The stuff nightmares are made of

WTF?!*  Had I been doing anything more than a sedate 25 mph on this relatively remote stretch of a very minor Austrian road, I might have left skidmarks. As it was, I braked hard, and stopped dead, not sure where I was or what was I was looking at.

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Two sentry boxes were positioned on either side or a narrow country road, each containing a harrowing, life-size wooden carving of an emaciated man. We had seen no signs. No billboards. Nothing to explain what we might be looking at. On closer inspection, each had a small metal plate with the name of what we assumed to be the artist and the title of the piece (in German). We had obviously hit upon some old open-air art installation, one that had weathered the test of time with varying degrees of success. Ahead of us, the road stretched for miles, cutting a straight path to the horizon. It was hot. Very hot. The trees were still, the sunflowers and the corn unmoving, fixed with a rigidity that wasn’t just attributable to the lack of wind. My imagination was already running riot.

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We were a couple of miles outside Andau, an Austrian village very near the Hungarian border, trying to find the bridge immortalised in James Michener’s book – The Bridge at Andau. [When I first came to Budapest, three books were recommended to get an insight into what makes the country tick. This one, Tibor Fischer’s Under the Frog, and Julian Rubenstein’s Ballad of the Whiskey Robber, each one worth a read.]

The Bridge at Andau is James A. Michener at his most gripping. His classic nonfiction account of a doomed uprising is as searing and unforgettable as any of his bestselling novels. For five brief, glorious days in the autumn of 1956, the Hungarian revolution gave its people a glimpse at a different kind of future—until, at four o’clock in the morning on a Sunday in November, the citizens of Budapest awoke to the shattering sound of Russian tanks ravaging their streets. The revolution was over. But freedom beckoned in the form of a small footbridge at Andau, on the Austrian border. By an accident of history it became, for a few harrowing weeks, one of the most important crossings in the world, as the soul of a nation fled across its unsteady planks.

It was across this bridge that more than 70 000 Hungarians fled to Austria, days after the failed 1956 Revolution. Once they’d reached the other side, they had a five-mile walk to freedom through the swampy no-man’s land along this road,which back then was little more than a bike path.

At Andau there was a bridge. Could someone reach it, he found the way into freedom. Only an insignificant bridge, neither wide enough for a car nor strong enough for a motorcycle. It’s rickety …..

In 1996, to mark the 40th anniversary of the Hungarian Revolution, the  Austrian and Hungarian armies cooperated to rebuild the Bridge at Andau, witness as it was to such a remarkable happening.

Those generations who had once built this bridge could not, of course, know the role this bridge of simple planks and beams will play one day….

That year, what had become known as the Road to Freedom, was used as an open air exhibition for 90 pieces by artists from both countries entitled The Road of Woes. And it was the remnants of this that we had stumbled across.

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As we drove slowly along the road, we began to get some sense of what the journey might have been like. The average age of those escaping was 27; many had young children with them. Some 500 students and their university professors made the trip, too. Michener’s account, told from his vantage point on the Austrian side of the border, makes compelling reading. Although it had been a few years since I read it, it all came flooding back, helped in large part by the sometimes very graphic works of art potted along the way. We were on our own. Not another car in sight. I gave quick thanks that we were doing this in daylight. Had I caught the sentries in my headlights, the one sleepless night I had might have been serialised.

They came out of the reeds of the marsh land, from the mud and the dirt, right across the swamps and via the Einser channel, across the bridge with the rickety beams. Yes, that’s the way they came. Then we heard a dull bang, but nothing was to be seen. A refugee, who had kept hidden until then, took his opportunity. Breathless he came running towards us: “They have blown up the bridge!”

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The agony was all too visible. I can’t begin to imagine what it might have been like, to have had to pack up my life into one small bag and then make the break, leaving family and friends, and a lifetime of accumulation behind me, knowing that at any minute, I could breathe my last. This, of course, is what hundreds of thousands of fleeing refugees face on a daily basis. [Coincidentally, my book of choice right now is about Mexican illegals feeling across the Texas border into America. The human coyotes they have to deal are just another form of sentry.]

Michener, after witnessing what he had, said that if he ever had to flee, he hoped it could be to Austria, such was the compassion with which the Hungarians were treated.  The humanitarian work accomplished was quite simply amazing – the  schools, the kindergarten, the cinema and all public spaces have been provided for the accommodation of refugees.

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The countryside, being what it is, has grown up and over many of the pieces so that they seemed to pop up out of nowhere. Heads swivelling back and forth we went for a fair stretch without seeing anything but so involved were we in the experience that we were imbuing rocks and dead trees with all sorts of stuff that simply wasn’t there.

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Perhaps the most graphic  was a series of dismembered limbs, hanging on what I assume is a leftover piece of the original Iron Curtain. Another, a woman, hung suspended from the air, her hair falling away from a face contorted in agony. I wondered if this depicted the agony of what she had left behind or something she met along the road. I began to think of mines, and snipers, and all sorts but as I said, it all appeared without warning – I was clueless. Days later, as I write, what’s to be gleaned from the Internet wouldn’t make a bowl of soup. I did find one page though, that leads me to think that there’s more than just the 1956 Revolution being commented upon. It would seem that the pieces symbolise the rejection of violence, intolerance, inhumanity, contempt of humankind and racism. And their state of disrepair stems from the fact that they remain the property of their creators and are not maintained by the municipality.

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Even after the Russians blew up the bridge on 21 November, the Hungarian people kept crossing and the Austrian locals in Andau and surrounding villages kept their doors open.  In a world that is going slowly mad, it’s gratifying to think that compassion for the fates of others existed and that people were willing to do their bit. I wonder how many of those who fled have come back to visit? Where are they now? Is that journey just a fleeting memory or has it shaped the lives they live today?

Standing on the Hungarian side, looking across the bridge to Austria, was a sobering moment. The walk across that second time even more so. Yes, the bridge has been renovated, but the wooden planks still groan, footsteps still echo, and that sense of touching down on terra firma and looking back is all too real.

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