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Escape from Ilava

Towards the end of the year 1950 a transport of eighty plus prisoners was sent in two busloads from the notorious jail Bory, near Pilsen, to the near empty jail in Ilava in western Slovakia. The prisoners were all political, and apart from few Germans, who were imprisoned for war crimes, all were sentenced as enemies of the Communist regime. As far as I remember, there were no criminal cases among us. Ilava jail was near empty because the Red terror, which in Czech lands started soon after the Communist putsch in 1948, in Slovakia took off some years later. Slovakia had to wait until after the Communists dealt with any opposition in the (for them) more important Czech lands. Also, in Slovakia they encountered population devoutly catholic for one thing, but which had also some knowledge of life in Communism from the war years. As a result of Munich decision, Slovakia declared her independence. This happened shortly before the war. But the new state was forced, by its geographical location, into dependence on, and subordination to, Nazi Germany. One result of this was that Slovak army took part in the war against the Soviet Union, and so their soldiers gained first hand experience of the Communist reality. When the war ended and Slovakia was occupied by the Red army, 6973 of Slovak citizens were abducted to Soviet camps, and of these 528 perished there.

 

In such circumstances it should be of no surprise to anyone that Slovaks were by and large strongly anti-communist, and that in the first post-war elections in 1946 some 70% of the vote vent to the non-communist parties. One result of all this was, that while in the Czech lands jails were overflowing, in Slovakia they had plenty of free space in them. We newcomers were given one floor of large common cells. In our there were thirty beds. They didn't even have enough prison uniforms for us and so for some weeks we stayed in our civilian clothes, which were returned to us for the transport. So relaxed were conditions in the jail, compared to Bory, with all it's brutalities, that within few weeks two of us escaped. They were given unsupervised work in the prison courtyard and so they stood a water pipe, laying there, to the outer wall, climbed over, and in their civilian clothes disappeared among the people of the township. They made it to the west. One of them was Cyril Musil, a well known trainer of our Olympic croscountry skiers. Later we learned that he was working in Switzerland as a skiing instructor there.

 

This brazen escape led to the tightening of conditions in the jail and they quickly put us into prison garb. Then, in the first days of May 1951, I made a discovery. There was a large metal workshop in the jail, making scaffolding for building sites. Attached to it was a small car repair shop where I worked as a helper to the mechanic. He was one of us from the Bory transport, Slovak by nationality, named Jano Sevcik. He was a motor mechanic by trade. During the war he was an air force mechanic but was fibbing that he was a fighter pilot and that he fought at Stalingrad. We became friends and so he took me with him into the workshop. It should be noted here that we, the politicals from Bohemia, were kept separated from the other prisoners and were nearly all employed in the metal workshop, from which the local prisoners were evicted. And they hated us for it. Once it happened that a civilian truck delivered something to the jail, and the driver complained about some problem with the motor. And so we were directed to have a look at it. While we worked on the problem, I suddenly noticed a hacksaw blade in the toolbox of the truck. I couldn't believe my eyes at first, but the blade quickly changed owners and went into hiding.

 

This stroke of luck was the base for our escape. The secret was revealed to few reliable men in our common cell, and brains started buzzing. The natural leader in the room was a man named Foltyn, who in civilian life was captain of a river steamer, bringing merchandise from Prague to the sea-port of Hamburg and vice versa, on the river Elbe. He and few others worked out the plan of our escape. Our room was at the end of the hall, on the second storey. It was a corner room. Under our windows, which were three in all, was a dry moat. In the middle ages Ilava used to be a fortified abbey, converted into a jail by the enlightened emperor Joseph II, in the eighteenth century. On the other side of the moat was a piece of flat ground, landscaped like a park, and behind that there was a steep slope down to the row of houses for the accommodation of married members of the prison guard, and to the road behind these. As we ascertained by observation, guard was posted there during the day on weekdays only, not during the night and on weekends. What was equally important was that under our end window was a narrow arch over the moat, like for a gate. It was little to one side, but could be reached by a man hanging on a rope. It could serve as a narrow, half a metre wide bridge. So the escape route was feasible.

