Wednesday, November 20, 2013
Peter Sis, a Czechoslovak immigrant to America in the 1980s, wrote about what it was like to be born at the start of the Communist regime and grow up in a totalitarian system.
When I lived in Prague, I had listened with extraordinary intent to Czech friends who had gone through this history. I loved hearing their experiences, their wisdom from what they had been through, and learning from them how people and families cope with a dystopian reality.
Peter Sis has compressed his own history and his nations' history into this graphical history that can be read in less than an hour. He bore witness! He warned! It's as if he is handing the reader at home the conversations we expats got to have in Prague with our Czech friends about what it was like.
I can't recommend the book enough. It would make a wonderful book to read together as a family for an intergenerational discussion about freedom.
This book has been widely acclaimed both as a Caldecott Honor book for distinguished illustration (the author's wonderful drawings help tell the story), and as the winner of the Siebert award for the most distinguished informational title in America, for children, in the year it was published.
Here is a short interview with the author.
From "The Wall: Growing Up Behind the Iron Curtain"
“When my American family goes to visit my Czech family in the colorful city of Prague, it is hard to convince them it was ever a dark place full of fear, suspicion, and lies. I find it difficult to explain my childhood; it’s hard to put it into words, and since I have always drawn everything, I have tried to draw my life— before America—for them.” —Peter Sis
You may be interested in these other reads:
The Restoration of Order: The Normalization of Czechoslovakia" by Milan Simecka
How We Survived Communism and Even Laughed by Slavenka Drakulic
In Prague, You Can Enjoy Reading "Café Europa" at the Café Europa
WWII was worse for Central Europe than even our histories and memories tell us
Heda Kovaly, Czech Who Wrote of Totalitarianism, Is Dead at 91
Understanding Iran: The Power of One Graphic Novel named "Persepolis"
The 'Empty Nest Expat' blog is on Facebook! Follow my adventures there.
Saturday, July 16, 2011
In this post, I am sharing 7 of my old posts you might not have discovered yet, at the end I list five other bloggers I've nominated to do the same.
My Most Beautiful Post - This is from one spectacular afternoon overlooking the Vltava River in Prague with my friend Sher. If you know nothing about Prague, this will help you understand why people fall in love with it. A Springtime Stroll Around Letna Park
My Most Popular Post - I'm deeply committed to doing what I can as an individual consumer and citizen to prevent climate change. So I decided to sell my car and live without it. Then one day I realized I had survived just fine without it for quite awhile. Starting My Third Year Without A Car
My Most Controversial Post -Looking back, I can't say I write very controversial posts. This one might not be the kindest one I've ever written, and I did try to put the behavior I was describing into historical context. Little Corruptions
My Most Helpful Post - The American lifestyle has a cost structure that feels unsustainable to me. In this post, I try to help Americas imagine a lower cost structure. The Czech Republic is the same size as South Carolina. Imagine if you were able to travel around a state the size of South Carolina for $400 a year. How the Czech Government Delighted Me As A Consumer
The Post Whose Success Surprised Me The Most - Who knew a visit to a gift shop would generate such discussion? My post The Swedish Tourist Attraction That Did Not Attract Me ended up featured on the Displaced Nation Blog where ABC News Royal Correspondent Jane Green and I debated the idea of monarchy.
A Post I feel Didn't Get the Attention It Deserved - Is it my idea? Or my blog post? What do I need, pictures? I only received two commented on this post, and I still like my idea. Why not give the opposite of a Nobel Prize to countries that could use, well, an intervention?
Does the World Need the Opposite of a Nobel Peace Prize?
A Post I am Most Proud Of - In 2009, I was struck how my Czech friends felt their opinions were ignored on a proposed American missile system that was slated for installation in their country. I wrote a blog post asking President Obama to come to the Czech Republic and either sell them on it or announce it would end.
He came, gave an amazing speech, and won the Nobel Prize. And the anti-missile system moved away from the Czech Republic. What a win/win. All because of my blog post!
