Essay / 21 October 2019

Remembering Life Behind the Iron Curtain

The Violent Messages

As we think back to two monumental events of 1989, the demise of the Iron Curtain and the fall of the Berlin Wall, who will disagree with the notion that something terribly wrong in Europe had been set right? Given the otherwise brutal and bloody twentieth century, the events deserve a special place in the annals of history. But isn’t it ironic that, while we commemorate the fall of two notorious barriers, new barriers are being erected a mere thirty years later, not only here in the USA, but also in Hungary, where I was born and where I experienced the brutal reality of life behind the Iron Curtain? In my memoir, Good Dogs Do Stray, I describe that reality and the political system that was responsible for it so that my children and grandchildren may not be among those who fail to learn from history. (The following excerpt has been modified for Versopolis.)


The Iron Curtain, that stretched from the Baltic Sea in the north to the Adriatic in the south, effectively separated East from West for over forty years. The purported rationale for its construction was to keep all the imperialist and capitalist elements out of the communist paradise. The true purpose, obvious to everyone, was to keep the people in who would have given anything to get out. 

The security installations of the Iron Curtain varied along its long run. The section that snaked past Pernau, my home village in Hungary, was less sophisticated than the section that separated East and West Germany, but it was just as lethal. At first, the installation consisted merely of a double barbed wire fence. Some young men of the village couldn’t resist the challenge and they managed to make it to Austria by crawling through a drainage pipe. The full–fledged version by the end of 1948 made such easy crossings impossible. The border was enhanced in the following ways: A strip of land, fifty metrees wide along the entire length of the fence, was cleared of trees and shrubs. It became Hungary’s front lawn, as it were. From the watchtowers that followed, the guards could easily spot anyone moving across this open area. If an unsuspecting escapee came at night, he tripped a wire at the edge of this space, sending flares into the night sky. The guards, often accompanied by German Shepherd dogs, patrolled the border close to the fence. Two additional features completed the installations: A well-tilled, harrowed strip about five metres wide to reveal any footprints, and a final strip by the fence itself, the minefield. The communist world was thus hermetically sealed off from the West and the Cold War became frigid. 

Almost on a daily basis, we heard explosions of mines, sometimes triggered by wild animals, sometimes by humans. Whenever the commander of the local garrison thought someone might have crossed the border, he ordered a razzia, a search of every house in the village, and a very effective way to harass and intimidate the little people. Even for me, a young teenager then, this monstrosity of a border was impossible to ignore and in time I came to know it all too well, when I engaged in some reckless activities that only a naive teenager would contemplate doing, such as misappropriating flares for my personal fireworks adventure, allowing the family cow to wander into the mine field, or retrieving a package from the mine field that was tossed across the fence from the Austrian side.       

The border sliced through a valley, roughly following the course of the Pinka River, separating Austrian and Hungarian villages that had forever constituted an economic and social unit, with people exchanging goods and goodwill. Just about everyone had relatives in neighbouring villages on the other side of the border. With the Iron Curtain in place, all contact with the other side ceased. We could see each other’s church steeples, hear each other’s church bells, and we could even see each other work in the fields. But communication of any type with the other side was strictly forbidden. Until 1953, when there was a slight political thaw following Stalin’s death, no one was allowed to visit the West. For some this became an intolerable condition and they attempted to escape. Some succeeded; some were caught and imprisoned; others died trying. 

Across the street from us lived a family with two children. Zsuzsi, the older child, was my sister Agnes’ best friend. They used to play house together, make their own rag dolls, and sometimes babysat little brother. One night, Zsuzsi lost her father. He wanted to escape across the border but, sadly, in the darkness of the night he stepped on a mine. The explosion mangled one of his legs and one arm. By some miracle he managed to drag himself home, a distance of at least one kilometre. Long after midnight he reached the front door of his house where his wife found him in a pool of blood. He was taken to the hospital where he died a short time later. Had he recovered, he would have faced a long prison term or worse. Several other men in the village were luckier and they made it safely across the border, among them my mother’s cousin. Rumour had it that high snow drifts at the time of his escape and the clever use of a white blanket enabled him to cross the border unharmed and undetected. 

The Iron Curtain was intimately tied up with the destiny of the Koller family. In 1953 an incident at the border determined the course for our future. Grandpa Schrammel had a vineyard, cellar, and cabin very close to the border. One fine Sunday, an outing to that vineyard resulted in unintended consequences. Included in the party were Mother and Father, Uncle Seppl, Uncle Stefan, Aunt Schuli. The true purpose of the outing was an illegal and risky meeting with Uncle George, back from America visiting relatives in Austria. At the spot where the meeting took place, the border ran through a deep depression with steep rises on either side. Standing on the steep slopes, the parties were literally face-to-face at a distance of no more than 150 feet with nothing to obstruct their view or voices. Everybody there that day knew that such a meeting was against the law and that there would be serious consequences if caught. Uncle George may have been the only one not aware of the danger. How could anyone who did not live in Stalinist Hungary in 1953 have known the extent of its paranoia and repression?                       