 

What remained was to cut the bars in the window and to make our escape. But here we were faced with a major problem. There were twenty seven of us in the room, and it was obvious that not all would want to go, and some couldn't even if they wanted to. Of these one was an eighty-plus years old German, former SA man, who was too feeble even to go to work, and who spent his days in bed. Of the others one was Vomela, student from Prague. He was a huge but flabby man weighing 109 kilos even on the prison diet, too big to squeeze through the hole we would be able to make. The grill in the window was made of thick crossed bars of soft steel, going back to the times of the said emperor. We would have to cut through four of them, taking out one of the crosses, which will give us an opening about thirty five cm square. Just sufficient for a normal man, but nowhere near enough for someone of his size.

 

Then there was the problem of concealing the actual work. Cutting steel with a hacksaw is a noisy operation, which in itself excluded doing it at night. It would have to be done on Sunday afternoon after lunch, when everyone was in the room and the door was locked until Monday. On Sundays the dinner was given to us with the lunch. Our greatest difficulty was doing the cutting in such a way that those in the room, of whom we thought should not know what was going on, were kept ignorant of what was happening. In this we were greatly helped by the ancient character of the building. The outer walls were over a meter thick, and so the windows were in deep recesses. That would help with concealment. Also the window sill was nearly two meters above the floor. The window was about one meter wide and twelve hundred high. Above was a vaulted ceiling. Then there was the unofficial weekend routine which would help. From that particular window we could see the local soccer field down there at the other side of the road. It was quite normal, and sort of tolerated, that those interested in soccer would climb to the window and watch the Sunday match down there. Only few of the guards were nasty when they caught someone at the window. And so the man doing the cutting would crouch by the window, with two or three others standing behind him to provide cover. To conceal the sound of cutting we would have to make sufficient noise to drown it. Therefore three of us would sit under the window and below national songs. I was beating the rhythm with a spoon on a mess tin. Two or three intellectual types were engaged by one of us in a politico-philosophical debate which, while noisy in itself, also prevented them from snooping around the room for the two critical hours.

 

Then there was the case of one man, whom we didn't trust and suspected him of grassing on others. He was of a mixed Czech-German background and such people were automatically considered to be Germans during the occupation. He served as a tankist in the German Army, and after the allied landing he fought in Normandy. When the end was approaching, he cleverly caused himself a wound. He was sent to hospital and after that home to recuperate. In this way the war ended for him. To neutralise him we made use of his passion for playing cards. We had among us certain Tony Houdek, a well known one eyed petty crim from Prague. He was caught smuggling across the border and was charged with espionage. In this way he too became a political prisoner. This man was also an expert with cards, and so he was given the task of keeping the suspected man occupied. For that reason I gave him one hundred cigarettes, common currency in card games, with instruction to loose slowly and in this way to make the game interesting for his opponent. He did well indeed.

 

Another case worth mentioning is that of one not very old but ill man, who also did not go to work and spent his days in bed. The problem with him was that his bed was right opposite the window across the room, and he used to lay there and stare at the sky. He was a rather simple man and so to neutralise him two of us came to visit him and inquired after his health. Ill people always like to talk about their problems ant the visit pleased him. The result was that we convinced him that he should take some vitamins that will do him good. He got sleeping pills and that made sure of him.

 

Few details are worth mentioning. Hacksaw blade is not enough for cutting steel. You also need a frame for it. This we had to make ourselves. There was a boy of my age, who was a blacksmith by trade, and who worked in this capacity in the workshop. He made us a frame consisting of two parts for easier concealment. We were of course often frisked when returning from work, but for seasoned jailbirds we by that time became, it wasn't too difficult to hide things. By that time we had two other blades already, and we managed to smuggle all in quite safely.

 

The actual cutting was made by another boy of my age, Spatenka, who had a black trade, boilermaker or something like that. He was caught while trying to cross the border illegaly with his girlfriend. He had a pistol with him and killed one of the boarder guards who were arresting him. He escaped hanging only because he was seventeen at the time, and the old democratic law ethic still survived in the early years. He got seventeen years for that, maximum the law permitted. Mind, this happened before the Communists managed to replace the old bourgeois laws and customs with their own. Spatenka was the man who designed and helped with the manufacture of our hacksaw frame.

