Forbidden Journey – Part One
Created on February 9, 2010
by Robert Carl Cohen
Before describing how these photos came to be taken during the first of a series of “forbidden journeys” behind what were once referred to as the “Iron,” “Bamboo,” and “Sugar Cane Curtains,” these are the considerations which led to my choosing, over a half-century ago, in the midst of the “Cold War,” with the world teetering on the precipice of nuclear annihilation, to undertake activities which, while meritorious to some, were denounced by others, including then U.S. Vice-President Richard Nixon, as “subversive.”
Both of my parents were non-religious Jews who’d emigrated from Tzarist Russia (today Belarus) to the US as teenagers in the early years of the 20th Century. My mother, the daughter of a blacksmith, worked as a sewing machine operator in the Philadelphia garment district. My father, after serving as a conscript in the US Army in the First World War, learned the trade of wall paper hanging and, as an officer of the Philadelphia branch of the Painters, Paperhangers & Decorators Union, had been a Delegate to the IWW (International Workers of the World) Convention in Colorado in 1922.
Although active in the labor movement and supporting liberal and anti-fascist causes, my parents were far from radicals, and brought me up to believe that living in America provided working people with freedom and opportunity then denied in many other parts of the world.
I mention this to make it clear that my later defiance of government policy stemmed not from being brought up to oppose it in principal, but because of my conviction that forbidding its citizens to travel to any nation with which America was not at war, was in violation of the US Constitution’s Bill of Rights.
I was born in Philadelphia in 1930. In 1939, seeking to escape the cold Pennsylvania winters, my parents and I took the five day, 3,000 mile, train trip to Los Angeles; where I was to spend the next 15 years growing up and receiving an education.
In 1945, almost 15, and bursting with adolescent patriotism, I’d been disappointed when WW-II ended before I was old enough to enter the armed forces. But by 1950, now a university student, the “Korean Conflict” did not impress me as necessary to either protect my country or to save the world.
Receiving a BA in Art in 1952 from U.C.L.A., I maintained my draft deferment by studying for the Masters of Arts in Motion Pictures, which I received in 1954 for producing a 10 minute thesis film titled “The Color of Man,” a popular science educational documentary which combined photography with animation to present the genetic-environmental basis for differences in human skin color.
In May 1954, there being no higher degree offered at the time in either Art or Motion Pictures, my student deferment expired; and I was conscripted into the US Army.
Following combat infantry basic training at Ft. Ord, California, I was sent to Ft. Monmouth, New Jersey where, although officially categorized as a “Cameraman – Motion Pictures,” I was assigned to produce and direct video training programs at WFM-TV, the Signal Corps closed-circuit television station.
Then, in early 1955 I was reassigned to the NATO Photo Department at SHAPE (Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe) outside Paris.
Being in France was interesting, but I was an unenthusiastic soldier. Even if I’d retained my teenage ardor for the military, since I’d been given a physical profile of “limited duty” as the result of a shoulder separation acquired during a university wrestling class, I was prohibited from accompanying our field units photographing NATO maneuvers in such places as Greece and Turkey.
I complained to the army doctors that since, at a minimum, all soldiers had to be able to perform the duties of a combat infantryman, I shouldn’t be in the military at all. My complaints achieving no result, I wrote to the Office of the Inspector General; resulting in a Review Board being scheduled to take up my case.
Pending the hearing, no longer assigned to the Photo Department, I was given various low level jobs, one of which led to my learning about what was expected to happen in case “the shit hits the fan,” as my fellow soldiers used to refer to the then considered inevitable World War Three.
Sent to work in a room whose door bore the designation “Cosmic Only,” I asked the British Captain in charge if I was qualified to enter. When, checking my serial number, he said that I could come in, I realized that, although only a Private 2nd-class, at the bottom of the military structure, and not having any logical “need to know,” I’d been authorized access to the “Top Secrets” of not only the US, but of France, England and all the other NATO countries.
One wall of the room, in which several soldiers were working at desks, was lined with cubic meter size cardboard boxes marked “Kleenex” and “Kotex” which had once contained smaller containers of those products for sale in the PX (Post Exchange store) when they were shipped over from the U.S.