The verbal exchange across the border consisted of nothing but basic questions and information: ‘Is everyone okay at home? Are you healthy? How are Mom and Dad? How are the kids? How long are you staying in Austria? Say ‘hello’ to everyone’. Uncles Seppl and Stefan had calculated the time exactly. The guards were due at any moment. It was time to leave. Everyone went back to the cabin except Mother and Father. They stayed a little longer, shouting a few more questions and answers. A mistake. 

Suddenly, two guards appeared. They heard the voices and saw the person on the Austrian side. Mother and Father tried to explain that it was just harmless talk among relatives. It didn’t work. The others waiting at the cabin were shocked when my parents were brought back at gunpoint. Seppl and Stefan vouched for the innocence of Mother and Father and assured the guards they were not spies. Yelling state secrets across the border was the furthest thing from their minds. Moreover, what state secrets could have been hidden within the confines of little, insignificant Pernau? They were just saying ‘hello’ to their brother-in-law, a priest from the United States. That was definitely the wrong thing to say. Americans were the arch-enemies and talking to one across the Iron Curtain was just about the worst thing one could do. Father managed to convince the guards that Mother was just tagging along and should not be taken in. Who would take care of the many children at home?     

The news that Father had been arrested spread like wildfire through the entire village. The family was in shock, worried sick, scared. What if he doesn’t come home for a long time? Will the ÁVH, the Hungarian equivalent of the KGB or Gestapo, torture him? We could get no information about his condition or whereabouts. From the vineyard, Father was first taken to the local barracks, then to the ÁVH interrogation centre in Szombathely, the largest city in that part of Hungary. They subjected him to nasty interrogations for a week and a fair amount of physical abuse. They took away his shoelaces, belt, even his rosary, so he wouldn’t be able to hang himself. The interrogators knew everything about him. They even knew about his efforts to acquire supplies for his shoe repair shop from Austria. Father quickly realised that his ‘friends’ in the village were informing on him. 

The ÁVH was ready to send him to prison for a long time, unless he agreed to become their informant in his own village. The choice was as difficult for Father as it was a no-brainer. He absolutely could not consider languishing in prison for years while his family starved at home. Yet, to betray his friends was almost worse. To do so would have meant to act against his conscience and his most cherished principles. If anything, Father was a man of principles. After giving it very serious consideration and praying over it, he agreed to their terms while hatching a reckless plan. 

Upon his release, he first went to the house of Aunt Resi and Uncle Feri in Szombathely. Resi told me later that Father’s face was ashen, and he was unable to sit down because of the daily beatings since his arrest. No one in Pernau, including his own family, expected Father to be released after only a week. Everyone was relieved and grateful. To us children this was the end of the story and life could go on as before. For Father, however, three terrible years followed. Even though he was strictly forbidden to do so, he told Mother what had happened and what the terms were. Then he informed her of his plan to escape across the Iron Curtain. He knew where to cross safely and he intended to do so immediately. Mother thought he had lost his mind and told him that an escape was out of the question; what was she going to do alone with seven children? Mother’s cool head prevailed as usual, and Father had to start thinking how he was going to deal with the ÁVH without forfeiting his immortal soul. 

What was it that his conscience would not let him do? Once a week, in the middle of the night, Father had to secretly meet agents of the ÁVH in the forest close to our house. Invariably they were in an advanced state of inebriation, First, he had to give a progress report; then he received new assignments for the coming week. He was to meet his friends over a glass of beer or wine and pump them for specific information. Father had good reason to believe that some of those friends were spying on him. Who were they and what did they tell the agents? Some had selfish reasons to cooperate with the government. Years later Father learned that just about every man in the village was involved in this diabolical information gathering. This was the hell Father had to endure until November 1956, when a chance to escape from it presented itself in the wake of the failed Hungarian Revolution. Had that opportunity not come along, the strain from this clandestine activity would have eventually destroyed him. The plight that Father shared with the other men in the village kept them and their families preoccupied and cowed. Resistance to the regime’s excesses was unthinkable. 

Someone who has never lived in a totalitarian state could justifiably ask how millions of people could be held captive, as it were, behind a fortified border. Why would they tolerate such inhuman treatment, why would they not rise up en masse and demand their basic human rights? The answer can best be found in intimidation that was deliberately exercised by the authorities not only on the national level, but most effectively, on the local level. 

