Iron Curtain Crossing

short stories

Doug Alt

 

In 1989, the Iron Curtain, which had separated the Eastern Europe countries from the Western Europe countries for 28 years, disintegrated.

I feel very fortunate to have had the occasion to cross the Iron Curtain, just a year prior to that, in order to spend a few days in Czechoslovakia in November of 1988, when the full weight of economic and human depression due to totalitarian communist control was still at its most oppressive.

Using the word “fortunate” to describe my own little experience there, when millions of people in that country were in such a state of pathetic poverty and ubiquitous grayness, only makes sense in that my short exposure to the end results of communism gave me a newly-charged appreciation for the value of the system we have here in our country. Individual rights, free market capitalism and constitutional limitation of government have enabled us in the USA to have levels of comfort, security and personal fulfillment unequaled in the history of the world.


Iron Curtain Crossing

My story begins in October, 1988. My daughter Kristl was living in Holland with her mother and step-father. She was having a lot of success competing in the sport of Rhythmic Gymnastics and was training with a team based in Wassenaar, Holland. Her team was scheduled for a series of competitions in various countries in Europe, including Czechoslovakia.

I purchased a 90-day Eurailpass train ticket and flew over, planning on using her competition schedule as a frame-work for traveling around Europe for a few months. Having been stationed in Frankfurt, Germany as a soldier in 1969-70, I had old friends in that area that I was also eager to spend some time with. The game plan was based on a rail-fan’s dream: use the train system to travel hither and yon throughout Europe to my heart’s delight, making sure to drop in on certain cities on dates when Kristl was scheduled to be competing there.

The trains served as my hotel for about one-third of the nights during the ten weeks of my sojourn. After spending a day or two wandering and sight-seeing in any particular city, I would gravitate to the main train station late in the evening and study the train-departure schedule board. Any train scheduled to travel more than eight hours from that station to a destination in another country became a candidate for selection as my “hotel” for that night. Thus, I would criss-cross Europe at night, waking up in new, interesting cities on many of the mornings.

Another third of my nights were spent visiting at homes of people I knew, and the final third of the nights during the trip were spent at hotels.

As the date neared for one of Kristl’s competitions that was scheduled to take place in Nitra, Czechoslovakia, I made sure that I had worked my way to Vienna, Austria, which would be the jumping-off point for travel through the Iron Curtain into communist territory.

I had already, several weeks prior to my trip, gotten a whiff of the “heavy air” that pervades East Bloc life when I had to obtain the required visa for travel within Czechoslovakia from their consulate office in New York City. The term “third world” had immediately come to mind as I entered their office. Drab. Minimal lighting. Old, plastic furnishings. Besides being very customer-unfriendly, I had gotten the distinct impression from a female agent there that not many Americans applied for permission to travel to their country. From her furtive style of speaking, I also first experienced the chilling feeling that “someone else is listening.”

In Vienna, with visa in hand, I needed to take a train across the border to the major city of Bratislava. I would then go by bus from there to my destination in Nitra.

As my train crossed the Danube into Czechoslovakia, my nose was glued to the window. The Iron Curtain demarkation appeared there as a very wide swath cut through the fields and countryside on the Czech side of the river, with various rows of fence, barbed wire and scattered small watch towers.

The train stopped at a very small village, Davinska Nova Ves (if I am interpreting current map notations correctly), just a mile or two within the border, for the entry procedures. There were a number of military personnel, with rifles, standing at various points around the train. My papers were deemed to be in order, and my answers to the questions regarding my destination and purpose of visit seemed to satisfy them.  It is worth noting here that my visa had been granted for travel specifically through Bratislava and on to Nitra; no varying from the scheduled path!

The train was allowed to continue on within about 30 minutes.

At Bratislava, I was able find my way to the bus depot, where there were hundreds of people waiting for various buses. A lady who spoke some very rudimentary English was able to help me find the correct bus. When the driver asked me something (I assume it was “where are you going?”) I could only respond like a one-note parrot saying, “Nitra, Nitra…”. He indicated, with a big stage-guffaw to the rest of the passengers, that he had already figured that out; he was now telling me how much I should pay. I had no clue what he was saying; I just held out a handful of bills and coins and let him take whatever he was going to take. It was clear to the other passengers that they were in the presence of a real babe-in-the-woods foreigner, and the term “American” was heard being disparagingly murmured through the bus.

And, what a busload we made! If the seating capacity of the bus was normally something like 50, there must have been 90 or more on board. Every sitting and standing space was packed like the proverbial sardine can. I was standing on one of the steps just barely inside the front entry door. There were probably 10 more people standing with me crammed into the space between the driver, the front row of seats and the entry door. I was perfectly happy however, as I had an excellent view out the huge front windows.