“Those boxes are filled with mimeograph stencil originals,” the Captain said. “Your job for the next several weeks will be to go through them and put each document in order according to its date.”
Many of the stencils, oozing purple ink, had no information other than a title or number on their cover. Since they were negatives, I had to hold them up to a light and read them in reverse until I found a date of publication.
The NATO Monthly Reports for previous years, they consisted of plans for such things as trying to halt the advance of 1,000 Soviet tanks stationed near Lubbeck in the most northwestern area of then-East Germany by creating a 100 kilometer wide radioactive death zone by detonating nuclear land mines implanted between the Baltic and the Alps.
I knew enough to realize that the resulting radioactivity, in addition to its primary purpose of killing the crews of the Soviet tanks before they could get to Paris, would contaminate most of Western Europe, an area inhabited by over 30 million people.
Although I hadn’t sought out the information, and tried to avoid reading any more than necessary to file each document, it became evident that, even without the West being hit by Soviet atomic weapons, the unleashing of NATO’s nuclear arsenal alone would create so much radioactivity it might well end life on Earth.
The contents of those purple ink-oozing stencils staining my hands led me to consider what, if anything, could be done to avoid the looming conflagration? Since I, as an individual, felt powerless to prevent it, I concluded that I might as well stop worrying and try to enjoy myself. This was made easy by the fact that, so many European men in my age bracket having died in the war, there was a large preponderance of single females in Paris, many amenable to consorting with an American soldier.
The high esteem in which the French viewed us as “Liberators” at the end of WW-II in 1945 had been greatly eroded by the Korean “Conflict,” and in 1955 it was common to see “Ami Go Home” scrawled on Parisian walls. Despite this, and although I’d been cautioned that the French, being very standoffish, would never invite American soldiers into their homes, by avoiding the bars and prostitutes frequented by many of my fellow GIs, and spending my time instead at the UNESCO Film Division and in the book shops and art galleries of St. Germain and Montparnasse, I was able to make friends, especially among painters and film people. Also, lIke many other Americans in those days, I soon discovered Shakespeare & Company, a small bookshop near Notre Dame, which became a pleasant off-duty hangout.
My existential indulgence was abruptly terminated in the autumn of 1955 as a consequence of being attacked in the Camp Voluceaux orderly room by a drunken sergeant. Cursing me as “a malingerer” for my well-known lack of enthusiasm for the military, he managed to get in a left to my face before I seized him in a head lock and broke his nose; after which, as he fled the building, I phoned the Military Police.
Although the Review Board on my case ruled that I should be released from the Army because of “apathy,” the Military Police Colonel reviewing its findings, after inquiring about the circumstances of my fight with the drunken sergeant, declared “Apathy – bullshit! The army needs more men with balls like you” and, to my dismay, tore up the Review Board’s discharge recommendation.
Rather than disturb the hierarchical structure at SHAPE by having a Private 2nd Class short-time draftee around who’d bested a volunteer regular army Staff Sergeant, I was banished from Paris, reassigned to “Special Services” as an “Entertainment Specialist,” and sent off to complete the remainder of my time in the military by amusing the troops at the B.P.O.E. (Bremerhaven Port of Embarkation) in West Germany.
There, in addition to assisting the Service Hostesses putting on dances, I created exchange programs for German children to be invited to Christmas parties at our base and for American soldiers to celebrate the holidays at German homes. I was also able to get the Army to pay for tickets to take a small group of GI’s to see popular works such as “Eine Nacht In Venedig” and “Die Sauberflotte” at the StatsOper in Bremen. Using my limited Yiddish-German, I tried to translate at least the basic outlines of the plots.
While stationed in Paris, I’d learned that I could get an “early out” if accepted by an educational institution whose semester began within 90 days of the end of my 24 months of service. Fortunately, the spring 1956 Semester at the Sorbonne was to begin 83 days before my scheduled discharge. The problem was that getting an “early out” required having to study for a higher degree. Since the Sorbonne did not then offer a Ph.D. in Art, Cinema or Theater, it was necessary to find a doctoral discipline which would accept me.
