Berwyn: Freedom to move about the world
Traveling by rail in Europe these days is easy. High-speed lines connect many major cities, the dining cars offer decent food and drink, and some trains even feature wireless Internet.
But for nearly 50 years after World War II, a large part of the European population was locked behind the Iron Curtain, unable to enjoy the freedom of travel most of us take for granted. During a recent train journey from Frankfurt to Paris, I read a story on the special refugee trains that carried thousands of East German fugitives from the German embassy in Prague to freedom in the west. It was October 1989, 20 years ago, nearly to the day.
The collapse of the Berlin Wall a month later was huge news, but the events leading up to the fall of the wall – including the trains, as well as a series of massive peaceful demonstrations in East Germany – were the beginning of the wave that eventually pushed open the floodgates of freedom.
What would you do if you woke up one morning to find troops building a wall around you, turning your city, your country, into a prison? For a few decades, most residents of Eastern Europe simply shrugged their shoulders and made the best of a bad situation. But in the waning days of the Soviet empire, thousands of East Germans made their way to the German embassy in Prague, where the government had already decided to let its people travel abroad freely, effectively spelling the end of the Iron Curtain for what was then still Czechoslovakia.
East Germany was the hard-line communist hold-out. A strict law forbidding its citizens the right to leave had already cost thousands of lives over the years, as would-be escapees were killed. Right up to the end, East German border guards were under shoot-to-kill orders.
By mid-October 1989, thousands of East Germans were camped out at the West German embassy in Prague. Czech leaders told their East Berlin counterparts they wouldn’t hold the Germans prisoner, so the East German government finally relented. They allowed a handful of special trains cross East German territory to transport the refugees to the West. The trains were thronged. Altogether, about 10,000 people punched one-way tickets to the west. They left behind their houses, cars, clothes, pets and, in some cases, even family.
Trying to maintain the charade of control, border guards forced the passengers to give up their East German passports at the border. The “Ossis,” as they were then still called, responded by setting fire to their East German money and throwing their coins and apartment keys out onto the platform as the train crossed to the west.
Shortly thereafter, East German leaders celebrated the 40th anniversary of the “German Democratic Republic” with the usual vacuous ideological speeches and parades of military hardware. A few weeks later, East Germany was dead and the wall was gone.
It wasn’t brought down by any grand political arrangement or treaty, or by force of arms, but simply dismantled by the will of a people who wanted to be able to come and go as they pleased, to pursue life, liberty and happiness.
Most of us take the right to travel very much for granted. As long as we have money and a little time off, we’re free to go when and where we please. It’s almost inconceivable that millions of people who lived in Eastern Europe during the Cold War did not share those rights.
For East Germans and other residents of the East Bloc, Cold War travel became a matter of life and death. A couple of families tried to stitch together silk fabric, even using bits of clothing, to build a gas-filled balloon to carry them across the border. Others tried to dig tunnels under the wall, and some swam to freedom, like my father, who plunged into the Danube one evening to escape Soviet-controlled Slovakia.
It was a far cry from the ease and comfort of European travel as we know it today. After reading the story, I almost felt a little guilty, putting my feet up and cracking open a cold beer. But it’s a good reminder that travel is a gift and a privilege. As travelers from free countries, we need to be at the forefront of trying to make sure that everyone in the world enjoys the same freedoms we have.
Bob Berwyn has been reporting from Summit County since 1996 and travels whenever he can.
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