Strictly Iron Curtain
One Man Survives the Iron Curtain Crossing
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 Yates 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
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 room mate.
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
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
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,
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 the 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
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
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, is 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
Epilogue: 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.
DISCLAIMER: 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
Synopis of the story, 'The Cold River: A Tale From My Heart.'
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.
A young Czechoslovak man, Jozef, and two of his friends, Ondrej and
Milan, set in motion a plan to escape across the Iron Curtain to
Austria. On 7 July, 1980 all three come close to the Austrian border,
but only Jozef and a dog, Bessie, make it to the other side of the Iron
Digest of the story entitled 'The Cold River: A Tale From My
One day, many, many, years after he escaped from Czechoslovakia, Jozef
Imrich's daughter asks, "Why did you leave your mummy, daddy?"
The innocent question sends Jozef on a journey through powerful
memories frozen within him.
In 1968, Czechoslovak people welcome the changes of the glorious Prague
Spring and dream of everlasting freedom. But, the Mittle European
history has a way of doubling back on its natives. One summer night the
country is invaded by the Russian. In the winter of 1969 a young man
called Jan Palach burns himself to death in front of the statue of St
Vaclac in Wenceslaw Square.
Dissidents who wear western clothes or listen to Radio Free Europe are
enemies of the state. Jozef's parents are not allowed to visit to
family in France and West Germany, even if they could afford the
Jozef's older sister Aga dies of leukemia at the young age of
twenty-two. Two years after Aga's death, in 1977, Jozef's other sister
Gitka is sacked from her teaching profession when she repeatedly
ignores orders to stop attending church services. A force wells up
inside Jozef driving him towards one the most wild dreams.
In the same year Vaclav Havel and a handful of brave souls sign Charter
77 and tell the western press about the realities of life in the
plastic paradise. They end up in prison. George Orwell's 1984 is a
light reading compared to true stories that Jozef reads in samizdat
Jozef and his friend Ondrej Brejka speak often of their determination
to leave their country, family and friends. During their two year
compulsory national service in the army, Jozef and Ondrej befriend
another soldier Milan Dlubac, who reveals escape plans he devised while
serving as border guard on the Iron Curtain. Milan Dlubac is deeply
familiar with the Austrian landscape on the other side of the border.
He tells Jozef and Ondrej stories from the front line: the daily
routine at the fortified layers of Iron Curtains, the curtain of land
mines, barbed wire fences, killer guard dogs, an army of
After each man celebrates his twenty-first birthday, and they plot the
time and place of their escape: the seventh day of the seventh month at
fourteen hours, using symbolic numbers from Charter 77, the human
rights movement led by Vaclav Havel.
The Czechoslovak government thinks no one would dare contemplate
crossing the most heavily patrolled borders in the world. They suppose
most people will cross the weaker borders of the lost tribes such as
Yugoslavia, corrupted by the influence of the Western democracy. But
the borders of the true believers? Never!
Few would dare dream about crossing such a border, unless, of course,
you have inside knowledge and contacts. Milan has both. They will have
only one chance to disarm the army guards at the gate and drive through
an army barracks without alarming others. Their set day is sunny. Not
one of them, even for a moment, thinks it might rain. But it does and
the swollen river makes it impossible forthem to cross, yet it is
impossible to go back...
The Literary Athorsden provides in few hours what it took years to
Jozef Imrich: the Richest Author of All
Can you ever think too much about freedom?
Not in my book