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Cold River
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ISBN-10: 1-89484-106-9
Genre: Non-Fiction/Dark Fantasy
eBook Length: 405 Pages
Published: July 2002

From inside the flap

[NEW re-edited, new material August 2003]

Cold River: a survivor's story is about man's desire for freedom during a time when none existed. Jozef describes the village in which he grew up with such emotion and sadness that the reader can hear the snow crunching beneath his expectant mother's feet as she makes her way through the snow drifts.

This story is fact, not fiction, when you are finished you will know what it is like to taste freedom for the first time. And perhaps feel pain of its cost.

Reviews and Awards

Jozef Imrich's escape is breathtaking and mind-boggling. It is hard to imagine this, and, yet, with the gift of a talented guide, one is left well able to not only imagine it, but to feel it. He gives a very human face to Communism. As the book progresses, the common humanity the reader feels with the writer ceases to be unsettling and becomes enlightening.
-- I relish the opportunity to share this hearty review by Janet Schmidt, Women On Writing

Living through it
Unless one went through it, experienced it, and lived it, one can?t ever really know. But a man known as Jozef Imrich lived through it and he tells his story of growing up in communist Czechoslovakia. But ?Cold River? is so much more than just a story, a riveting story of trial and escape, and of rebirth. It is, in its essence, a moving and dramatic tale of one manís quest for freedom; not just in a physical sense, but an emotional one as well. This e-book literally sent chills up my spine. After you finish reading, you can't get certain images out of your head. Even as you are going along, reading it, there are parts where you can't believe you?re breathing. It might seem hard to believe, but there are no photos or maps in this book.

Cold River: A Survivor's Story
If there is one thing life teaches us, it is that little things mean everything. This is a true story of three young Czechoslovak men - Jozef, Ondrej and Milan - and their quest to be free of the system that oppresses them. To gain freedom, Jozef, Milan and Ondrej set into motion a plan to escape across the Iron Curtain to Austria With compassion and emotions, Jozef Imrich crafts an emotionally rich story of what it means to survive against all odds. This story is everybody's story, for the capacity and desire for freedom are engraved right into our genes. Bohemian youth mixed with a desire for freedom defies even the unbreakable barriers such as the Iron Curtain. A daring escape which almost left none to tell the story. Jozef Imrich said: ?This book is like having an old itch finally scratched.?

There's No Escape Like Iron Curtain Escape

Cold River (Excerpt)

Prologue: I Chose to Live in Freedom

I postponed writing the book many time. And I would?ve been happy not to start the book at all. But I feel that my time is coming to its end and so I have to write it.

-Alexander Solzhenitsyn

Outside of a dog, a book is a manís best friend.

-Groucho Marx (not Karl)

The spirits of my two drowned friends, Ondrej and Milan, are in this story, and so are the spirits of ten thousand others who died at the Iron Curtain and Berlin Wall crossings. For better or worse, this is all of their stories, not just mine, for the capacity and desire for freedom is inextricably part of all of us. What happened to me might have happened to any Czechoslovak boy who found himself in the right place at the wrong time. I fell in love with freedom, head over heels in love.

I was born in Vrbov in Czechoslovakia in 1958. I stayed in Vrbov until I was 22. In my earlier, more idealistic, painless days, I believed in dreams, mainly about Vienna, Munich, Reims, New York. All I ever wanted was to see the world. But my dreams were replaced by nightmares, and the nightmares were real. I have changed because of these nightmares, and I now have a need to create something real from a surreal exile, to make the connections between my dreams, my nightmares, and my awakening into a new life.

For years, I fooled myself into thinking I could swim away from my memories, never to take others to the edge of the Morava River and even one step further. For reasons that will become obvious, I find it difficult to write about July 7, 1980. It was a day when I was forced into wearing black as a sign of a series of mourning. However, I do not just have one tragic memory in my life. I have several. I have lost a sister, two best friends, a home and a country. Language fails me. Silence never fails us. But absolute silence is dangerous. I feel that I?ve unwittingly spilled some tragic secret, a private tale of an escape that had been rightly contained until life circumstances convinced me to tell my story to everyone.