Prior to being drafted, having taken a graduate seminar in “Propaganda, Communication & Public Opinion” at UCLA with Professor Franklin Fearing, and having read the small number of books available in what was then a relatively new academic area, I decided to try for the Doctorate in Social Psychology.
I was directed by friends at the UNESCO to contact Professor Jean Stoetzel, Director of the Department of Social Psychology at the Sorbonne, and Chief of the Bureau of Public Opinion, a research organization similar to the US Gallup Poll.
Prof. Stoetzel’s desire to practice his English, which was far superior to my fumbling French, was most welcome. My proposed dissertation concept, “Analysis of Cinema As A Means of Social Communication,” was accepted and, to my pleasant surprise, Prof. Stoetzel said that my familiarity with the books of researchers such as Laswell, Berelson, Adorno, et al, equaling that of his graduate students, there were no classes for me to take, and I should engage in independent studies; the only requirement being to meet with him every two months.
Twelve years later, in 1968, Prof. Stoetzel was to be criticized by some of his graduate students, who called themselves “Situationists,” for refusing to join with other leading academics in supporting the strikes and demonstrations which almost led to the overthrow of the French Government.
In February 1956, 90 days before my discharge date, I was released from the US Army in Bremerhaven. In order to remain in Europe, no longer a soldier, I first had to acquire a US passport from the American Consulate in Bremen. Reviewing my application, and appearing impressed by my academic background and ability to speak enough primitive French, German and Spanish to order food in a restaurant or buy a train ticket, the US Counsel asked: “Have you considered a government career?”
Assuming that he was asking if I was interested in becoming a Cold War “warrior,” I responded: “Yes, I’ve considered it, and decided against it.” “Why?” he asked. “Because my short time in the military has convinced me that, given the choice, I’d rather avoid putting myself in a situation where I’d be obligated to carry out orders with which I might not agree,” was my response.
Knowing enough to realize that the primary characteristics of espionage are deception and betrayal, I had no interest in pursuing a career based on pretending to be something I was not; especially since I now knew the secret of secrets – that the only possible outcome of a war between East and West would be the end of life on Earth. Being able to openly express my views about such crucial matters continues to be of greater value to me today than would have been the dubious excitement of living some sort of double life.
Years later, in the mid-1970s, upon receiving my military files under the Freedom of Information Act, I discovered that my request for a passport had been personally stamped “approved” by “Kissinger.” Henry Kissinger, later Secretary of State under Nixon, having been a US State Department official involved with German intelligence at the time, my 1956 suspicions appeared vindicated.
As a university student, feeling obligated to try and understand something about Communism, I’d arduously plowed through Lenin’s “Materialism & Empirocriticism,” but until then I hadn’t been especially interested in political theory. But now that it seemed that the end of the world might be imminent, I decided that, prior to being vaporized, I might at least see for myself what life was like on the other side of the “Iron Curtain.”
So, instead of immediately returning to Paris, my first act as a civilian was to take the train from Bremerhaven to East Berlin to visit Carl Weber, a German stage director friend of Jean Schmidt, a Parisian documentary film maker I’d met at the UNESCO. With Carl’s assistance, during the next few years I was able to photograph both the rehearsals and performances of the Brecht plays “Mother Courage,” “The Life of Galileo,” the “Three Penny Opera,” and “Arturo Ui.” Many of those photos are available on my website at:
In March 1956 I took the train back to Paris – where I found a small “chambre de bonne” on the 6th floor of the Hotel des Bains in Montparnasse.
The $110.00 US per month GI Bill scholarship money I received, while small by US standards, enabled me to live in Paris. My hotel room rent was only $24.00 US, and I could purchase meal tickets at the student restaurant for less than twenty cents each.
That April, having used my Army separation money to buy a used 1953 Morris convertible, I decided to drive to Cannes to observe the annual film festival .
Although my limited finances led me to sleep in the car, I managed to acquire a “Producer’s” pass to all of the screenings. I did this by going to the Cannes Film Festival Office in Paris and announcing: “My name is Robert Cohen, and I’m a film director from Hollywood.” Since I had the same name as a well-known US producer who, fortunately for me, hadn’t shown up, they gave me the screening pass being held for “Bobby” Cohn, the nephew of Harry Cohn, the head of Columbia Pictures.
