Not all great gifts come wrapped on Christmas morning. After our November river cruise on the Danube through the former Iron Curtain, it was more than scenery, castles, and cathedrals that stood out. Spending time with citizens who had experienced the cost of occupation by both the Nazis and the Soviet Communists, you experience the gift of freedom. When freedom is fresh, freedom is treasured.
Zdenek Vacek was born in Prague and has lived there all his 65 years. As a teacher, Zdenek had seen "history happening." He was always either at the right or the wrong place at the right time to see the struggle for freedom up close and personal.
Though his father had fought in WW I for the Austro-Hungarian Empire, he longed for an independent, democratic Czechoslovakia. But when the Soviets took control in 1948, his father’s dream became a nightmare. He reluctantly joined the party, but when the party secretary warned him, “You MUST BELIEVE the Party!“ His dad had yelled back, “I´m an atheist; I use my brains!“
When Zdenek was six, the door to their home was smashed open by three Communist policemen. His father was handcuffed and taken away. After 25 years as a successful businessman, his workshop was nationalized, becoming "the property of the working class.”
The Communist schools stressed propaganda and shared nothing of his country’s history. Zdenek hopes he never has to tell his grandchildren what his dad would repeatedly say, “That is what you HAVE TO say at school, but THIS IS THE TRUTH".
With the student revolts of the late 60’s, a memorable Spring came to Prague in 1968. Because of communist mismanagement, the economy was in crisis. The shop shelves were empty, and the power outages were frequent. The students left the dorms of Prague Technical University and marched to the Castle where the President and Central Committee were meeting. Panicked by the numbers, the police attacked. Hundreds were wounded; one died. Even many communists were displeased enough to demand change.
Just four weeks later, he was doing his homework when his dad turned up the radio. The Prague Spring of 1968 had begun; the censorship had ended. His father said in disbelief, “They are telling the TRUTH!” But things moved too quickly. The Kremlin leaders reacted sending thousands of Soviet troops and tanks to restore order and stop reforms.
On August 21, 1968, his mom was crying as the radio blared, "Citizens, keep calm! Czechoslovak Radio´s still on air….” Wanting to see for himself, Zdenek jumped out of his bedroom window. Soon, he was lying on the sidewalk next to the National Museum, Soviet bullets ricocheting from its facade and flying all around. The communists were again in control.
It was on a hiking trip to the Bohemian Forrest Mountains near the German border that the loss of freedom became a reality. He and his friends camped near what looked like a normal Czech garden fence. They hadn’t realized that it was the first of the three parallel fences, the only one without electricity—“our real Iron Curtain.” They ignored the border guards’ warning to leave the area, only to have five other guards with rifles convince them to do what they were told. They complied.
Zdenek finished university, got married, had two kids, and started his life as a teacher. Like his father, he told his kids—"This is what we say in school, but we will learn the truth at home.” But in the Fall of 1989, the Berlin Wall fell, and students began waving the national flag in demonstrations. There were beatings and attacks, but the numbers soon were overwhelming.
His students handed him a tri-color ribbon, the symbol of the anti-communist protest. He hesitated for three seconds before realizing that he had kept his mouth shut for too long. He put the ribbon on his jacket and joined the students on strike. Students chanted to reluctant citizens, “Stop being afraid, stop being afraid!” Slowly the sidewalks emptied as 250,000 filled the square.
A new government was formed and on December 4th, the “leading role of the communist party in society“ was deleted from their Constitution. The barbed wire started to be taken away from the borders. On December 29th, Václav Havel, the shy playwright and leading dissident, was elected President and made the shortest inauguration address in our history: “I promise to the people of this country to lead them to a free democratic elections by the end of June.“
Known as the Velvet Revolution, nobody died and not even a single shop window was broken. Just two weeks after the first free elections in 43 years, Zdenek made a pilgrimage to the place where the border guards had aimed their rifles at them in 1971. He observed, “There was no fence any more. It took me 10 minutes to find a small piece of barbered wire I still keep on the shelf above my desk… I had my beer in the nearest Bavarian pub just like my dad used to do in the 20’s. I was finally free.”
When freedom is fresh, freedom is celebrated and treasured. It’s no wonder that the Czech Republic was the first country to join in President Trump’s acceptance of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. Freedom matters. May we never take this precious gift for granted.