On my fortieth birthday, I started to fill with such a keen need to write that I practically imploded. At times, the desire to write drowned out all other notions. Somehow, the only thing in life I knew absolutely was that I needed to write the stories that were hardest to tell. I wanted to write the story of my escape for my two daughters. Why now? Words and children make a potent mixture. With all the tragedy as well as blessings in my exiled life, I don?t have to look far for inspiration in my writing. The words that really ring in my heart came from my seven-year-old Sasha who, on our first visit to the Czech and Slovak Republics in 1997, asked me, "Why did you leave your mummy, Daddy?"

What I thought was the end of my story actually became the beginning. There was something immeasurably sad, a strange stirring, about those seven words. Sasha spoke to my veiled sense of homelessness. Who would have thought I would be suddenly at a loss to explain my exile or why her only living grandmother had never come to any of her birthday parties?

In writing this story I have a sense that my own truest destiny is as a father of my daughters. How on earth did I get to be a father, Tato, with two daughters? Fatherhood is born in retrospect. It is a reality that lets us determine the distance we have come. Before you know it, life is filled with adult responsibilities. Before you know you are out of the swelling river. Before you know it happens more than once that someone who used to know you writes how happy he is to hear that you survived. Before you know it you wish again and again that you could make your story not true.

It is amazing what time does. How quickly human beings adjust to new circumstances so that many people now take for granted the changes that followed the rupturing of the Berlin Wall in 1989. It is possible to imagine that what happened in your life twenty years ago is a dream, if the truth is too frightening, because the present is so different. But time did nothing to silence those voices from the past. Memory can strike in many forms. A snatch of conversation. An intriguing newspaper clipping. A subtropical storm. Memory has its own life. Memory can take us by surprise. Memory can transform itself into a theatre of unsettled voices. I remember clearly how it felt not to have any Australian words! Officials would often take me somewhere, and I would not know where I was going or who would be the next person to witness my struggle to find the right words. I remember the strain of trying to speak fluently in the presence of a potential employer one is struggling to impress.

It is no accident that people like me come to realize that words are like freedom, that they are necessities. They are as necessary as the hardest thing I ever needed to do - crossing to freedom through the Iron Curtain! These things happened. I haven?t the skill to portray what happened. I am simply scribbling about memories of my other life, even though a proportion of them may be trivial. The act of writing gave me courage, as this book is a triumph, however slight, over silence.

Was writing even harder than crossing? No, not at all. And yes, of course! Crossing forbidden boundaries is like writing. For me, there is no such thing as effortless writing. You can never know how it will go or if you?ll ever make it. Suffice it to say that the process of writing added to my knowledge of man - his hesitation, his kindness, his freshness, his friendship, his indifference, his distrust, and his destruction. Doubt, destruction and powerlessness play their part in my publishing this story along with dreams and hope.

If the gift of writing is the gift of escape, this book is about an ultimate escape, a secret escape. There are times in our lives when we are separated from the ordinary not only physically but also emotionally. In Chinese folk religion, the soul, after death, is ferried across a river into the Underworld to learn its fate. The river is named the What Now. I am crossing the What Now. I had no idea where my joyous and heartbreaking words were going to lead.

In this first year of the new millennium nightmares have happened to all of us. We are all victims and survivors. Now we all know a little bit about what it is like to feel helpless and powerless. We all go about our business these days just a little bit more cautiously then we used too. We look over our shoulders a little bit more. When a helicopter flies by now, do we not look to the sky just to make sure that it is one of ours and to kind of check what direction it is flying in? Some of us have been directly affected with the loss of a family member or close friend and the loss and shock of that, even weeks later, still has barely registered. We ask how and why us?

What are words worth in the face of tragedy? Who controls how history is told? Who gets to say what the pain was like for the ones who suffered? Shakespeare tells survivors to "speak what we feel, not what we ought to say". Images that to others seem simple or even banal become a raging and screaming truth when they flow from the keyboard of survivors and victims. The act of writing stories of survival threatens the storyteller with dual curses: that the stories will be overdone, that the tragedies will be understated.