Years later, introduced to him by the director Sam Fuller, I told my namesake about the Cannes incident. Bobby Cohn found it amusing, and we remained good friends for years afterwards.
Arriving at the Palais de Festival in Cannes, I discovered that there was a side festival of animated films next door to the main auditorium building. Having brought along a 16 mm print of my UCLA Masters Thesis film, “The Color of Man,” I was able to arrange to have it shown out of competition.
Among those who saw it was Ladislav Kachtik, the Czech State Film representative, who then invited me to present it at the Karlovy Vary Film Festival later that year. Also present at the Cannes screening was Jean Image, a French producer who’d made the feature-length animated films “Jeannot le Intrepid” and “Bonjour Paris,” and who subsequently hired me to develop cartoon films with which he hoped to break into the US television market. It was for his company, “Les Films Jean Image,” that I wrote and designed “Mister Wister The Time Twister.”
So it was that, in July, hitching a ride from Paris with Robin Joachim, a rather strange American journalist I’d met in Cannes, who was driving there in his new deux cheveaux Citroen, I made my second trip behind the “Iron Curtain;” this time to attend the 1956 Karlovy Vary Film Festival.
In Karlovy Vary, as the only American director present, I was housed in an elegant, crystal chandeliered suite in the Hotel Moskva – formerly the renowned “Grand Hotel Pupp.” After sleeping in the back seat of my car in Cannes, it was interesting to find myself as an honored guest in a spa which, known as “Carlsbad” before WW-II, had been frequented by the rulers of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
My student film, “The Color of Man,” was projected along with the Hollywood feature “Marty,” starring Ernest Borgnine, and introduced by the US Ambassador to Poland, U Alexis Johnson, who’d driven there from Warsaw. Also present were United Artists Vice-President Irving Pickert, Variety-Paris reporter Gene Moscowitz, and the syndicated columnist Art Buchwald. It was one of the first times that American films had been invited to a Communist film festival.
Although my being there was coincidental, it was evident that the invitation of well known U.S. journalists and the representative of a major producer indicated a desire on the part of the Communists to lessen Cold War animosities. Ambassador Johnson’s participation indicated that the U.S. State Department welcomed the opportunity.
Following the Karlovy Vary Film Festival I visited Prague for a few days. While the Czech capital appeared to have escaped the extensive war damage inflicted on Berlin, and the people on the street seemed to be adequately fed and clothed, there was a distinct lack of consumer goods available. Most of the store windows displayed little more than banners of political slogans.
In addition to a few small handicraft gifts for friends in Paris, I purchased an East German Exacta Varex 35 mm still camera which, with my limited budget, I was able to afford by exchanging dollars for zlotys with the Czech Minister of Culture at the black market rate.
My hope that cultural contacts such as film festivals were the beginning of a detente which could lead to World War Three being averted was tempered, however, by other events, for 1956 brought the world closer to the brink of destruction than ever before. Being in Europe where, only 11 years earlier, tens of millions had died during the Second World War, made my awareness of the perilous situation all the more acute.
In February 1956 Soviet Prime Minister Nikita Krushchev’s denunciation of the crimes of the Stalin Era at the 20th Congress of the Communist Party marked the start of a wave of violent unrest: first in June in Poland, with riots erupting in Poznań, then in October in Hungary with the armed revolt against Soviet control that resulted in an estimated 25,000 dead, then in November when, in response to the invasion of Egypt and occupation of Nasser’s recently nationalized Suez Canal by Britain and France, plus Israel’s seizure of the Sinai, the Soviet Premier threatened to launch rockets against London and Paris.
By coincidence, on the day of Krushchev’s dire warning, I was on my second visit to the Berliner Ensemble in East Berlin, having driven there in my Morris Minor.
Deciding that it would be best to return to Paris as soon as possible, I drove westward across East Germany, passing the blackened ruins of Dresden where, in 1944, the fire storm created by British aircraft under the orders of General “Bomber Harris” had incinerated some 100,000 people in a single night.
