Editor’s Note: Below is another column in Steve Canipe series called Boomer Bytes. The column, as the title suggests, will focus on a variety of topics that may be of interest to baby boomers, those born between 1946 and 1964. But Canipe also hopes to start a conversation with younger generations, too. Check out an introduction and Canipe’s (first self-titled) column here.
- See second column – Are We Really Old? – here.
- See third column – Cars and More Cars – here.
- See fourth column – Getting Educated – here.
- See fifth column – Home Alone? – here.
- See sixth column – Death – here.
- See seventh column – They’re Playing Our Song – here.
- See eighth column – Driving: Knowing When To Quit – here.
- See ninth column – Hobbies: What’s Your Favorite – here.
- See 10th column – ‘The Last of Life, for which the First was Made’ – here.
- See 11th column – Volunteeering – here.
- See 12th column – Duck and Cover – here.
- See 13th column – Providing for the Future – here.
- See 14th column – Here We Go Wandering… – here.
- See 15th column – State of Schools – here.
- See 16th column – Our War – here.
Behind the Curtain
By Steve Canipe
May 8, 2014. All of us probably remember the man behind the curtain in the Wizard of Oz. He was a magical person who could grant wishes and dispense judgment. While the curtain in the Wizard of Oz hid a benevolent person, even if loud, there was an invisible curtain that became well known to the Boomer generation – the Iron Curtain. Behind this curtain were not benevolent old men but scary ones who, we were led to believe, were intent on wiping out our way of life.
The term predates the “cold war” and quick perusal of the Internet will show numerous references to iron curtains, fences, etc. both in novels and other writings. The term Iron Curtain stuck and was known to comprise the borders of several countries not just the divided post-war Germany. Possibly the event that ingrained the term in the American psyche was a speech delivered by Sir Winston Churchill on 5 March 1946 at a small college in Fulton, Missouri. It became known as the Iron Curtain speech.
Recently I had the opportunity to travel behind what I knew most of my life as the Iron Curtain. Even the oldest of us Boomers were too young to remember the Berlin airlift that brought goods and supplies to a beleaguered city cut off from the Allied world by the Soviets who blockaded all of the highway and railway routes to Berlin. During the blockade year, more than 200,000 flights brought much more than 4,700 tons of needed food and supplies.
For those readers who may not remember….after WW II, the Allied Powers (Soviet Union, France, Great Britain, and the US) divided up the conquered Reich. New countries were created and Germany was ultimately subdivided into four spheres of influence. Because Berlin was the German capital, it was also subdivided, although the city itself lay in the Soviet sector. The piece of the country under the protection of the Soviet Union came to be called the German Democratic Republic (East Germany). The parts under the protection of Great Britain, France, and the United Stated came to be called the Federal Republic of Germany (West Germany).
Some of the new countries were close to the Soviet Union and by inaction they fell behind the demarcation line which came to be called the Iron Curtain; for example, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Poland, Bulgaria, Romania, etc. A map can be seen of the Soviet-influenced group called Warsaw Pact countries. The western group is more familiar to Americans as NATO.
The former Czechoslovakia has now split into the Czech Republic and Slovakia. They were originally combined for administrative reasons but unlike some other country splits; this one was rather peaceful and remains so.
I began my trip behind the “Curtain” in Prague called Praha by the locals. There is so much to like about the city; totally different than my Cold War mental images. It looks pretty much like any other old European city (Praha as a settlement was founded about 200 BC but the more recent city aspect was about 1,100 years ago) Today there are about 2 million people who call it home.
The city has had a long past and a great deal of its history remains both physically and in the minds of the residents. The city has been known by many names, including Bohemia, which was prior to Prague (Praha) becoming accepted in the 9th Century. It was the seat of power for the Hapsburg Dynasty and where two Emperors of the Holy Roman Empire resided. The ancient Prague Castle and the St. Vitus Church are outstanding sights in today’s city.
Jewish settlers helped the town prosper and many were involved in banking and trading as Prague became a multicultural place. The Czech Republic is now a part of the European Union (EU), although the Euro has not yet replaced the local currency called koruna or more commonly the crown. Movement is now easy to all countries in the EU.
