Milan Paumer: three times reborn in his journey to freedom

Milan Paumer, photo: CTK

In today's "One on One" I'd like you to sit back and listen to an extraordinary story of determination on a dangerous journey towards freedom. The Masin brothers and their fight for democracy is one of the great stories of 20th century Czechoslovak history. Born to a military father who was persecuted by the Nazis in the Second World War, the Masins put to use their military knowledge and started a resistance group after the communists won elections in Czechoslovakia in 1948. Often regarded, as the "third brother" is Milan Paumer. He took the time to speak with me here in the studio at Radio Prague and explains in detail their escape through Czechoslovakia and East Germany to the West. In October 1953 a group of five men set out for freedom with little resources at a time of year when temperatures were around 0 degrees. The five men were Josef and Ctirad Masin, Milan Paumer, Vaclav Sveda and Zbynek Janata. Only the Masin brothers and Milan Paumer were to survive. Mr. Paumer, who now lives in the Czech Republic once again, describes this period in his as a series of births, three to be exact. Here he uses the diminutive of Josef, Pepa, and calls the brothers 'Mason', the name they adopted in the US. His story begins in the Ucrol train station.

Milan Paumer,  photo: CTK
"We were tired, it was cold and we were sitting in the train and we missed our stop. The train took us too far. The cops. When our friend was buying our tickets on the train he bought them originally, he told them the name of the station, Ucrol. The lady who sold the tickets, immediately picked up the telephone and called the cops and she told them that five people that don't have a perfect German accent and don't look too clean have bought a ticket to Ucrol. (He laughs) So the cops immediately started chasing the train and then when we jumped out at Ucrol they were there and they put us in a little hall while constantly yelling "Cechy! Cechy! hande hoch!" which means Czechs put your hands up. And there were about ten of them standing over there and the first three guys in the group had guns. I was so nervous. I was saying to myself Jesus Christ they're going to just shoot us all. And they constantly hollered hands up, hands up! So me and my friend, we were standing in front of brother Masins and Sveda, the fifth one. We started to slowly put our hands up and all of a sudden bang, bang, bang! And I saw those guys with those guns and they fell down, blood on the floor. Everybody, those cops and us, were trying to get out of the hall and through one door. We were squeezing our way through. We were running out but no one in this situation could shoot because it was at nighttime. Nobody knows who is who. You could shoot your friend right? So, one man who was standing next to me, he ran out first. I think he panicked because he never stopped he kept running. Then I hear from my left side someone is calling, "Milanek!" So I knew the brothers and Sveda were somewhere on my left hand side, so I ran over there then I saw them. They asked me, "where is Zbynek?" I said, "I don't know I saw him running." That was it. We lost him. But this is what I called the first time we were born because they could of shot us like chickens.

The second birth was when we were hiding under a pile of shrubbery. I think the Germans had just cut down some trees and when they cut off the branches they were making piles. I think there was about eight or nine piles. We were laying underneath the biggest pile for about two days and on the third day we heard trucks coming, Germans speaking and yelling. And all of a sudden we hear, "shoot in every pile". And Pepa said, "don't yell if they shoot you, keep your mouth shut". Okay. Bang, bang, bang. That was the first pile. Bang, bang, bang, the second pile. And then all of a sudden somebody jumps on top of our pile. We could see his souls, his shoes right. And he was jumping on it and walking across the thing and then he says, "Okay everything is okay". And he jumps down and he starts shooting in the other piles, in all of them. Now the only pile that they didn't start shooting in was our pile.

The third birth was when I got shot. Again, we got into some bad situation we thought we would never get out of but we did - as you can see. Radek, the older one, bought himself a pair of brand new shoes for the escape. And you know how it goes sometimes with new shoes, too tight. So he had to take the shoe on his right foot off because his heel was bleeding. So, on one foot he has a shoe, the other foot is bare and he fastened the remaining shoe on his belt. And when we were running and they were shooting at us, they shot his shoe off. So, then we were already close to Berlin and we were walking along the railroad tracks because we knew that the railroad tracks went straight to Berlin. So as we were walking we saw some sort of overpass. It was a highway that went all around Berlin. So, while we went underneath, Pepik went upstairs because he wanted to see what it looked like up there. Me and Radek were walking around and all of a sudden someone says "Halt! Where are you going?" So we turn around, we there's a man sitting. He wore a poncho because it was a military man, and he started to get up and walk towards us. Because it was drizzling and the ground was wet he slipped on the grass and fell down. So me and Radek jumped and grabbed his arms. I was holding the left hand and he was holding the right hand. So we got him. What do we do with him right? We didn't want to shoot him because there was no real reason for it. And if we shot him we thought it would attract more police attention and they would come and slaughter us. So Radek says,"I will give him chloroform". It was a very good weapon because it was quiet and you didn't actually waste a life. So Radek let his right hand go and he had a pistol under that poncho right. I didn't see anything because the poncho was over his arms and over the pistol. He took the pistol and bang! I got it over here on my hip. Luckily again it was in an area where there was only muscle. Then I saw that I had a hole in my clothes and my finger went into the hole also. And then all of a sudden we hear a whistle and we saw a train coming. We were really lucky because when the train stopped we were just about there. Radek got under the car; there were all sorts of hoses and axils for the wheels. So he got under there somehow. We never saw him but he was saying to us, "I'm okay". So me and Joe, we jumped on those dampers and hanging onto them. All of the sudden, the conductor whistles. The train went and took us to the next station but at the next station there was a checkpoint. There were Russian soldiers and German boarder control as well as dogs. They were checking everybody if they had the correct papers. Joe says we have to jump off and walk. So we called out, "Radek! Are you coming with us?" and he said, "No I will stay here." So we walked. My stomach looked like I was pregnant because of the internal bleeding and I felt it every time I took a step. Finally we got to the beginning of Berlin. There was a street which what they did was cut it off, laid some wooden logs and barbed wire, and they dug a big ditch, which was about two metres deep. When we were in the ditch we were looking up to anxiously to get out. So I helped Joe and he helped pull me out. Then when we were finally on the street we saw a policeman. He took us to the station and then we were safe."