Rip Van Winkle has nothing on Jan Grzebski, a Polish railway worker who just emerged from a coma that began 19 years ago--just prior to the collapse of communism in his country. His take on how the world around him has changed beyond recognition comes at an appropriate time. It was 20 years ago tomorrow that Ronald Reagan electrified millions behind the Iron Curtain by standing in front of the Berlin Wall demanding: "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!"
Mr. Grzebski is, of course, thrilled to see the wife who cared for him and the 11 grandchildren he didn't even know he had. But he is also shocked at how his homeland has changed. "When I went into a coma, there was only tea and vinegar in the shops, meat was rationed, and huge gas lines were everywhere," he told Polish TV. "Now I see people on the streets with cell phones and there are so many goods in the shops it makes my head spin. What amazes me is all these people who walk around with their mobile phones and never stop moaning. I've got nothing to complain about."
His real-life story could have been taken from the plot of "Goodbye Lenin!," a popular 2003 German film in which a teenager desperately tries to hide the fall of communism in East Germany from his mother, a party loyalist, to prevent her from dying of shock as she recovers from a coma.
While the Cold War may be a topic of cinematic bemusement, it also remains serious business for those who will gather for two events this week on opposite ends of the country. Tomorrow the Young America's Foundation will hold a conference on the Berlin Wall's collapse at the Reagan Ranch in California with Peter Robinson, a Reagan speechwriter. On the same day in Washington the official Victims of Communism Memorial (www.victimsofcommunism.org) is to be dedicated.
The memorial is a 10-foot bronze replica of the "Goddess of Liberty" statue, which Chinese dissidents erected in Tiananmen Square before tanks crushed both it and their movement in 1989. The statue's inscriptions will both mourn the "more than 100 million victims of Communism" and call for the freedom of "all captive nations and peoples." Marking the bipartisan nature of the U.S. effort during the Cold War, the site on Capitol Hill was donated through a bill signed by President Clinton, and the keynote address will be made by Democrat Tom Lantos, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee and a native of Hungary who escaped the Holocaust thanks to Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg.
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