 

At one stage we were nearly caught while doing the cutting. Again, it was the good old abbey which saved us. Even the wall between the room and the corridor was over two feet thick. Those old builders certainly were not stingy with bricks and stone! On the corridor side there was a normal prison door made of thick oak planks, with a peephole in it. On the room side was a steel grill door, which used to be locked at night. The guard would peep through the peephole first, then open the door and step forward to the grill to have better look into the room. So we placed one man to watch the peephole, and when it moved his task was to warn us. This worked couple of times, but then suddenly the guard was standing by the grill and saw the men in the window. He was one of the unpopular guards, and he demanded to see the men who were in the window recess. Now, cutting steel in such a difficult position is heavy work and poor Spatenka was out of breath and sweating profusely. It was out of question presenting himself in such a state. And so we initiated ones flocked to the grill, begging and cajoling the guard: "Sir, he was only watching soccer, Sir, forgive him please, don't report him please, he would be punished, please, Sir?" But the guard was unyielding and energetically demanded to see his man. He seemed actually pleased at being begged by those otherwise so proud politicals. It seemed as if it did make him to feel very important and powerful. He was positively preening with pride, the sot. But we gained the important half minute for Spatenka to catch his breath and to wipe the sweat of honest labour from his brow. The guard took his name and haughtily announced that he will report him to the commander for punishment. "I hope he'll do that", grinned Spatenka. "He will cop it himself."

 

After this it took just few more minutes of cutting and the job was done. Only a tiny bit of one bar was left, to keep the whole thing together, to be wrenched away by brute force when the time came. The slots left by cutting we filled with chewed bread to conceal them. At the appropriate time the evening roll call took place and the door was shut for the night. The rope for climbing down we made in the classical way as it is shown in kitsch films, by ripping few bed sheets into strips and tying them together. The time for departure was determined as one after midnight, when everything would be quiet outside. At the last possible moment we told some of the others, whom we thought could have been interested, to make up their minds. Two or three did go. The last instructions were given. Each man was supposed to make the shape of a sleeping man under his blanket, using boxes and whatever was available, so that the night guard would not get suspicious. It was 27th of May, three days after my twenty second birthday.

 

The take-off took place as planned. We were supposed to go at ten seconds intervals, I was to be sixth. The instructions were to wait down there until all twelve who were going did assemble down there, then disperse as agreed.

 

Then happened one of those accidents that change human lives. The man before me had some problem with his shoelaces, and there was a short delay. At that point I lost patience and went ahead of him - and found nobody there. This twenty or thirty second delay was too much for the nerves of those already there, and they run for it. As was later explained, they thought that the thing was discovered and the alarm given. They panicked. It was planned that I was to go with Sevcik, that motor mechanic friend of mine. He was from the area, and he knew it also around Karlsbad, on the border with Germany. He had a taxi service there after the war. Instead, Spatenka went with him and he took him safely across the border to West Germany. Such tricks are being played by life sometimes. As it happened, I was left on my own, and so I headed over the hills toward Moravia, where I could hope to get help.

 

Now, the first rule when escaping from a jail is to get as far as possible as quickly as possible. Those first hours are the most valuable. Even if the thing is discovered soon, some time is spent by telephoning, organising the search, bringing the search parties to the spot and suchlike. So it is essential to make good use of those first hours, when all is quiet and one can move around without raising suspicion. Some of us were caught because they were blundering near the jail still on the second and third day. And so, as soon as I realised that the original plan had failed and that I was on my own, I took off. Down the steep slope of the prison orchard, on my hands and knees under the windows of one of the houses there, by chance the house of the commander of our floor, through the front gate and onto the road. Then a quick march towards the bridge across the river Vah, which we could see from our window, and the first obstacle was behind me. I was dressed in a blue working overal with a civilian beret on my head and i had a civilian sweater, sent to me from home. Therefore I would not be conspicious to a chance observer. I looked like a worker going home from some workplace.

