Alexej Zlocha recalls some situations that now seem absurd, for example, when he sat with neighbours and friends in a garden at the end of the village, celebrating Pentecost which here also means a feast. They talked and looked at the vast green meadows and pastures – but although many of them had lived here for many years, they had never entered them.
The garden lies at the level of the anti-tank roadblocks which restrict the access road to the pastures. Also columns standing about one meter from the garden’s fence block the view of the landscape. Wires are twined around them, and signal flares are placed there, too. If a bird hits them during flight – or any small animal touches them – flares are launched. Behind the columns, the first barbed wire is stretched, about three meters tall; a second one follows a bit behind. Then the Morava rivers flows behind into Austria.
Check with a dog
“Then, we moved to the gardens, as there were too many friends visiting us and it was crowded at our place,” Zlocha, now aged 71, relates. “Before we realised it, border guards were coming with a dog. They checked on who we are and whether we lived here, asking us to show ID cards,” he recalls.
Nowadays, people from Devínska Nová Ves can get to Austria over the Freedom Bridge / Most slobody on foot in several minutes. But 27 years ago, it was an unimaginable distance for them. They were separated from the “wicked West” by the Iron Curtain which used to be a symbol of oppression.
No man’s land
Signal flares or shooting used to wake Alexej Zlocha up from time to time. In border areas, this was a frequent situation. Commanders used to carry out training exercises with their subordinates who guarded the border at nights, or tried to stop people fleeing the country from overcoming the numerous barriers by shooting at them.
Only border guards were allowed to move on the plots behind the fences, and army jeeps crossed there. “This was no man’s land,” Zlocha explains, adding that today, many trees grow here but before, there was not a single one. On the nice meadow where the memorial board of the Iron Curtain victims is placed, he points to nearby columns which are the remnants of the fences. Today, they serve as landing sites for storks.
Zlocha moved to Devínska Nová Ves shortly after his wedding; he liked the countryside here and did not mind the fact that this was a border village. He recalls that then, a big community of Croatians used to live here, and he does not remember any huge mistrust or suspicion among neighbours. However, spies used to visit the village who tended to inform on them to the border guards. In turn, they were allowed to fish in the Morava or to hunt in nearby forests. People in the village knew about them. “They did not conceal it; to the contrary, they boasted about it,” he explains. People were automatically careful about what they said then, regardless of whether someone lived in a border village, or not, according to him.
The trick with milkmen
Locals did not even try to flee to the West, according to Zlocha. He was not lured to emigrate, either. With his wife, they raised three children, and their professions enabled them to travel abroad from time to time. He was a famous producer of candles and he could visit world fairs; his wife, who sang and danced in the Lúčnice folklore ensemble, was allowed by the communists to perform abroad –although mostly in Russia or Cuba who were under the same communist regime.
However, the village inhabitant recalls one successful escape: milkmen who used to drive between Devín and Devínska Nová Ves helped in its execution. Several Poles fleeing to the West bribed them, used the roof their car and in a fog, climbed over the fence. They also took ladders to make their escape, and after overcoming all barriers, they swam across the Morava to the Austrian bank.
“Immediately afterwards, there was a huge training exercise,” Zlocha remembers. “We used to drive the children to kindergarten in Devín, and due to this, we had to drive around, through Bratislava.” After the Polish people escaped, the fence was increased to a height of five metres in the section where they climbed over.
Zlocha says foreigners did not seek the help of locals: anyone who dared to flee had their escape well-planned and would not risk relying on strangers. Many of them were shot on their way out, or died of their wounds in Morava. He also recalls the attempt of a priest and former family friends of Anton Srholec – a famous Salesian monk, priest and charity organiser – who was caught and ended up in the uranium mines in Jáchymov for ten years.
Border guards took turns in patrolling the borders, and thus did not know the locals. They watched the landscape with field-glasses and also from watch-towers. Zlocha says that whenever they went for a trip to Devínska Kobyla, a nearby hill, the guards chased them and checked their identity. They could not go anywhere without an ID card. They had to show them also at a masquerade at Carnival time – guests had to go to the third floor of the local House of Culture first, where border guards and policemen registered their names in a big notebook. “We even had to state what mask we were wearing,” the man says. “They probably made it a preventive measure, so that everyone was under control.”
The last border guard
Although inhabitants of the village never had contact with members of the Border Guard, Zlocha came to know one personally. On Christmas Eve 1989, several weeks after the fall of the communist regime, he saw an armed soldier sitting on a guard stone. He walked out to find out what he was doing there. The soldier answered he had been ordered by his superiors to go on patrol. Zlocha returned home and brought him a plateful of sauerkraut soup and a cake. “I felt sorry for him, he was so cold,” he explains. “These were probably the lapses of the last officers who hoped the course of events would reverse.”
Pupils cut fence with pliers
After the fall of the regime, more relaxing times came – everyone in Devínska Nová Ves came to feel this. Children went to school with pliers, and used to cut the fence on their way. Sometimes, they were chased by border guards for damaging state property. Ultimately, the whole fence was torn down by the soldiers. The deserted watch-towers were used by children for playing, as they could be descended by a pole. Bicycles filled the narrow road which before the revolution of November 17, 1989 was used mostly by army jeeps. Locals used to go ice-skating on the frozen Devín Lake (Devínske jazero) and go rowing on the Morava. “A secret room opened to us, as we had never been allowed to come here before,” he describes. “After 1989, It became one big playroom where children could have fun for long hours.”
After the fall of communism, the local committee of the Public against Violence (VNP) movement was founded. The one-time communist officials and party members who are also mentioned in the book of another Devínska Nová Ves local, the late writer Peter Pišťanek, were afraid they would be hanged. “My neighbour was the secretary of the communist party central committee, and after the fall of the regime, he started to drink even more than before,” Zlocha explains. “He was scared to death that we would do to him what they used to do to us.”
Since the Freedom Bridge has been open in 2012, locals can cross the border to Austria with a short walk. “The bridge is another milestone in opening up and connecting with the West,” Zlocha sums up. However, he adds that several former border guards and people nostalgic for communism refuse even these days to cross over to the “other side”.
The Iron Curtain divided communist Czechoslovakia from “the West”. Between 1948 and 1989, about 200,000 people left the country illegally; 25,000 of those in the first three months after February 1948. After August 1968, around 70,000 citizens left Czechoslovakia. The border area was about 1.5 percent of the country’s area, and was 2 to 10 kilometers wide. The regime emptied many border villages and leveled them to the ground, so that no illegal emigrants could hide in them. Apart from barbed wire, electric fences carrying 3,000 Volts were used to protect the borders. In 1965 however, these were pulled down after international complaints. A standard section of the Iron Curtain had three fences; and in some periods, certain sections were mined and the voltage in the wires was lethal.
16. Nov 2016 at 23:41 | By Lucia Krbatová