Controversial Masin brothers to receive award in Canada

Josef and Ctirad Masin

Ctirad and Josef Masin and three others made a dramatic escape to the West in 1953. But in their wake they left six people dead, and many Czechs regard them as murderers. After being passed over for official state honours, the Masins and their friends are now being given an award by a Czech and Slovak association in the Canadian city of Halifax.

One of those due to receive an award is Milan Paumer, who now lives in the east Bohemian town of Pardubice.

"I'm not the only one who is happy about it. My friends, the brothers Masin, they're happy about it also. We're glad to fly to Halifax to get the award."

Mr Paumer, Ctirad and Josef Masin and their friends were one of the few groups to resist the Communists, committing acts of sabotage inspired by the Masins' father, a Czechoslovak general executed by the Nazis during the War.

On November 1, 1953 the five-member group made a dramatic escape, running through East Germany and across the border into West Berlin. Milan Paumer was injured but managed, with the Masins, to reach the American zone; two of their colleagues were caught and executed after a trial in Czechoslovakia.

The group had killed two StB secret police officers during earlier robberies of arms stores, and also killed a wages clerk. During the escape itself they shot three policemen dead.

Last year the Czech Senate voted to grant the group state honours, though President Vaclav Klaus overruled that decision. He may have been acting in line with public opinion - one poll suggests 55 percent of Czechs regard the Masin group as killers. Milan Paumer, now in his mid 70s, accepts that they remain controversial.

"I understand all that but a lot of people say about us that some people died while we were...trying to get out of the country. But we left in 1953, and from 1948 to 53 there were so many people hung and sitting in communist prisons, and nobody talks about that."

Ctirad and Josef Masin have not set foot on Czech soil since 1953, refusing to return after the fall of communism as a "matter of pride", says Milan Paumer. Both brothers now live in Cleveland. In June they and Mr Paumer are planning to hire a car to drive to Halifax, where a local Czech and Slovak association will present them with their "Masaryk Award".