Milan Paumer, a member of a group who made a dramatic escape from communist Czechoslovakia in the 1950s, has died in Prague at the age of 79. He, Josef and Ctirad Mašín and their associates were fierce anti-communists and were extremely unusual in taking up arms against the regime. Some Czechs regard Paumer and the rest of the Mašín group as freedom fighters. However, for others they were not heroes but cold blooded killers.
Milan Paumer, who passed away on Thursday at the age of 79, made an incredible bid for freedom with a group of friends in late October 1953. Dubbed the Mašín group after the two brothers that led them, the five young men crossed the border from Czechoslovakia to East Germany in an effort to reach West Berlin, which before the building of the Wall was the last remaining chink in the Iron Curtain.
Two of the group were caught and later executed, but Paumer and the Mašíns somehow managed to evade a huge manhunt launched by the East German police. On November 2, 1953 they reached their destination, he recalled in an interview for Radio Prague.
“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."
The escape of Milan Paumer and the Mašín group has been described by Czech-American author Jan Novak as the greatest story of the Cold War.
However, nearly six decades later their actions remain extremely divisive in their native land. While preparing to defect, they killed three people: two police officers and a payroll clerk. Then during their actual escape they shot dead three East German policemen.
Under the previous regime, the Mašín group were consistently portrayed in the official media as cold-blooded murderers. However, after the Velvet Revolution even politicians like anti-communist Václav Havel were cool towards calls for them to receive state honours.
Their admirers say they were heroes, among the brave few prepared to stand up and fight against a cruel system that sent hundreds to their deaths and destroyed the lives of many, many more.
Josef and Ctirad Mašín both now live in the United States where they go by the names Joe and Ray Masin. They are rather critical of today’s Czech Republic and have refused to come back.
But Milan Paumer – who served with the American army in Korea – returned a decade ago, and was frequently to be seen at anti-communist gatherings. When I spoke to him in 2005 he said he was aware of the controversy that surrounded him and his friends.
"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."
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