The main road to Nitra was a divided, 4-lane road which had the look of having been constructed in anticipation of some huge growth of population and/or travel activiy, but which wound up laying relatively fallow for 30 years or so due to some financial or political boondoggles which prevented the projected developments from ever appearing.

Although it was “rush hour”, at the end of a working day, as evidenced by the huge number of commuters back at the bus terminal, traffic delays didn’t seem to crop up and hinder our progress during the 50 mile trip to Nitra. In fact, there was no traffic AT ALL except for a few scattered buses, trucks and some very occasional private cars. I started to notice that this auto-bahn type highway apparently saw such little traffic from day to day that grass was growing prevalently in the cracks in the concrete, right in the main path where vehicles’ tires rolled!

Despite the clear highway, we didn’t seem to be “rushing” much ourselves. For whatever reasons, we trundled along the wide open spaces between the cities at a very sedate 30 to 40 miles per hour. If I remember correctly, the 50 mile trip, with one intermediate stop, over mostly empty 4-lane highways, required over two and a half hours to complete. (Welcome to the bustling world of communism’s guaranteed-for-life jobs, quotas set to accommodate minimal efforts, and, no benefits for performing above the minimums…)

Upon arriving at Nitra near the end of the afternoon, I went first to the gymnasium complex where Kristl’s competition was to be held. She was there, going through her warm-up routines with her teammates and the other competitors. My plan for the day had been to spend time with her at the gym until she and her team all went out for their supper break, after which they would come back to participate in the actual competition during the evening. During their supper break, I was going to find a hotel where I could check in for the night. Before I could do that though, Kristl connected me with one of the coaches, who thought that they could find a room for me in the dormitory building with all the competitors, so I wouldn’t have to spend money on a hotel. We were in the midst of discussing this possibility when a nice 30-ish fellow, who turned out to be part of the local event-hosting committee, piped up and said, “Maybe you would prefer not to be in a building with all the kids; my wife and I would enjoy it if you would accept an invitation to stay overnight at our house.”

This turned out to be a terrific turn of events! Dano and Maru Franticek were a young, professional couple (what we would call, here in the USA, “Yuppies”). He worked for the recreational department of the town and she was an English teacher at the Czech military academy that was located in town. They were apparently thrilled to be able to spend some time with a “real American”, practicing their English, and I was very happy to be staying with some “real Czechs”, getting an insider’s, non-tourist view of life in their area.

The first impact of the totalitarian regime they were living under came into play as we were leaving the gym to go to their home – Maru was going to walk home by a different route than Dano and I. Having assumed that she had some errands or shopping to do on the way home, I was surprised to hear the explanation that came out once we were all together again in their home. She was not allowed to be seen talking with a “Westerner”, especially NOT an American! Since her job was teaching soldiers inside a military facility, any connection between her and a westerner could be interpreted as either me trying to pry military secrets from her somehow, or, as her learning things from me about “The Evil West” that might taint or conflict with the party line dogma they expected her to absorb and regurgitate. She would very possibly lose her job, or worse, if any officials or “snitches” saw us together.

Kristl did nicely at her competition that evening. Afterwards, upon returning to my hosts’ home, I thoroughly enjoyed talking with Dano and Maru late into the night. It was much like a college dorm philosophy-exploring session.

The next day, Dano was able to spend some time showing me around the town. He took me past the premier department store. This “showcase” retail outlet was built in the mid-80’s, but looked like early 50’s style construction in a small, mid-west USA town. Although only a few years old, the walls of the several-story tall building had huge structural cracks that were visible from a block away. As we got closer, I could see that the construction detail was all cheap materials and shoddy workmanship. “John’s Bargain Store” quality comes to mind (for those of you in the eastern US who remember that low-end store chain). This was the “big deal” that the planned-economy minions back at communist party headqurters were supposedly so proud of…

The quality of the rest of the modern construction in town went downhill from there. For comparison, just picture low-income government housing and seedy strip malls in the most depressed US towns and cities. The only relief from this scenario was the scattered existence of substantially constructed buildings that had been in place since early in the century, before communism became the way of life.

Toward the end of the day, my daughter departed on the bus with her team, headed back to Holland, and I bid my hosts farewell. I had to get to Bratislava so I could spend Saturday night there. The only train reservation I had been able to make for travelling back to Vienna was for departure from Bratislava at an un-godly 7:30 on Sunday morning !