 

Problem was that I relied on Sevcik's promise that we would find food and sheltetr soon and be taken care of. Therefore I did not take any food with me and that caused problem from then on. On the way through the hills I did get some food in an isolated farmhouse from symphatetic hillfolk, bat that did not last long. I was desperately hungry most of the time I was free.

 

After six days of climbing hills up and down, avoiding police nets, I was caught in a place called Valashska Polanka, purely by accident. I felt to be out of direct danger by then, being far enough from Ilava. It was a two men regular local police patrol that got me. At night, as I walked along a country road, and as I was trying to read road signs in the moonlight at an intersection, the torch flashed. They had a dog with them and it would be useless trying to run for it, tired and hungry as I was. Also, two years in jail with no exercise is not very good preparation for hard walking and climbing hills. At that time I was so tired and hurting, that I could barely drag myself along. After about a week I was back in Ilava.

 

The balance sheet stood like this: Of the twelve of us, five made it to the west. Sevcik with Spatenka, Foltyn with another man, and one on his own. Of the seven who were caught, two did actually turn themselves in. Both were of those who were invited at the last moment, as far as I can remember. One was a middle aged man who had TB, and outside he soon realised that the thing was beyond his ability. The other was a pretentious character who was always blabbing about his martial exploits but when put to the test his courage failed him. From those who stayed I learned what happened in the room after we left. Firstly, that big man, Vomela, was so badly taken by his inability to push through the opening (he tried, got stuck, and the others had to pull him back) He secretly took an overdose of pills he was using for his nerves. When this was discovered, the others cared for him but did not raise alarm, so as to give us as much chance as possible to get away. Then, when the morning roll call came and the floor commandant came in with his papers, the room captain reported in the following way: "Sir, I report that one man poisoned himself during the night, and I have the feeling that we are not all here." Let merciful silence take care of the rest.

 

But the final chapter was yet to be written. Some months later, Sevcik suddenly appeared back in Ilava. He was starved and obviously in a bad shape. By that time I was working in the store and so I was able to get him some food and to have few words with him. From these, and from the prison telegraph, strange story emerged. Sevcik was a spy, who worked, or was suspected of working, for the other side as well. For that he was imprisoned originally. But he wanted to prove his innocence and so he took part in the escape , took Spatenka across the border, signed himself on the border stone to prove that he could have left as well, and went back to report himself to his superiors. What happened after that is not clear, but they probably did not trust him. He was interrogated, obviously in a bad way, and returned to Ilava. After some time he was taken away again and disappeared. Much later came the news that he was supposedly in another jail, blind as a result of further interrogation. And that was the last I ever heard of him. All this is only a hear-say, and a rather bizarre to boot, and I have my doubts. It could well had been a cover story spread by them. This escape led to the place being turned into a normal tough Communist jail.

 

The department of  corrective services considered this escape so well executed, that they had a film documentary made about it, for the instruction of prison guards. But for all that, it has to be kept in mind that the whole thing was only possible because of the relaxed, pre-communist conditions in the jail. The whole prison establishment of those days was geared for guarding common criminals of the old sort. Those people had, as a rule, short sentences and an escape attempt would only make things worse for them. It was just not worth their while. With us, the political prisoners, with our high sentences (ten years was the bottom on the scale), it was a different proposition. And what was still more important, we were people with an aim in life, a conviction, and escape was an essential thing for us. We had a task to achieve.

 

One more thing. For that escape I was given another thirteen years on top of my original twenty. For a grand treason again, sentenced in absentia. After another eight and a half years I was released in one of the regime thaws. In 1968 I escaped from the country with my family and did emigrate to New Zealand.

 

This of course was not the only escape attempt I witnessed during my ten and a half years imprisonment. After Stalin's death in 1953, conditions changed a bit and I was sent from prison to a labour camp in uranium mines. During my three years stay there, several escapes worth mentioning took place. The camp's name was Bytiz and it was located in southern Bohemia. The three main attempts during my stay there were as follows.