The Charles Bridge over the Vltava River (better known by the German name – Moldau River) is a beautiful example of medieval architecture. The Moldau was made famous in the symphonic poem by the Czech composer Smetana. The Charles Bridge was begun in the mid-14th century and has undergone numerous repairs and renovations. Only foot traffic has been allowed since 1978. The bridge is more than 33 feet wide and has 30 statues lining it. It is a fabulous piece of work and reminded me of how bridges link people on different banks of a river together.
With all this beauty close at hand, there is also a dark side to the city…or just outside it at a camp called Terezin Concentration Camp; the German name was Theresienstadt. Here numerous “undesirables” – Jewish people, gypsies, homosexuals, and others were sent. This was not a death camp in the sense that other camps like Dachau and Bergen-Belsen were built with the absolute goal of killing people. Here there were lots of deaths but the intention was not to deliberately execute. The largest population group imprisoned at Terezin was the Jews – of the 144,000 Jews sent here, about 33,000 died. Another 88,000 were deported to Auschwitz and other death camps. By the end of the war only 19,000 were alive—about 13% of those who came.
Today the little town is a sleepy hamlet of about 3,000 people. A museum gives vent to the horror of what happened in the fortress where the prisoners were kept. Parents tried to make it seem as normal as possible for their children. I saw toys including dolls and hand-made tea sets that were just things until you considered that the children who played with them were probably killed through neglect or abuse. Children’s pictures and poems decorate the walls. One poem was especially meaningful, written by a child with a vision of his impending death:
A little garden,
Fragrant and full of roses.
The path is narrow,
And a little boy walks along it.
A little boy, a sweet boy
Like that growing blossom.
When the blossom comes to bloom,
The little boy will be no more.
The cemetery outside the prison is filled with rank upon rank of graves of both Jews and Christians. There a Star of David and the Christian Cross watch over the eternal rest of those who died. Hate and fear are terrible things. Boomers have seen and lived through much of both.
From Prague, we went to what had been East Germany, now a generally united country just called Germany. We visited other WW II sites that had not been open during the Iron Curtain times. These included the city of Dresden that was destroyed in the British and American bombing raids creating a firestorm that swept through the city killing up to 25 thousand. We visited the village of Torgau where the Soviet and American troops linked up on the Elbe River.
The city of Berlin, today a metropolis of 3.5 million, has been to me and maybe most Boomers, the symbol of the Cold War. The divided city, the Berlin Wall; Kennedy’s famous “Ich bin ein Berliner” speech all drive home a strong point. There are still remnants of the wall remaining in spots, preserved so as the German’s say “We will not forget.” In numerous other places, bullet holes are still visible, indicating the terrible price that some paid while trying for freedom. But the new Berlin is a renaissance city – building is going on everywhere, symbolic of the industriousness and wealth of the people.
Everywhere you go in Berlin and throughout all the parts of Germany I was in, English is widely spoken and understood. Down some of the broad boulevards a double line of cobblestones mark where the wall was erected. Some of the buildings are a little odd looking with old and new pieces very apparent. The Germans want to remember what the War caused – so they display what was, alongside what is now being rebuilt. No trying to make structures look old, just trying to make it known what war can cause to even the massive Teutonic buildings.
So as a person born after the last bomb was dropped and the last bullet fired in World War II, a person who remembers the Berlin Wall going up and the joyous occasion of its coming down – I am encouraged but sadden by recent events in Ukraine. Not just because another Iron Curtain may be rising, but another war may be brewing.
Why you ask? When Hitler started his conquest, he did so in order to protect the ethnic Germans in Poland, Czechoslovakia, etc. When I hear President Putin of Russia say things like “There will be a lot of ethnic Russians living in Ukraine and Russia will always defend their interests through law and other means.”, I hear the same thing. Is this another scary time for an old boomer? —yes for this one anyway.
Let me hear from you about your thoughts on the Iron Curtain that divided and separated people. How do you feel about the current situation in Ukraine? Send your thoughts, either via email at [email protected] or post them at the end of the column. I’ll look forward to hearing from you.