November 12, 2016. 11:18 Czech Time, 5:18 AM NY Time. Mikulov, Czech Republic.
On Veterans Day, November 11, David and I walked about 5 miles along a bike path here in Mikulov, Czech Republic on the Austrian-Czech border. Today’s peaceful bike path was, until 25 years ago, part of the Iron Curtain, that Cold War dividing line between East and West and communism and democracy. We were looking for (and found) a recently erected memorial to locals who over the years died while trying to cross that infamous border.
These days, the entire 10,000 mile line, extending from Norway to Greece, is a cycling track named the Iron Curtain Trail. As you take the trail here near Mikulov, you find 13 information panels showing what this same place looked like during the communist era. The panels depict barbed wire and electric fencing, checkpoints, border guards and police dogs, and various, mostly unsuccessfully, escape attempts.
The memorial is made of 53 rusting steel girders, each set on end into the ground and pointing upward. Each girder has a name and a date stamped through it and as you walk around the memorial, the names become visible against the Austrian sky. 53 girders, 53 names and dates. One for each of the 53 individuals shot, electrocuted, or otherwise killed in this sector while attempting to step into free Austria. As we walked, we couldn’t help but think about what life must have been like for those people hemmed in by fences, walls, and guards.
Of course, the Czech-Austro border pre-dates the communist era, and as we walked we also found the remains of many earlier border structures. It turns out the Iron Curtain was built along an already fortified border and the ruins were a series of concrete bunkers erected by the Czechsolvaks in 1938 in an attempt (also unsuccessful) to keep the Nazis out. These bunkers saw continuous use by the various ruling armies until 1991.
The lesson for this traveler? The walls we build to keep others out, can just as effectively keep us in.
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