The Naval Institute Press in Annapolis, Maryland published a dazzling, accomplished book by Barbara Masin called Gauntlet. I was surprised by the title, as I had previously read the older, differently named, version of the manuscript supplied to me by the author. When I hear the word Gauntlet, the Clint Eastwood movie of the same name always pops into my mind specifically the final scene of an old and rugged Clint running the gauntlet (or driving in his case) through the streets of Phoenix, being shot at from all sides, with high hopes and sense of duty, only to arrive on the steps of city hall to find a conclusion that he did not really like. Then it struck me - the finely crafted story told to us by Barbara Masin is in many facets and angles very similar, but very real and with an added epic weight.
It is a story of five young men, brothers Ctirad and Josef Masin (who is to become Barbara Masin's own father), Milan Paumer, Vaclav Sveda and Zbynek Janata, who in October 1953 fled communist Czechoslovakia on foot and shot their way through equally communist East Germany to West Berlin. It was the culmination and grand finale of their anti-Communist resistance activities, going in the footsteps of their legendary father and their families - and that it where the "gauntlet" comes into play. East German StaSi and VoPo mobilized over twenty thousand soldiers and policemen to capture the five young men.
They eventually captured two out of the five and promptly gave them to Czech commies to be executed, with many other relatives - but the Masin brothers and Milan Paumer (with a gunshot wound in the stomach) finished their run of the gauntlet to West Berlin. The book is a gripping thriller that would make Robert Ludlum proud - with one big distinction: this was not fantasy, this was a real life story and even those unfamiliar with the harsh realities of Eastern Europe in the dark ages of the Cold war will be sucked into the action. The realism of the story is chilling and makes it next to impossible to put the book down.
The Masin family was far from ordinary and the book follows the story of several generations in the family. Josef Masin, the father (1896-1942), was a soldier, hero of both world wars, member of Czechoslovak Legions in WWI, which fought their way across Russia and Siberia to the Pacific Ocean and was a member of the underground resistance against the Nazis. His sons, Ctirad (b. 1930), Josef (b. 1932) and daughter Zdena (b. 1933) were the next generation. Their mother, Zdena Masinova, although she did not know about her sons activites and escape plans, was sentenced to 25 years of prison and died in prison soon afterwards in horrific conditions. Their uncle Ctibor Novak was executed together with Vaclav Sveda and Zbynek Janata. Multiple friends and relatives were also executed or imprisoned - even if they knew nothing about the Masin brothers’ group’s anti-Communist activities.
The Masin brothers still have not set foot back in their native land. Today the Czech Republic is still only marginally free and allegedly democratic, but the majority of its population, after more than fifty years of constant brainwashing, has quite a ridiculous attitude about their own history and the role they themselves played in it. The Masin brothers and Milan Paumer are repeatedly nominated for the highest of Czech awards, only to be rejected by the communist-dominated Czech government. Yet other Czech politicians are afraid to take a clear stance in this case. Poorly educated, brainwashed for multiple generations and generally fearful, the population of today’s Czech Republic seems to lack the guts needed to push the issue through.
Nevertheless, the Masins and Paumer are held in high regard by the community of Czechs and former-Czechs living abroad, who in contrast to the inhabitants of the Czech and Slovak Republics, are familiar with the experience of fleeing to the West at the risk of one's life, and seem to be Masin's admirers: in 2005, the Czech and Slovak Association of Canada gave the Thomas Masaryk Award to the Masin brothers and Milan Paumer.
The Masin brothers and Milan Paumer were heroes. In this context heroes are individuals, who by example of their own bravery are able to inspire the masses. And inspire they did. Close to 1 million former Czechs and Slovaks now happily live abroad.
Czechoslovakia is from the historic point of view quite an unfortunate country - it was a truly free country for only twenty years (1918-1938) of their 1500 or so year history. By becoming Americans, the Masins and Paumer found - not that they planned it that way - the end of their rainbow. Czechoslovakia probably was not destined to be free, then or now - so those of us - inspired by the Masins - those of us who had freedom embedded in our DNA just had to go and become Americans. Which isn’t bad at all, considering where we came from and what most of us have been through.
The Czech translation of the original manuscript was published in the Czech Republic about a year ago under the name "Odkaz". Since then, an additional seven months of research was added to the book for its English edition. It is a fast read and sure to delight anybody from history buffs and thriller aficionados right down to elderly cancelled Czechs who want their English-speaking children and grandchildren to read about their ancestors old country which never came to be free. It serves as a fine introduction for those unfamiliar with the history of that sad part of the world. A must for every library. This intense and amazing story is, without doubt, the greatest Cold war story ever told.
Thank you, Joe, Ray and Milan. And thank you all, who died on the way here. You all were and are our heroes and inspiration.
Gauntlet. (Five Friends, 20,000 Enemy Troops, and the Secret That Could Have Changed the Course of the Cold War) - by Barbara Masin, Published by Naval Institute Press, Annapolis, Maryland 21402, ISBN 1-59114-515-5 384 pages, Printed in the U.S.A.