As darkness fell, approaching the East-West German border, through the rising ground mist I observed large numbers of Russian soldiers building field fortifications on both sides of the autobahn. Wearing steel helmets and heavy capes, their dun-colored combat uniforms made them resemble giant moles as, working without lights, they used short-handled spades to dig fox holes in the cold, recently plowed earth. Cultural exchanges notwithstanding, the Cold War was on the brink of turning hot.
“Is it true that covering yourself with salt will protect against radioactivity?” Lucien, the concierge at the Hotel Des Bains asked when I returned to Montparnasse. “Save your money,” I replied. “If Russian nukes strike Paris we’ll be the lucky ones because we’ll be incinerated instantly. It’s those who live in the countryside, far from targets such as population centers and military installations, who’ll die slowly from the radioactive fallout.”
The Concierge’s fear of impending war was mirrored in the faces of people on the streets, in the screaming newspaper headlines, and the strained voices of radio newscasters. Paris, along with the rest of humanity, was indeed poised on the eve of destruction.
Fortunately, the situation was resolved without igniting World War Three when the United Nations, backed by President Eisenhower, demanded that the British, French and Israeli forces agree to withdraw from Egyptian territory.
The Cold War continued unabated, but at least 1956 ended without the dreaded exchange of nuclear weapons.
In early 1957 my animated short, “Mister Wister,” was awarded a minor Prix de la Qualite by the French Government; and I went to London for its screening as part of the World Animated Film Festival.
A few weeks after I returned to Paris a small notice in the British publication “The New Statesman & Nation” caught my attention. It invited Americans and Canadians in Europe desiring to attend the “Sixth World Festival of Democratic Youth” in Moscow at the end of July to travel there with the “British Youth Festival Delegation.” For a total of 43 pounds, only about $135.00 US at the time, it offered round trip rail transportation from London to Moscow plus room & board in a student dormitory for two weeks. It was such a bargain that I assumed it was being subsidized by the Russians to attract as many Western participants as possible in order to demonstrate that the USSR had not only recovered from the effects of WW-II but, especially now that it had atomic weapons, was also a global super power.
“Why not go to Moscow?” I asked myself. “The cost is only a bit more than I get per month on the G.I. Bill, and it should provide the opportunity to learn something about life in the center of Communist military and political power. According to newspaper accounts significant changes had begun to take place there since Stalin’s death four years earlier. While it was evident that any Americans in attendance would have their presence exploited for propaganda purposes, with the world so close to war, joining in an event described in press accounts as “Dedicated to Peace and Friendship” seemed like a positive thing to do.
Caught up by the notion of attending the Youth Festival, I spread word about the low cost travel deal among American expatriate friends in the Left Bank cafes I frequented. The idea took hold, and led to a group of five of us, including Shel Silverstein, who was in Paris doing cartoons for Playboy Magazine, deciding to go to Moscow together.
As we were to meet in London, I purchased the budget fare then available from Skyways: $20.00 US got one bused from Paris to Beauvais, where Lindbergh had landed at the conclusion of his historic 1929 trans-Atlantic flight, then flown by turboprop across the Channel to Lymne, then bused to London.
“What is the purpose of your visit to Great Britain?” a British immigration official asked when I landed at Lymne. “I’m catching a train in London to go to Moscow,” caused his eyebrows to rise. “Why would you be traveling from the Continent to London in order to go to Moscow?” “Because I have to board a train in London to go there with the British Youth Festival Committee.” “What exactly is this Committee?” he asked, his voice rising. “Are you carrying pamphlets or other literature?” “Do you intend to engage in political activity?” “How long do you plan to be here?” “Are you importing funds into England?”
“I’m not carrying any pamphlets,” I answered. “I only plan to be in London for two days.” “I have about $200.00 in travelers checks, but I hope to collect about $100.00 more for photos I took at the Cannes Film Festival which have been purchased by “Sight & Sound Magazine.”
“Sight & Sound? What sort of publication is that?” “It’s put out by the British Film Institute,” I answered. “And exactly what is the nature of that organization?” “Does it engage in political activity?” “Where is it located?” “And how is it that your passport was issued in Germany rather than the USA”?
“My passport was issued in Bremen because I originally came to Europe with the US Army,” I answered.