In searching for a hotel, I did not want to stay in a modern, “Holiday Inn” style of characterless hotel. As was my usual bent, I looked for more “European”, old-fashioned places. Normally, in western European cities, I would never pick the top end, most expensive, hotels, but would seek out two-star or three-star establishments that would, besides being a much better bargain, offer much more in the way of ambience that reflected the locale.

In this case, the hotel I picked was one of the “Grand Old Dames” of the city. Old-fashioned luxury! I was NOT going to scrimp on expenditures by trying to find something that was a bit more down-scale. As it turned out, this “top-of-the-line” establishment was down-scale enough! To its credit, it was basically clean and sound. It was an early 1900’s building that had held up fairly well through the decades. As had the carpets …the drapes …the bedding ….the wallpaper. I am sure that pre-World War II visitors to this hotel had been regaled by the very same linens, paint and wall hangings that I viewed while I was there.

The room was fine. I slept well.

Breakfast in the hotel the next morning was a minor fiasco. I don’t remember the exact details, but something held up part of my breakfast order for an inordinately long time, as I was nervously eye-balling my wristwatch. It had something to do with part of my breakfast having to be prepared by only one certain cook, who wasn’t there for some reason. (6:00 AM on Sunday morning? Just a few hours after Saturday night? I can’t, for the life of me, imagine what could have possibly been the problem…) “No, nobody else can prepare that part of the meal…”. As I waited, the two other hotel guests in the dining room and I were serenaded the whole time by scratchy music, coming from tinny little speakers all over the dining room… 50’s Elvis Presley songs!

I did manage to get out of there in time to catch a trolley to the main train station. The trolley itself was very similar to the ones I had ridden quite often in 1969-70 in Frankfurt during my military duty period, and I was in my rail-fan glory. The trolley had few passengers, and I was thrilled to find that the English-speaking driver was happy to answer questions and serve as a knowledgable tour-guide as we wound our way through the streets.

One of the more entertaining aspects of that ride included navigating forks in the railway. The trolley would stop a few feet short of the intersection and the driver would grab a big metal hook from next to his seat. He’d then jump out, use the hook to pull the rails over to where they would line up with the tracks going in the new direction, then hop back in the driver’s seat to continue on the journey.

A feature of the trolley car that I never figured out, and didn’t get around to asking about before we reached the main train terminal, was a small pile of firewood that was piled up right behind the driver’s seat. It was precisely cut and quartered firewood logs! I am still wondering, 20+ years later…

Was the wood there for emergency self-preservation purposes, in case the electricity went off and the trolley might be stranded on a remote section of rail in the middle of a winter night?

Was it there to be used as chock blocks, in case the trolley might have to be parked on a hill?

Had the trolley driver received the wood as barter for a trolley ride?

Was the trolley driver carrying it around for use as barter himself for some kind of situation that I can’t imagine?

One of the reasons I was distracted from asking about the firewood was a scene we came upon as we neared the central part of the city. First of all, any inner city at 6:30 or 7:00 on a Sunday morning is going to be very empty. However, this city was not just empty - it was gray, worn-out, run-down, depressingly empty. If communist society could be summed up in one word, my word would be “gray”.

In the midst of all this dismal, forlorn scene I noticed a substantial line of people queued up in front of a store. The store was still dark and locked up tight. My first thought was about religion – I had heard during my last few days there, that there had been a slight easing recently of the communist ban on religions and churches, and, I thought that this might have been a new, or re-started, congregation arriving for a Sunday morning service in an improvised store-front church. (The actual church buildings had, long ago, been usurped for various government-directed purposes.)

The trolley driver filled me in on the reality. This was the end of November. As with most things controlled by the Central Planning people at communist headquarters, truck drivers had to cover a minimum number of trips each year. (“Woe be” if you don’t meet your quota!) This particular year, one group of truck drivers had gotten very ambitious and had driven extra hours and extra fast during the first parts of the year and had completed their driving quotas …in October! Since they had met their quotas, they were now having a nice vacation at home for the last three months of the year.

The only problem was, this gung-ho group of drivers were the ones responsible for transporting toilet paper from the factory to the cities. Toilet paper had disappeared off the store shelves half-way through October. Since then, the residents of Bratislava had been “up s____’s creek without….”

The 7:00 AM queue on a Sunday morning was forming because word had gone out that, somehow, a truckload of toilet paper had been delivered to the store the prior day and would be available for sale sometime later in the day on Sunday.

Central Planning at its best!!!

Upon arriving at the train station, I had just enough time to comfortably get myself to the proper track for the train to Vienna. Except, no train arrived at my track at the appointed time. There were some other trains on other tracks, but… wait! The train several tracks away had “Vienna” marked on the side of the cars! The departure track had evidently been switched, but no announcements had been made. The signage at my current track location still clearly indicated that the Vienna train was supposed to depart from here… but, I had better SPRINT down the huge staircase, through the tunnel to the other track and up another long staircase to get on that train!

