Flights Of Freedom – The Bridge At Andau: Birdwatching & The Old Iron Curtain

The average person who lives to be 70 years old will take about 195 million steps in their lifetime, the equivalent of walking 99,000 miles. Some steps are much more important than others. A few steps can be the difference from a person living a life of freedom as opposed to one under tyranny. Nowhere was this more apparent than in the autumn of 1956 when historic steps were taken by Hungarian refugees to cross a small footbridge into Austria. What is known as the Bridge at Andau (German: Brücke von Andau Hungarian: Andaui-hid) was a bridge to freedom. Thousands fleeing oppression in the wake of the 1956 Hungarian uprising against Soviet rule used the bridge to escape westward. Rarely has such a small, remote place taken on such critical importance, acting as a passage from east to west for 70,000 people on the road to freedom. I traveled to the Austria-Hungary border this fall to visit the rebuilt bridge and try to grasp its historic significance. The bridge was not what I thought it was going to be.

The reconstructed Bridge At Andau

The reconstructed Bridge At Andau

Judging A Bridge By A Cover – Fleeing To The Free World
My iconic image of the Bridge at Andau comes from a painting on the cover of the paperback edition of James Michener’s bestselling nonfiction book of the same name.  It shows a sturdy bridge with multiple buttresses crossing a modest waterway. The first time I saw the book’s cover I thought the bridge must be in Spain, for some reason Andau sounded exotic and like Spanish to me. I thought the book was probably some type of historical romance. The bridge looked like the kind of place lovers might stroll across. It is said not to judge a book by its cover. I might add that one should not judge a bridge by an artistic rendition. The actual bridge looked nothing like the one portrayed on the book’s cover.  Likewise, the title is misleading. There is no bridge at Andau. I discovered this after driving into the village under a beautiful blue sky interspersed with scattered, floating clouds. Andau is the village nearest to the bridge. To access the bridge from Andau requires a drive of another nine kilometers down a narrow, paved road.

Wooden sculpture along The Road of Woes

Wooden sculpture along The Road of Woes

The road had twice as many cyclists as cars traveling on it. Beside the road, ninety sculptures made out of wood and iron acted as startling counterpoints to the serene natural environment of the area.  One of these involved two wooden sentry boxes standing on either side of the road, each of them housing a bare chested, emaciated man dressed only in shorts. Another was of a naked old man carved out of wood. His hands placed over his midsection, with his face contorted in an excessively sorrowful expression. These sculptures go on and on and on, interspersed every hundred meters or so. The combined effect was of a sort of open air museum of human suffering. During the Hungarian refugee crisis of 1956, this route was known as the Road of Hope. Because of the sculptures it has been given an added name, the Road of Woes, a stark reminder of the human toll that was paid by everyone fleeing to the free world.

The Bridge At Andau in 1945

The Bridge At Andau in 1945

Bridging A Historic Divide – Opening Borders
The sculptures were eerie companions that haunted every kilometer of the drive from Andau to the bridge. At times I wondered whether I was on the correct road or not. Finally a guard tower appeared in the near distance and then another, surely the bridge must be nearby. There was a small parking area adjacent to a very stout and well-built wooden bridge. It looked nothing like the scene portrayed on the cover of Michener’s book. From what I have been able to find through research, the present bridge looks nothing like the historic bridge, which was rickety and ramshackle. The current bridge was built to last, not for historical accuracy. I have been able to find only one photo of the original bridge from 1945, when much of it was in pieces at the end of the Second World War. The lack of pictures is not surprising. People running for their lives were not stopping to take pictures in 1956.

The bridge was there for one reason, to get over the narrow Einser Canal, a waterway that was not especially deep or swift, but a barrier that must be crossed. I walked across the bridge into Hungary and back across in a couple of minutes. It was that simple now to cross the border. 21st century Europe’s relatively open borders were the counter-reaction to a 20th century Europe where nations, regions and ideologies were closed off or compartmentalized from one another. The present ease of crossing borders was an historical anomaly. Just over a decade ago there was the usual border control. A political as well as a physical divide has been bridged. Unlike by the end of November 1956 when there was no bridge left here. The Soviets blew it to bits. The border was then closed until 1989. This serene natural area had once been a closely guarded segment of the Iron Curtain.

The Einser Canal - along the Austria-Hungary border

The Einser Canal – along the Austria-Hungary border

Natural Instincts – From Birder’s Paradise To A Human Yearning
Impregnable and dangerous for decades, the bridge was now nothing more than a small historic site, something of an afterthought, to the area’s main claim to fame as part of the cross border Neusiedler See-Seewinkel (Austria) – Ferto-Hansag National Park (Hungary), most notable for its wetlands and birds. An ornithologist from Scotland was on the bridge keenly watching with binoculars for some strange species of birdlife to suddenly appear. While telling me about the bridge’s Cold War history – including a mention of Michener’s book – he would suddenly spy a bird in the distance, shout the species name and study its flight path with prolonged interest. How ironic that just thirty years before men in guard towers were sitting with binoculars waiting to catch a person trying to cross this border. Now a birding enthusiast stood on the rebuilt bridge waiting for the next birds to take flight, a purely natural instinct, not unlike the instinct for freedom that drove so many Hungarians to cross the Bridge At Andau in 1956.

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