“Is that so?” he sneered – behaving as if he’d uncovered some sort of Communist agent attempting to infiltrate the British Empire. Taking my passport, he rose from his desk and, ordering me to remain seated, locked the door as he left the room.
I assumed that he was going to make a phone call to have me checked out by Scotland Yard or whatever British agency dealt with such matters; and would probably be told that I’d been cleared for Cosmic Top Secret while at SHAPE.
My assumption appeared to have been correct when, after ten minutes, he unlocked the door and, now grinning from ear to ear, handed me back my passport, declaring “Everything will be just fine, Mister Cohen, Sir.” “Sorry about the misunderstanding.” “How long would you like to visit here in Great Britain – will three months be adequate?” “Three days will be enough,” I answered.
Insisting on stamping my passport “Valid for 90 days,” he lowered his voice to a whisper, leaned closer,and asked “MInd telling me confidentially why you’re really going to Moscow?” “To take some photos,” I replied, pointing to my Exacta camera. “Just a bit of rubber-necking, eh,” he chortled, winking broadly. To that desk-bound civil servant I must have appeared to be some sort of secret agent on a perilous mission into the very heart of enemy territory.
The incident illustrated what I’d already observed during my time in Europe – everything and everyone seemed to be caught up in the Cold War. Even the most innocent activities could be viewed as connected to conspiracy. Living there, especially if you traveled between East and West, was like being in a never-ending Hitchcock movie.
Meeting in London with Shel Silverstein and the rest of our group, I boarded a train filled with hundreds of British Youth Delegates, plus a few dozen other Americans. With “America – Moscow” chalked on the side of our railroad car, we set off from London for the four day trip to the Russian capitol.
Crossing the English Channel to Belgium, our train headed across Holland and West Germany. With hundreds of excited young men and women jammed together in 2nd class sleeping cars, bottles of wine and musical instruments from banjos to steel drums were brought into action, turning the trip into a giant party that kept growing as additional delegates from various Western European nations joined our train.
Passing through the “Iron Curtain” during the night, we entered East Germany. My limited budget had permitted the purchase of only 12 rolls of mostly black & white film, which I was saving to use in Moscow. Later that day, however, when we arrived at the Alexanderplatz Banhof in East Berlin and were greeted by hundreds of cheering, flower-waving members of the FDJ (Free German Youth) I could no longer resist, and began taking photos.
Amidst our East German welcomers and onlookers, most of whom appeared pleased at the sight of travelers from the West, I also observed less than enthusiastic expressions on the faces of some of the older railroad workers. And, in contrast with the loudspeakers calling for “Frieden und Freundschaft” (Peace & Friendship), on the other side of our train, away from the cheering FDJ greeters, were unsmiling soldiers armed with automatic weapons.
Despite the festive atmosphere I couldn’t help thinking that, only a few short years earlier, some of these same German railroad workers and guards had participated in sending trainloads of thousands of German Jews, men, women and children, to their deaths in the Nazi gas chambers.
Crossing into Poland, where millions had been killed during the war, the landscape became increasingly barren – with even more ruins and dilapidated buildings than in East Germany.
Unlike the spartan yet adequately clothed East Germans, the appearance of the people in the Polish towns we passed through was rather threadbare. The presence of armed police was greater than it had been in East Germany, and the increased ratio of frowning to smiling faces amidst the onlookers made it evident many Poles were less than enthusiastic about what they probably assumed were pro-Communist foreigners traveling through their country en route to Moscow.
Given small boxes of food and sweets by cheering official greeters whenever our train stopped, as our train left each station many of the Americans and other Delegates threw their gift packages out of the windows to the shabbily dressed but appreciative Polish children and adults lining the tracks.
Finally, on the morning of the fourth day, our train arrived at the Polish-USSR border where, to the strains of “Freedoms Song,” the official theme of the Youth Festival, blaring on loudspeakers, we were greeted by a horde of Russian customs and immigration officials.
Once past the frontier our first stop inside the USSR was Baranavitch, where we were warmly welcomed. In contrast to the mixed reception in Poland, the Russians at the Baranavitch Station appeared universally friendly.
