The Face of Democracy

It wasn’t an accident that our recent trip to Europe included countries of the former Warsaw Pact.  I have long had an interest in Eastern Europe.  The Summer after the eighth grade, I had the opportunity to travel behind the Iron Curtain with my grandparents.  Unfortunately, the trip was for the entire Summer and I declined the opportunity.   I have regretted that decision ever since.
My grandparents owned an Airstream trailer and Airstream owners were famous at the time for taking “caravans” to unusual places.  Going to Eastern Europe and Russia at that time was an unbelievable adventure.  Border guards rolled mirrors under their trailer and truck to make sure that no native had lashed themselves to the undercarriage trying to escape.
The caravan was surrounded by soldiers day and night, even as they explored some of the splendor of the area.  Each country had their own currency, but western travelers were forbidden to take the currency out of the country.  Not to be deterred, my grandfather unbolted the oven door in their trailer, split the insulation, and carefully inserted each coin and bill of every country they visited.  
His great-granddaughter, Elizabeth to local residents that know her, later showed interest in the coins and he left them to her upon his death.  Some might have called his actions reckless or stupid.  Elizabeth and I both recognized them as his own rebellion against communism and their overwhelming restrictions.
As we had hoped, we experienced many extraordinary things on our trip. Two of the most special experiences were hearing music that has inspired the human spirit since before the birth of America, and seeing examples of lavish lifestyles in palaces built while Americans were still living in log cabins.
After being home a week, I find myself thinking mostly about the human spirit of those we met.  These are people that endured the Nazis occupation before the Soviet domination and Communism.  I found myself fascinated when the local people would talk about those times they had lived through.  
Some endured unspeakable atrocities as Hitler sought to extinguish the European Jewish community.   Later, under Stalin, hundreds of thousands of other citizens were sent to Russian labor camps.  Nothing in American history compares to this expended period of targeted death and horrifying terror.
For many in Eastern Europe, freedom came just 25 years ago.  It is hard for me to fathom at how recent this history is.  My children were already doing plays at Miss Karen’s kindergarten while these people were suffering with total oppression and domination.
The local tour guides often gave hints as to what their lives had been like just a few years earlier.  One native of Slovakia told the story of her aunt, who was a school teacher.  Her daughter got married in the church, which was a negative mark in the Communist Party.  The guide’s aunt stood at the doorway of the church and listened to her own daughter take her vows, knowing if she went inside that she would lose her job.  Can you imagine?
It is sad to look at the way Americans are considering a new President in the upcoming elections.  Many voters have only one issue they are really passionate about and if a candidate believes the same way, they have found who they are going to vote for.  It is as simple as that.
  Democracy is no joke to people who have suffered as much as the Eastern Europeans.  Perhaps we should look in the mirror and examine who were are and what we hope our future to be.  Hopefully we will catch a glimpse of the long suffering face of democracy.  Perhaps then we will act in a way that ensures the survival of not just one or two, but all of the freedoms we have taken for granted for so long.  
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Dan Ponder can be reached at [email protected]

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