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Hungary Marks Anniversary of Beginning of Collapse of Iron Curtain


Hungary is marking the 20th anniversary of its decision to allow tens of thousands East Germans to cross the Hungarian border and flee to the West. It was a risky decision that contributed to the collapse of the Iron Curtain and the fall of the Berlin Wall. Former refugees from then-communist East Germany and aid workers still recall the often traumatic experiences that preceded the mass exodus to freedom.

An elderly Hungarian man, dressed as a Soviet soldier, is playing an old hand-cranked organ, welcoming guests on their way to the Sopronpuszta, a field where watchtowers and barbed wire once marked the border separating communist Hungary from neighboring Austria.

The man says he is not allowed through security lines when famous guests arrive at what is now a commemorative park, because he refuses to hand over his huge iron hammer and sickle relic, long a symbol of the Soviet-led communist states, which were known to shoot those trying to flee across borders to the West.

Times have changed.

Recently Germany's first chancellor from former East Germany, Angela Merkel, came to the Sorpronpuszta, where she noted it was exactly 20 years ago that Hungarians organized a peace demonstration that led to the collapse of the Iron Curtain, the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the reunification of her country.

During the August demonstration, known as the Pan-European Picnic, Hungary briefly opened the gates of its border with Austria, allowing hundreds of East Germans, including many women and children, to flee to the West.

Soon after on September 10, 1989, Hungary gave permission to the other tens of thousands of refugees to leave, despite protests from East German leader Erich Honecker. The borders opened at midnight, the next day.

It was risky, as Hungary was officially still a Soviet-satellite state, recalls former border guard Arpad Bella who opened the borders during the Pan European Picnic.

He explains that he asked his colleagues to open the border for the incoming Austrians, but not to look over their shoulders. This way, he says, "we avoided the confrontation with the East German refugees." Bella adds that he did not want to create panic because he did not want to use weapons.

Many other East German refugees fled illegally through other nearby routes, amid fears the Pan European Picnic was either a "secret service trick" or that Moscow would pressure Budapest to halt the refugees exodus from Hungary.

The now 21-year old Lisa Manthey was a baby when her parents put her in a blanket as they tried to cross a forest into Austria several kilometers away from the official Hungarian-Austrian border at the Sopronpuszta.

Speaking near that now famous site, Manthey tells VOA she grew up with her parents memories of that summer day on August 19, 1989, that changed her family's life forever.

"I was 14-months old, so I cannot really remember," she said. "But I remember all the stories told by my parents and especially by my grandfather. They carried me in a little blanket with a little piece of chocolate so I do not cry if something happened. And they carried me this way across the border line just near here."

"I feel very proud for my family that I am a little part of this whole story. It is very cool to hear everything on such days when everyone asks: "Oh you are the little baby that was carried across the border?" It is great to hear the story every time again," she added.

The woman known as "Aunt Agnes" to fellow villagers, 84-year old Agnes Baltigh, showed Lisa's parents and other refugees the way after negotiating with some Hungarian security forces to ease patrols.

"As a nurse it was always my calling to help people in need," she said. "And when these desperate people came with their horrific stories I realized I had to do something. It was not easy. I remember that some parents even gave their small children some sleeping medications to ensure they would not cry during the delicate trip through the forest. However, nobody was caught."

Back in Sopronpuszta, this nostalgic man still plays his music and speaks of an era when the communist governments provided social security for the people, but strictly limited their freedom.

The recent economic crisis has made it especially difficult for some elderly people on a fixed income in Hungary, which is now a member of the European Union and the NATO alliance.

But people like "Aunt Agnes" and former border guards say they have no regrets that they showed "humanity" towards East German refugees and helped trigger a chain of events that eventually led to a united Europe.

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