As talk about a 35W bridge memorial begins, another crossing memorial comes to mind—that commemorating a tiny bridge which saved 70,000 lives in 1956.
It is a tiny footbridge over a canal located on the border between Austria and Hungary. When I visited last month, it was hard to envision how it must have appeared to fleeing Hungarians crouching in the swamps to the southeast, waiting for the dark that would hide them from Soviet guards as they dashed for the Bridge to Freedom. Says James Michner, who watched at the border that November, “There was a bridge at Andau, and if a Hungarian could reach that bridge, he was nearly free.”* But, he was only ‘nearly free” because the bridge was actually still in Hungary; the border was a few hundred yards further on. What especially struck Mitchner was the Hungarians’ youth and spirit; they were “the finest young people of the nation,” who wanted to tell the world of their betrayal.
The area surrounding the bridge is a puszta, a high plain humming with insects and dancing butterflies. Although now a protected area visited by birdwatchers and cyclists, in late autumn of 1956, it was a half-frozen swampland. The bridge crossed not a river, but the Einsercanal (First Canal), originally dug to drain said swamps. The canal was too deep and too wide to ford on foot; to reach it, refugees had to cross miles of Hungarian swamps, where some were lost. Even after crossing, they had to navigate another mile of swampland to reach a road and rescue hut where women and children could board German and Swiss Red Cross trucks. The men had to walk the final five miles to Andau. (The bridge didn’t actually connect to a road, since its purpose was to allow farmers access to their hayfields.) The Andau villagers welcomed and fed the refugees, though their resources were soon depleted.
My daughter and I were in Andau to inspect the area that was once home to my Peck and Fangl ancestors, and having paid our respects at the graveyard and World War I-II memorial, we were ready to see the bridge. Not knowing it was actually a good nine kilometers outside of Andau, we were puzzled when we didn’t find it immediately. Instead, as we drove “The Road to Freedom” we spotted what looked like elongated owl nest boxes: small wooden shelters open on one side. But instead of being empty, they contained images. At first I thought a landowner was into driftwood art, but by the time we encountered the third box, I realized the image inside each was often represented a very bedraggled person—a refugee. What we were seeing was actually part of the 1996, fortieth anniversary memorial to the refugees’ flight. Called “The Road of Woe”, the open-air exhibition was constructed by Austrian and Hungarian artists. Lining the roadway were fields of sunflowers, also symbols of peace, their faces tilted slightly toward us.
In 1996, the bridge was also reconstructed as a joint friendship project between the two countries. The original rickety bridge had been blown up by the Soviets on November 21, 1956, after the Hungarian Revolution was crushed. Later, local farmers who needed a canal crossing, replaced it with a small stub bridge. It was this tiny footbridge that the 1996 memorial replaced. A lookout tower now stands on its Austrian side, where visitors can read about the bridge’s significance and use binoculars to look out over the vast puszta. On the Hungarian side, a wooden construction stands watch a bit further downstream; it is intended to evoke the last Soviet guard post standing between the refugees and the bridge.
The reconstructed crossing itself is again a small wooden footbridge. Back in 1957, Michener suggested a die Brücke von Andau memorial. He wrote, “It need not be much, as bridges go: not wide enough for a car nor sturdy enough to bear a motorcycle. It need only be firm enough to recall the love with which Austrians helped so many Hungarians across the old bridge to freedom, only wide enough to permit the soul of a free nation to pass.”
I hope our community’s memorial will be as moving as that outside Andau.
*All quotes are from James Mitchner, The Bridge at Andau, Random House, 1957