The Czech town of Podebrady has buried Milan Paumer, an anti-Communist resistance fighter who fought his way across the Iron Curtain with the controversial Masin group. The 1953 escape left six policemen dead.
Milan Paumer wasn't a typical soldier, nor were his comrades
The Czech town of Podebrady on Wednesday buried Milan Paumer, one of a group of anti-Communist resistance fighters who fought their way across the Iron Curtain in 1953. Paumer was a member of the so-called Masin group, whose killing of six policemen in their escape from Czechoslovakia remains controversial among Czechs to this day.
Several hundred people filed into the courtyard of Podebrady Castle on Wednesday - some in black suits, others in scout uniforms, others dressed as American GIs - to pay their respects to Milan Paumer, who died recently at the age of 79.
"He's a symbol of liberty, democracy, and friendship to people," said Milan Brezina, dressed in US military fatigues and standing before an immaculately preserved American World War II jeep. "He was very popular among the people here."
"I know it's a problem for some 'Commies' in this country," he went on, "for some who don't understand his actions, but I think if this country had some hundreds or thousands of Paumers, history could have developed in a different way."
Paumer fought for the US after fleeing the Soviet Union
Brezina, who in his mid-30s was just a teenager when communism collapsed in 1989, met Milan Paumer when the latter was admiring his jeep.
"He asked me," said Brezina, "whether it was the same sort of jeep that was used in Korea, where he served in the US Special Forces. I told him it was."
Extraordinary life of an anti-Communist partisan
Milan Paumer had an extraordinary life by any standards. He was just a teenager when a hardline Communist regime came to power in his native Czechoslovakia in 1948. He joined a group led by his two friends, the brothers Josef and Ctirad Masin, sons of a Czechoslovak general executed by the Nazis - two fierce, young patriots bitterly opposed to Communism.
Unwilling to accept the country's new Stalinist regime, they decided the only option was armed struggle. When it became clear it was a lost battle, they decided to join the Western powers, making a dramatic bid for freedom across the Iron Curtain in 1953, pursued by some 25,000 East German police for 29 days. Milan Paumer remembered the escape in a 2007 interview.
"We started five of us, and only three of us made it," Paumer said.
"I got shot in my hip. And I think I was lucky. Those 30 days of misery. About 25,000 East German cops were looking for us, shooting. So it was kind of a really nerve-breaking situation." Two of the group were caught and later executed.
Heroes or murderers?
Paumer was the only one of the Masin group to return home
The Masin Brothers, who settled in the United States after serving in the US armed forces, refuse to set foot in their homeland until they are completed rehabilitated, unlike Milan Paumer, who left his adopted Florida in 2001 and returned to Podebrady. Czechs are still split down the middle over whether they were Cold War heroes or cold-blooded killers who took six lives for no reason.
"Life in the late 40s and early 50s was a life of slavery and serfdom," said Prime Minister Petr Necas at the funeral service, one of several high-profile politicians to attend.
"We are born and come to this world as free people and as free people we have the right to fight against enslavement with any, truly any means," said the prime minister.
Not all agreed.
'Enemies of the people'
The manner of Paumer's escape still divides Czech opinions
"In my view the Masin group were enemies of the Czech people, pure and simple. There's nothing to discuss," said one man in Prague, who declined to give his name.
"They don't deserve medals. They deserved to be locked up long ago. What they did was an unforgivable crime against the civilian population, and what's more, they didn't achieve anything by it," he said.
That kind of rhetoric angers Josef Masin's daughter Sandra, who spoke at the funeral.
"It's kind of irresponsible to just forget about what happened in the past, and say, 'oh, let's just forget that and continue on.' It's not okay," she said.
"There has to be recognition of what happened in the past. To admit what happened. And admit your role in it," she added.
Author: Rob Cameron, Podebrady
Editor: Nancy Isenson