 

Once, a group of five men escaped with the help of a civilian employee of the mine, an electrician. For their escape they used one of those huge spools, used for transporting thick underground cables. These spools were made of wood, and had an empty core in the middle, big enough for the five men to squeeze inside. The spool consisted of two huge wooden discs on sides, and the above mentioned core. The whole thing was held together by four thick steel rods, with threads and nuts on each end. It was not difficult for the men to undo the nuts on one side, hide inside, and the civilian-electrician secured the nuts again. Then he had the empty spool loaded on a truck and went with it to a chosen place. There he, with the help of the driver, dropped the spool from the truck onto the ground, and then let the driver to go after his affairs. After that he undid the nuts and the five men and he himself were heading, in pairs, through East Germany to Berlin, where there was not yet the famous wall. I am not sure how many of them made it.

 

For the second attempt few men used one of the heavy, ten ton military style, 6 x 6 trucks, used for transporting boxes of uranium ore from the mine for processing. The prisoners noticed that when the truck returned with empty metal boxes to the mine, the driver stopped in front of the administration building and went inside to report. During this the drivers as a rule left keys in the ignition. And so the men waited for a convenient moment, jumped into the cabin, and one of them who was a truck driver in civilian life, drove the truck at the double barbed wire fence and rammed it. He choose the spot where the watch tower was standing. For a heavy truck it was not a big problem to knock down the tower and to flatten the timber posts of the fence. By knocking the tower down, he forced the guard there to jump for safety, and this prevented him from using his submachinegum. The watch towers on both sides opened fire, of course, but at that distance without effect. When the fence was down the truck had only to run about a hundred meters over a ploughed field to the road and to disappeare in the forest.

 

The third attempt was what we called "head on". At night, two prisoners who somehow managed to get hold of wire cutters, run over some obstacles toward the double fence and started to cut their way into the three meters wide space between. While they were doing this they were protected by the row of posts of the inner fence, which in line created a cover for them. But once they were in the middle strip, they were fully exposed to the fire from two towers. Fortunately for them, the short submachineguns used at that time were at a distance of over fifty meters, and in the hands of excited guards, so inaccurate that they were not hit while doing the cutting and managed to disappear in the nearby forest. Once, years later, already in New Zeeland, I met a Slovak man there, who in this way escaped from another camp and made it to the West.

 

These two men survived, but one drunken civilian was not so lucky. The hamlet of Bytiz didn't have a pub. And so the local men had to walk half an hour to the nearby village, which had one. For this they trodded a path through the forest. But then suddenly the regime built a prison camp right astride their shortcut. So the locals had to make another path, which circled the camp at some distance. Once, on a mild spring night, it happened that a rather inebriated man headed home from the pub, and due to alcoholic vapours in his head took a wrong turn and followed the old path. There his way was suddenly barred by a double fence of barbed wire. This enraged our good citizen so much that he started to climb over the fence. Into the camp! The guard in the nearest tower was shouting at him not to be an ass, but our angry man started yelling back abuses at him and continued on his way. He was shot dead. Could he be also counted as a victim of the regime?

 

During my stay in Bytiz, another event, worth mentioning, occured. Sometime in 1954 or 1955 the first year of the great bicycle race, called Prague-Berlin-Warsaw, took place. It was to be communist answer to the French Tour de France.

 

The route was chosen and announced, when someone suddenly noticed that it was going right past one of their "nonexistent" prison camps. The camp itself was on the other side of the hill, but some of the mine administrative and production buildings, as well as the wire fence and watch towers were clearly visible. The distance to the road was about one hundred meters. And so one day we prisoners observed how a machine drilled two rows of holes into the ground, about ten meters from the fence. Next day, another team brought hundreds of tall spruce trees, cut somewhere in the forest, and with the help of a crane planted the trees into the prepared holes. In this way they created a thick double screen - and the good reputation of socialism was saved. After the race they pulled the trees out again and took them to a timber mill somewhere.

 

These are just some of the events from my memory of the times. If people will learn from the past is another matter. Unpunished crimes tend to repeat themselves.

 

P.S.  Sorry for the English.

 

 

By Brett Jenik

 

18th February 2008

 

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