I made it OK, but with major heart palpitations.

About 20 minutes later, the train and I approached the same little village for the border stop as we had come through on the way in to the country. A markedly different scene presented itself as this out-bound train came to a halt. Many soldiers, this time with machine guns, surrounding the train. Many police dogs on leashes. Many customs officers.

Big guys in trench coats, apparently Secret Police or Stasi-type characters, led the customs officers and soldiers through the train. Lots of detailed questions for all passengers. Close scrutiny of all ID and travel documents. Lots of suitcases and bags opened, rummaged through and, in some cases, cut open for inspection between layers of fabric.  Police dogs were directed to sniff luggage and clothing. In random fashion, the Secret Police guys would order customs officials to tear out a section of wall or ceiling of the rail car.

However, once it was recognized that I was an American on my way back OUT of the country, minimal further attention was paid to me and my documents.

It became clear that what this procedure, and The Iron Curtain, was all about was – no resident of an East Bloc country was going to ESCAPE through this border crossing. Neither were any objects of various categories on the custom officers’ lists.

One item on their lists brought a custom officer’s attention back to me. He asked me politely if I was taking anything out of the country that I should declare. I had read the policies carefully before entering the country, and I had nothing with me that didn’t comply with the rules. He asked if I had any Czech money. I said, “No, I exchanged it all at the bank yesterday for Austrian schillings.”

“ALL of it?” he asked pointedly. I was taken aback, but then realized that I had some loose change, coins, in my pocket, since the bank wouldn’t accept coins at the exchange window the prior day. I pulled the handful of coins out, showed them to him, and explained what had happened at the bank. He replied, “You can’t take them with you.”

When I asked him why not, he replied precisely, “Because that money is the property of Czechoslovakia; it’s not yours to take out.” (Mentally, to myself: oh, I get it now – it’s “communism”, where everything is owned by the State and nothing is actually owned by any individuals!) I thrusted the handful of coins toward him, saying, “well I guess I have to give them back to you then.” He backed away quickly, replying that he couldn’t take the money from me, as he might be accused of accepting a bribe, or something.

At this point, I had become really frustrated, and said, “Well, I’ll throw them in the trash can over there, so I don’t hold us up from getting on towards Vienna.”

NO. That’s not allowed either; one can’t destroy or discard property that belongs to the State.

“Well, please advise me, what am I to do?”

“Follow me,” he replied.

He then proceeded to lead me off the train, along the side of the tracks to a little street perpendicular to the track, then a short block away from the tracks to the intersection with what appears to be the main street of this little village. We rounded the corner onto the main street and and he lead me up to the front of a building that had a large window with a sales counter at about waist height. On the counter, and on display on shelves behind the smiling proprietor of this mini-convenience store, were magazines, candy, soda, cigarettes, etc.

“You can spend your money here”, I was told by the officer.

I started selecting candy bars and other snacks but, as a small pile of goodies accumulated on the counter in front of me, I realized that I already had about as much stuff as I could fit in my pockets and I had only utilized, so far, a small portion of the value of the coins in my hand. On a back shelf were some “larger ticket” items – in particular, vodka. The posted price for a liter was ridiculously cheap, in US dollar value, but it was just about the right amount for my purchase total to come up to the same total as the amount of Czech money I had in my hand.

“All right! Let’s get out of here!”

We then marched back to the train, which was patiently waiting for ME, and my escort, to reappear so it could resume the westward journey.

I am sure that the convenience store owner must have been somebody’s brother or something.

Upon re-boarding the train, I realized I was going to be gorging on candy throughout the rest of the day, but there was no way I was going crack open a liter of vodka while traveling back through Europe toward Frankfurt, where my plane to the States would be departing – I wanted to SEE Europe, not pass through it in a drunken stupor. I decided I was going to toss the vodka out the train window.

My departing salute to communist Czechoslovakia was to open my train window as we were traveling over the barbed-wire bordered “no man’s land” of the actual Iron Curtain demarkation zone and return the Czech vodka back to the Czech’s, with my toss timed so the flight of the bottle would cause it to land on the ground just inside the western edge of  the “zone”. My plan was that, by the time any Border Guards could notice the unauthorized object landing on the far edge of their turf, the train would be already carrying me across the bridge to the safety of the west side of the Danube.

Doug Alt
March, 2012
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An excellent book that describes events surrounding the fall of the Iron Curtain:

“The Year That Changed The World”, by Michael Meyer