3 Czech Friends, Cast as Heroes and as Murderers

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To some Czechs, it was the greatest escape of the cold war. But here in central Europe, where history is often rewritten, there are many others who view the five young Czechs as reckless murderers, even though they dodged 24,000 Soviet soldiers and the East German police for 28 days through snow-covered forests to reach the freedom of West Berlin in 1953.

In October of that year, the five men battled their way across the Iron Curtain heading for the American sector of a divided Berlin. They wanted to join American troops in what they thought would be a global conflagration between Western democracies and Soviet Communism.

To get there, the five — the brothers Josef and Ctirad Masin and their childhood friends Milan Paumer, Zbynek Janata and Vaclav Sveda — hijacked cars, stole submachine guns, drugged adversaries with chloroform, broke into police stations and killed six people, including a police officer whose throat was slit with a Boy Scout knife.

The journey that they thought would take five days took four weeks, and they braved starvation, frostbite and bullet wounds. Three of the men eventually reached West Berlin, where they were debriefed by the Central Intelligence Agency. Then they joined the United States Army in hopes of liberating communist Czechoslovakia. The other two — Mr. Janata and Mr. Sveda — were captured by the East German police and executed.

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