By the early 1950s, when the Communist Party had revved up to full steam, there were no constraints to its power and ineptitude. It flaunted that power recklessly by terrorising and intimidating its own citizens. People disappeared overnight; innocent people were sent to forced labour camps because someone had denounced them. I personally did not experience the terror although I saw manifestations of it around the village. The crucifix in the one-room village school, for example, had been replaced with portraits of Marx, Lenin and Stalin. Religion classes were forbidden. Church attendance by ordinary citizens was frowned upon and discouraged; a Party member could not afford to cultivate his faith if he hoped to move up in the ranks. Interfering with people’s faith, traditions or environment usually achieves its desired impact. Since this was done with impunity, it made people feel powerless, resulting in fear and insecurity. 

At the top of the hill, heading out of Pernau going east, there was a large cross. It was a beloved landmark for the villagers. They showed their faith and respect by placing fresh bouquets of wildflowers at the base of the cross. Passing it, people would make the sign of the cross or stop and say a short prayer. Men would lift their hats in greeting. For me, as a little boy, it was one of those unspoken lessons by example that instilled a deep faith in me. One day as we went to the fields, we discovered that the cross had been used for target practice. A political officer from the local garrison had shot off Christ’s head, arms, and legs. With time, the protruding iron bars began to rust, and the truncated body appeared to be bleeding. People were outraged by the sacrilege, but no one dared to complain. I understood perfectly what Mother meant when she explained that Christ was bleeding again for our sins. Thereafter, following her example, I too left flowers on a few occasions. On the west side of the bridge over the Pinka, there was a statue of St. John of Nepomuk, protector against floods and drowning. One morning that statue was desecrated, too. It was toppled over and smashed to many pieces. Left like that for years, grass and weeds eventually covered up the spiteful deed. The people were given to understand that the State did not condone religion, and if they ignored the warnings, there would be consequences. The common people had to be shown the error of their foolish belief. Karl Marx, the German philosopher and godfather of Communism, said that religion was the opiate of the people. The promise of eternal happiness in heaven caused the proletariat to accept and endure the exploitation and subjugation by the bourgeoisie. In other words, as Marx saw it, religion provided an idea that acted like opium on the believers. They endured the pain down here for the promise of getting a slice of that pie in the sky. Communist utopia, on the other hand, held out the promise of a paradise here and now. To achieve that, the slaves of the world, as the communist Internationale intones, were to unite and rise up against the oppressors and become masters of their own destinies. And if each worker gave according to his ability and received according to his needs, equality and brotherhood would be achieved. No further need for God or happiness in the hereafter.

This almost sounds reasonable if one discounts possible interference of human nature. I wonder if Marx had ever contemplated the possibility that the downtrodden worker could also be selfish and greedy, or that the poor worker’s faith might be more precious to him than loaves of bread. To be fair, we must not blame Marx for everything. Although he condoned and expected violence in the overthrow of the oppressors, he couldn’t have envisioned leaders such as Stalin and Mao who imprisoned, tortured, and killed the very people he wanted to help. The communist dictators of the twentieth century turned Marx’s visionary ideas of a communist utopia on its head. I daresay he might have thought twice about publishing his Communist Manifesto had he known the misery and butchery that his philosophy eventually spawned. 

Besides trampling on local religious symbols, the little Communists of Pernau asserted their authority in other ways too. One example involved an incredibly wilful act. On the road to our neighbouring village of Horvátlövö, there were two huge oak trees, at least half a millennium old. They stood there alone at the edge of the road like sentinels, watching the centuries go by. One day the local communist authorities decided to destroy those majestic oaks for no other reason than to show they had the power to do so. The trees were too huge to be cut down with any ordinary saw or axe, so dynamite had to be used. The trees required many charges. The explosions rocked the village for several days as the trees were dismembered. The same fate befell an even older oak tree that had towered over our neighbour’s house at the edge of the forest. 

I know more was lost in the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia and in the Great Leap Forward in China, but the loss of Pernau’s simple treasures conveyed the same violent message. Sadly, the past had to be destroyed to make way for a future with very dubious prospects. In the long span of Hungary’s history, the Communists occupied the stage for only a very short time, yet they managed to cause an incredible amount of damage and suffering. Even as a young boy, I could appreciate the beauty and majesty of those magnificent trees, and so I was confused and upset by their wanton destruction. Older people must have been even more upset. But, again, nothing was said, and nothing could be done. And therein rests the power of a totalitarian state. Once people are properly cowed, they are easily governed.              


Emmerich Koller

Emmerich Koller was born in Hungary. He and his family crossed the Iron Curtain into Austria in 1956. In 1960, Emmerich emigrated to the USA where he was a German teacher for 36 years. He is the recipient of the Presidential Scholars Distinguished Teacher Award from the White House and the Certificate of Merit from the Goethe Institutes in the USA. In 2017 he received the Verdienstkreuz of Burgenland. After his retirement, he became a writer. In his book, Good Dogs Do Stray: Memoir of an Immigrant from Hungary (2006), he recounts his early years in communist Hungary and his experiences as a refugee and immigrant. His book has been translated into German and is now available in its second edition under the title Über die Grenzen: Lebensreise eines deutsch–westungarischen Emigranten (2019).