It was the only place in the USSR that I was to see a statue of Stalin still standing. The “Father of All Russians” had been dead only four years, but his once ubiquitous image had already almost completely vanished.
My parents having told me that Turetz, their home shtetl was nearby, I tried to find someone who might know something about it. “Vu ist Turetz?” (Where is Turetz?) I tried using my meager command of Yiddish-German on several people until one answered: “Turetz dreisick kilometer avek.” (Turetz thirty kilometers away) “Alles kaput von Nazis.” (It was completely destroyed by the Nazis)
Although my father’s parents and all five of his brothers and sisters had emigrated to the USA before the First World War, my mother’s parents and most of her eight brothers and sisters, their children, and grandchildren had remained in Russia. Having received no news from them since the German invasion in June 1941, we assumed they must have all been murdered by the Nazis.
Leaving Baranavitch, our train headed towards Moscow. Upon arriving there the next day, along with the Delegates from various other nations, the 180 Americans in attendance were housed in dormitories adjacent to the Agricultural Exhibition on the outskirts of the Russian capital.
That afternoon most of the Americans participated in a meeting called by Jake Rosen and Bob Williams, 19 year old City College of New York students. They announced that the Russians had provided several trucks for us to ride in to the Lenin Stadium tomorrow for the Opening Day Ceremony. Also, banners with slogans in both English and Russian declaring “USA Delegation Salutes VI World Festival” had been prepared for us to carry into the stadium.
Although this seemed acceptable to most, there was a small group of a dozen or so self-declared “conservative” Americans who took exception to the wording of the banners. Distinguished by both their political attitudes and their dress, with the males wearing jackets and ties despite the Moscow summer heat, they declared that they refused to be identified as anyone’s “Delegates,” and were there only to represent their point of view, not to support the Festival itself.
I personally failed to perceive what difference the wording on the banners signified? By coming to Moscow during the Festival the “conservative” faction was obviously taking part in it. Their objections, however, led to over an hour of increasingly acrimonious argument.
Finally, although my initial inclination was to avoid participating in the debate, I proposed a simple solution, making a motion to change the wording of the banners from “USA Delegation Salutes VI World Festival” to “USA Participants Salute World Youth.”
My motion to change the wording was unanimously accepted.
The next morning, however, less than an hour before we were to board the trucks which were to take us to the Opening Day Ceremony in Lenin Stadium, Jake Rosen informed me that, the Russians not having been able to find sign painters to change the wording on such short notice, we wouldn’t be carrying banners at all.
Since I felt that it was important for us to show the other participants, plus the people of Moscow, that Americans were also taking part in a world event dedicated to promoting world peace, rather than miss the opportunity to make our presence known, I had to figure out how to change the wording on the banner myself.
“Appropriating” a bed sheet from our dormitory, I borrowed a delegates manicuring scissors to cut out a patch on which, using liquid shoe polish, I wrote “Participants,” pinned it over “Delegation,” and then covered the word “Festival” with “World.” Not knowing how to reword the Russian banner, I simply cut away all of it except for the cyrillic letters “CWA” (USA).
Of course when the sun shown through the banner, “Delegation” and “Festival” were quite visible underneath “Participants” and “World,” but at least our identification as Americans was evident.
During the next several hours I was to have the most dramatic and moving experience of my life.
Gathering outside our dormitory at the Agricultural Exhibition grounds on the outskirts of the city, displaying our still-damp “USA Participants” and “CWA” banners, we boarded a small fleet of open bed trucks for the drive through Moscow.
The “conservative” group, despite having voted to accept the rewording, made it a point of separating themselves from the rest of us and riding in of the trucks which carried no banner.
Our trucks joined the procession of vehicles. Each of the thousands of trucks, buses and motorcycles filled with Delegates was painted the same light blue and decorated with white letters declaring “PEACE” in English, Russian, French, German, Spanish and other languages.
As our several kilometer-long armada entered the Moscow suburbs we began to pass Russian civilians and off-duty soldiers, some waving and shouting “Mir e Druzhba,” (Peace & Friendship) . Occasionally one of the spectators would dart out into the street and run alongside our slow moving trucks waving a piece of paper and shout “Auftograf – Amerikansky Auftograf.”