Writing about life under communism is like experimentation in knitting about history or experimentation in painting about writing. That history, of course, is complicated one, with far too many twists and turns to explore in one story. Like all symbols, the little red book evokes more than one can explain. It condenses the ideas of death, drowning and powerless life into one symbolic object. Does anything still need to be said about the Iron Curtain? While freedom is like a flower which needs to be watered daily, I am not writing this story down because totalitarianism must never happen again. I have met people who do not believe that communism was so terrible that it was worth risking my life to get free of it. This story was written to show others that people who decide to make desperate escapes did not just drink too much absinth one evening.

Although it is said that we have plenty of freedom in the world now, I expect that more and more stories like mine will continue to be lost among the many similar newspaper headlines in the future. Histories are not pure. We are all potential brutes as well as victims. A former slave can degenerate into an insane despot. Children of boat people can become tyrants and drown the next load of boat people. I?m not shocked by the reality of evil, or by the willingness of people to hurt one another. I am shocked at the way we give the power to some individuals to hurt us without a fight.

Few people have been affected by the Iron Curtain as I have. There is a sense of unreality about the past that is still with me. Deep in my heart are mysteries that refuse to go away, that are rooted in even deeper levels of astonishment. Why did I survive? If I live to be a thousand I will never shake off the shame of being the only survivor. Why did I survive? I am absolutely ashamed of myself. Thereís no getting around this shame and these questions - my success was tied up with the fate of others. I will not pretend that I find the fact of my survival to be a simple one when millions haven?t survived. Every July I have the need to make sense of a survival due to inordinate luck. Each July I hear an ancient voice say, ?How can I possibly live without guilt??

I wonder if you can imagine having the spirit of a sole survivor. Imagine that ringing inside your heart is the heart of someone who never lived to come this far in a journey you began together. And inside that heart is another one, belonging to someone else you lost along the way. In this gentle present, I know this is a hard thing to imagine. Why should you get to know me, anyway? Survivors like me are not fiery writers, so I content myself with the role of the lukewarm storyteller. All I have is one small voice. This little voice would fit inside one Solzhenitsynís chapters that describe fear and pain beyond belief, and there would still be enough room for two more distilled voices. I am aware of my aging as I try to compose this story from a complex swirl of memories, both those that are vivid and those that are half-forgotten. It is never too late to tell the story, because the story itself will not age and it is not aging, but one day, my voice will be washed away.

Imagine; there are a thousand stories in the Velvet Country that are splattered with blood. This is just one of them. Perhaps it doesn?t matter to you what happened in this far away tiny country, so unrelated to your own life. But at least you can know the truth and tell others so these people will not have suffered in vain. I hope that after you finish my book you take comfort in the framework of a familiar room, but that somehow your room will not be the same. No writer can possibly hope for more.

If for an hour or two of your attention I can give you an experience that you could not have had otherwise - I have achieved my mission. My survival was worth it. My mission is not only to remember, July after July, but also to tell the story of the Iron Curtain far and wide - reminding those who know it, and proclaiming it afresh to those who have never heard of the Iron Wall.

To explore certain experiences and symbols of my ancestors from ?a far away place that we know little of,? I ask you to put your watch forward seven hours but step back seventy years in time. Start by leaving behind everything you know about your external reality: your name, where you live, what you look like - everything. Your name is only a name. It might easily have been Jozef, Milan or Ondrej. You are inside the walls of a heated swimming pool. And outside? Outside itís freezing. I swam it. So I am telling it.

Joseph Brodsky tells us that "There are places where history is inescapable, like a highway accident - places where geography provokes history." You can only gain an understanding of my mountain village if you visualize a colourless light of the Central European winter. Somewhere between Poland, Latvia, Russia, Austria and Hungary was our Black Creek covered in ice and snow. It was a place where no villager could resist small talk and gossip. They were mountain people trapped by a life they didn?t choose, and who had no control over the direction of their East Side Story.

In their love and memory...