Robert Böhm

* 1932

  • In winter the danger was worse of course, because you left tracks. I was a little over thirteen and crossing over through the woods. I knew my paths, had a rucksack on my back and carried the most essential things over the border. My father couldn’t go, because he’d have been arrested if they’d caught him. So I had to go alone. Those were bitter times. What kind of things did you carry in the rucksack? Linen, mostly linen, and things you need every day. Also a photo album, all kinds of things. One time they almost caught us both. That time we loaded up a sled with some leather transmission belts from the workshop, three of them. A boy from Silesia was helping me, he was two years older than I was. And then a Czech patrol came along. We left the sled in the bushes. Several hours later we crossed back over to the Czech side and brought back the sled and the three belts. The next few years that gave us some extra income, because the belts were so thick the farmers could use them to sole their shoes, so we used to trade those for lard and other goods.

  • Another thing I remember is when the front lines were approaching, they drove whole convoys of concentration camp prisoners through Nýrsko. Those people were begging us, and it was forbidden, but nevertheless some few Nýrsko citizens gave them some bread or something to eat. It was terrible. And nobody knew theere was another transport which stopped at the station and where they shot anyone who couldn’t carry on or was too sick. The German citizens knew nothing about it, maybe a few individual people. And there were mass graves at the Jewish cemetery in Nýrsko and 108 concentration camp victims were buried there. The Germans, all older men, then had to dig them up. It was terribly hot, it was that June. And then they had to wash the bodies. There were coffins, just simple crates, which they put them in down at the square, where the second Nýrsko church used to stand, that’s where they laid them out before burying them. The people of Nýrsko had no idea that a massacre had taken place there. And at the funeral the Germans had to carry the coffins, four men at a time, up on a bier, at the new cemetery they dug up each grave and buried them there. To stop anything from going wrong, four American tanks with machine-guns drove about, to stop people from rioting. As boys we were really interested in things like that, at thirteen years old, so we sat on the cemetery wall. We could see from above and behind, two men always brought the bier down and two stayed with the coffin. And there at the back, the Americans couldn’t see there. That’s where the Czech mob stood. And those old men, carrying the coffins, there they even beat them.

  • (That family) in our neighbourhood had a little farm, about 200 metres from the place we lived. Sepp Peschl joined the mountain huntsmen and was deployed in the Balkans to fight against Tito’s partisans. When he returned relatively soon from captivity, the Americans had prohibited the carrying of arms, on pain of death. But Sepp took little notice of that, carrying his military pistols on his person whenever he crossed the border in 1946. At the time, he and his brother-in-law were helping people on the other side, and when it became clear that expulsion was coming, they smuggled things over the border, for a price of course. And one day they were on the other side, approaching with a full load to the border, close by Ostrý, where there was a Czech border patrol waiting for them. And then it started. Shots. “Hands up!” and Sepp of course, his blood was boiling, pulled out his military pistols and a shootout started. He shot one soldier dead, wounded another and the third one shot Sepp. The brother-in-law escaped by running back over the border. Not long ago the niece of this Sepp, from Straubing, told me over the phone that it took fifty years for his family to get a death certificate from Prague. Yes, that’s the kind of thing that went down back then.

  • And then we headed back with our father to Rittsteig. We found a place to live there. I was thirteen years old. Every other night I walked from Rittsteig to Nýrsko, illegally crossing the border and smuggling the most essential belongings we had over the border. That lasted for about a fortnight, and then we found a flat in Schmolz, in the village of Lamm. Two small rooms, the only furniture was an old table. We had to knock up some stools ourselves to have something to sit on. We only had hay to sleep on. My parents used to sleep on horsehair mattresses in Nýrsko, just so you know. Those were bad times. In order to make some money we went to sawmills and collected saw blades with broken mountings. And at the forge we pressed and shaped them into knives, grinding them and then making handles for them out of cherry or plum wood by hand. And then we traded these knives with the farmers for food.

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    Neukirchen b. hl. Blut, 02.09.2019

    duration: 02:15:36
    media recorded in project The removed memory of Šumava
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After the war I kept crossing the border illegally, under the Iron Curtain I guarded it as a German border patrolman

Robert Böhm, Neukirchen 2019
Robert Böhm, Neukirchen 2019
photo: Natáčení

Robert Böhm was born on 26 February 1932 in Nýrsko (Neuern in German), to the family of architect Robert Böhm, who among other things designed the – still standing – memorial to the First World War. In 1937 Konrad Henlein visited Nýrsko and was greeted by the citizens of the town. Little Robert recited a poem to him. In September 1938 Robert was enrolled in the first class of Czech primary school, a few weeks later the portrait of the Czechoslovak president was replaced with a photograph of Hitler – as a result of the Munich Agreement. At the age of ten, Robert joined the Jungvolk organisation, later on the Flying Hitlerjugend, where he participated in war games and camps. In the last few weeks of the war, Robert had a first-hand view of a procession of impoverished concentration camp prisoners through Nýrsko. As the front lines approached, Nýrsko came under bombardment, costing the lives of forty local inhabitants. It was only after the war that the citizens of Nýrsko found out about the executions of prisoners from concentration camps at the local train station, when the German citizens of the towns were made to dig up, wash and properly bury those executed. Once arrests of Nýrsko Germans began and Robert’s father decided to flee to Germany, the thirteen-year-old accompanied him to the border and later illegally smuggled him letters and messages to Bavaria. When Robert’s mother died of a cardiovascular disease in September 1945 and Czechs moved into their house, Robert headed out alone to join his father in Germany. In the following months he crossed the border repeatedly, carrying small household items into Germany, eventually smuggling over his six-year-old sister. He continued his border crossings until the construction of the Iron Curtain, mainly gathering mushrooms and blueberries, but also keeping in contact with smugglers of goods and people. The one-time grammar school student eventually trained as a baker in Germany, but did not make use of his training. His years of childhood experience were useful when he joined the German border patrol, among other things he guarded the Czech-German border under the Iron Curtain. He was only able to visit Nýrsko, the town of his birth, in June 1989, when he was also introduced to the post-revolutionary local politician Ivan Bečvář, who remained his friend until death. They did not reproach each other for the events of the war or its aftermath. They agreed: “We were both still just children”.