As we approached the center of the city the spectators grew in numbers, filling the sidewalks on both sides of the parade route. The small wooden pre-Soviet Era buildings of the suburbs soon were replaced by more modern multi-story brick and concrete structures. Most of the buildings were decorated with large “Peace & Friendship” banners and many of the windows of individual apartments and offices displayed paper cut-outs of white peace doves. Soon the spectators numbered in the thousands – with the chant “MIr e Druzhba” growing louder as it echoed through the urban canyons.
I’d expected some sort of officially encouraged greeting to be expressed towards us, but the enthusiasm of the crowds, especially as directed towards Americans, seemed far more than government sanctioned tokenism. These people impressed me as desperately calling out to us for peace.
“It’s logical,” I thought. “It’s been only twelve years since over twenty million Russians, approximately one out of every ten people in the country, was killed in the war. Eighty percent of their urban housing and industry had been destroyed. And here they were, face to face with not just foreigners but Americans, representatives of the World War Two ally against the Nazis which was now threatening to rain atomic destruction upon them. Yet we, or at least most of us, hadn’t come there as adversaries, but to join in calling for world peace and friendship. The sheer emotion of the situation was overwhelming.
As the crowds of cheering spectators grew larger, they began to spill out into the street, occasionally blocking our path. More and more people began running alongside the trucks asking for autographs. Some reached up to hand us souvenir pins of various sorts. Others handed us ice cream bars and boxes of candy. Every now and then, when the surging crowds forced a temporary halt, there were eve those who climbed up on the sides of the trucks to embrace the Americans and other delegates.
What I found particularly striking was that there were faces in the crowd which could have been taken directly from the Odessa Steps sequence of Sergei Eisenstein’s 1927 film “Potemkin” – the same wire-framed eye glasses, women in loose-fitting flowered summer dresses, bearded men in peasant blouses, and children dressed in sailor suits.
I began taking roll after roll of photographs – during the next few hours exposing all of the film which I’d initially thought would suffice for the entire two week visit.
As we neared the center of Moscow, civilians, men and women alike, linked arms with police and soldiers to try and restrain the onlookers as, pushed from behind by even more spectators, the surging crowds completely blocked the broad boulevards, bringing our trucks to a standstill.
It was evident that, although the authorities had officially encouraged the people of Moscow to give the World Youth Festival attendees a friendly reception, the intensity and scale of the public’s response was far greater than had been anticipated. Not only were our vehicles immobilized by the veritable sea of what was officially estimated as over four million people blocking the streets, from atop our truck I could see over the heads of the crowd that on the side streets there were even more spectators being held back by police barriers.
Finally, as if they’d received an order to proceed at all costs, the drivers revved up their engines and, risking injury to the onlookers, began to push ahead. With their engines roaring the trucks and other vehicles literally plowed through the crowds, forcing people to put their feet up against the bumpers and fenders to keep from being crushed. Although I didn’t see anyone run down, it seemed highly likely that, given the numbers of vehicles and size of the crowds, injuries were unavoidable.
As we neared our destination at Lenin Stadium, I looked over at the truck carrying the US “conservatives.” Several of the men had apparently become so caught up in the crowd’s enthusiasm that they’d taken off their jackets and were leaning over the sides of their truck to shake hands with “Mir e Druzhba” shouting Russians. I couldn’t resist photographing one their most outspokenly “anti-Communist” members, Shelby Tucker of Pass Christian, Mississippi, who was standing up and waving a large US flag provided by our Russian hosts.
We finally arrived at the Stadium, where over 100,000 Russians, headed by Khrushchev and other leaders, awaited us.
Many things have changed since 1957: the people of the USSR voted to end Communist rule; the Cold War ended; the possibility of a nuclear confrontation between major powers lessened. Yet the events of that day have influenced my life ever since.
As a NATO soldier I’d had to handle the plans for actions which, if they ever took place, meant the end of life on Earth. Face to face with those millions of people, men, women and children in Moscow, convinced me that, even if World War Three was inevitable, I had no choice but to do whatever I could to try and prevent it. A few weeks later the opportunity for me as an individual to contribute, in even a small way, to world peace, was to become possible.
To be continued…