“For to be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.” -Nelson Mandela
An American flag flies high above the US Embassy in Prague, from an iconic white building high on Petrin Hill, where it billows in the breezes along the Vltava River. The Czech flag and EU flags fly elsewhere, especially at the Castle and throughout the historic and governmental sites, but none sticks out so prominently from so far a distance as that lone American flag.
Once, after obtaining approvals and while wearing loads of badges, accompanied, of course, by a US Embassy friend, I had the privilege of climbing to the white structure with the American flag. The site is called the Glorietta. (In the photo, the Glorietta is at the tip of the white arrow.) And though I didn’t have my camera (security reasons), I will never forget the view. It was what freedom looks like.
When I moved to Prague, I became friends with people who were often parents of my sons’ friends at school, people from far-reaching places around the world like: India, China, Russia, Malaysia, South Africa, Egypt, Israel, Iran, Ukraine. Some stories I heard in the years with them were funny, others heartbreaking, and some so different from the way we live in the US that it was hard to believe they could be true. But they were.
One close friend, a native of Czech Republic, shared the truth about her family during the Nazi occupation, and then during Soviet communism. Hers are the stories that have changed my worldview completely, and redefined what freedom means to me now.
Her grandmother and grandfather, a teacher, were newly married in the early 1940s and were expecting their first child (my friend’s father). But one day, as her grandfather taught in the town school, Nazi soldiers came and took him away. Why? They didn’t take him because he was Jewish (he wasn’t), but for being an artist, a free-thinker, a writer, and respected community leader. He was sent to die at the concentration camps. He didn’t even get to say goodbye.
Later, the Czechs were ruled by the Soviet iron fist. My friend remembers walking to school beside the soldiers as they marched in time, their weapons propped up on their shoulders. Soviet tanks rumbled through the countryside and ruled the people with fear. Anyone who was caught doing anything subversive or against the state was sent to the Uranium mine work camps in the north of Czech. My 4th grade son had a field trip there.
If a person was smiling or laughing, the officials believed they were up to something. A smile or laugh brought them under suspicion during communism. They could be sent to work camps because of a smile, a laugh, a flirtation. It appalls me, and yet it is true. The effects are still evident today (a smile is rare in Czech).
The most important thing we can do, each day, is not forget. Freedom is worth fighting for.
Freedom is the only way we can be our very best, individually and together. May we live in a way, every day, that respects and enhances others’ freedom.
Let freedom ring.