany. The Uhlíks later arranged safe passage to the US and became American citizens.

In 1965, three friends attempted to use a massive Tatra 111 truck-mounted crane to barge through highway barricades lining the Czech-German border. The crane was modified with a reinforced front bumper, the front and side panels were fortified, and its windows were covered with 12-millimeter-thick steel plates. Although the majestic beast crashed through three border gates, a hail of more than 300 bullets overpowered its advance and wounded the hopeful passengers a few feet from deliverance.

Carpooling isn’t the invention of soccer moms and legislators who pretend to care about the environment. In fact, a more subversive version was often used to elude the Iron Curtain border patrol—especially by East Germans who went through Czechoslovakian West Germany. Enterprising passengers would squeeze under the hood or behind the seats to evade detection. Escapees who didn’t have access to autos sometimes took to the rails like the comrade above.

Under the auspices of manufacturing an “earth cutter,” Vladimír Benesv combined the frame of a Wartburg 331 automobile, two gasoline engines, two axles, tin plating, four wheels, tractor tires, an ordinary 12-volt battery, and a fake wooden cannon with the goal of shredding lots of barbed wire. Vladimír succeeded in getting his Frankenmobile up and running, but both motors failed near the border. His machine then became a prized trophy of the secret police.

Few people were willing or able to gamble what little koruna they had in their pockets on one-off machines or covert transport. But just about anyone can nail a few boards together, prop them against the barbed wire, and get the hell out of Communist-controlled territory. Before scoffing at this approach, you should know that two boys aged 15 and 16 pulled it off in 1955.

Underwater routes were at turns the safest and most dangerous paths through the Iron Curtain. Karel Brabec, known to many as the “King of the Danube,” earned his nickname by swimming across the Danube from Bratislava to Austria with the help of a modified Counter Intelligence Corps diving dress. It was reported that Karel made at least ten trips (some put the figure as high as 20) across the river until the Communist police caught up with him. He was later sentenced to years of hard labor. Attempting a truly submerged passage was a different matter: The benefit of bypassing the obstacles and guards aboveground was often outweighed by the fact that even the smallest equipment flaw would turn the absconder into fish food. Such was the fate of the unknown fellow in the photo above.