I hope you're smiling here. I don't actually believe President Obama came to Prague because of my blog post. But I was contacted by the BBC to provide commentary about his speech (didn't happen due to logistics) because their producers had been reading my blog.
I do feel I showed my Czech friends, feeling their way through their new democracy, that taking action makes you feel better rather than being paralyzed. They marveled that I felt I could effect positive change. They didn't (which is exactly what politicians want you to think cause then you'll leave everything to them).
Dear President Obama, Please Come to the Czech Republic
I live for comments so tell me what you think!
Here are the links to five blogs I've nominated to join the project:
Adventures in the Czech Republic
Black Girl in Prague
Senior Dogs Abroad
Monday, June 15, 2009
There are at least two possible outcomes for the current crisis. If the Ahmadinejad's coup is successful, we will witness another post-1968 Prague spring, crushing the reform movement and including a military attempt at "normalizing" society. Mousavi will be forced to appear on television and play the role of an Iranian Dubcek, expressing regrets and calling on people to stop resisting the military regime.
If this coup fails, on the other hand, Tehran may experience the Prague spring of 1989, and the country will be wide open to the possibility of substantial reforms and liberalization, well beyond what was seen in the Khatami era. In either case, the Islamic Republic we have known for the last three decades is gone. That strange, fragile and contradictory 1979 newborn, a hybrid of clerical theocracy and Western-style republic, has long been dead. Some have argued it was a stillbirth. Others have insisted on its potential. Either way we evaluate the regime, it's clear today that only brutal military force can sustain the theocratic element.If you don't know what normalization is, there's a chilling book that describes the entire dehumanizing process. Normalization is so draconian that it seems it just makes the eventual political explosion that much bigger because no human being can live that way for long. The book is called "The Restoration of Order: The Normalization of Czechoslovakia" by Milan Simecka. You can read my review of it here.
So my dear Czech readers, do you have advice for the Iranian people how to make 1989 happen rather than 1968? And not to be pessimistic (or as Czechs would say: realistic) what advice do you have for them on surviving normalization, if 1968 happens?
Saturday, March 21, 2009
it instantly creates daydreaming.
I'm surprised Hollywood
hasn't discovered this building.
These stairs demand gala ball gowns!
with the same nationalistic fervor
as American pride -
but here we find an exception.
And why not, it's the National Museum!
She had been here once before.
Her then fiance, now husband, Jirick,
had brought her here a classical concert.
Listeners are given red velvet cushions to sit
on the stairs to enjoy a chamber music quartet
set up on the mezzanine.
The very day we were there,
the Museum would be showcasing a
performance of Vivaldi's "Four Seasons"
later in the evening.
are featured in beautiful murals.
The most famous of these castles is
on pre-Czech tribal peoples.
I'm glad we had English-language audioguides,
otherwise I wouldn't have known what I was looking at.
It was interesting to know that multitudes of people
have been moving through these lands for centuries.
at the Museum are all science
(without entertainment added
like more up-to-date museums).
They were created when science was
supposed to be enough!
for Czechs is called the Pantheon.
What a room of indescribable beauty!
Again, it demanded top hats and tails,
ball gowns and baubles.
I don't think it's used that way though.
It's where Czech heros and heads of state
lie in state.
Out the balcony
was Wenceslas Square -
where Czechs assembled
when they were overthrowing their government.
We giggled as we imagined ourselves flinging open
the windows and 'addressing the Czechs.'
Unfortunately, no words of wisdom
that would live on videotape
for generations came to mind.
I'm sure my new President will do better
when he comes to speak next month!
Look at the detail on these hand-carved doors.
Note that the bottom door says 1885.
It's partner door had a date a couple years later.
Can you believe it?
We spent six hours here that day.
We saw two temporary exhibits as well.
One was on the First Republic,
a short twenty-year period of democracy
that occurred here in the early 20th century.
The second exhibit was photos
of the Warsaw Pact Invasion and
Occupation during the Prague Spring.
Friday, March 20, 2009
How was the totalitarian country able to reinstitute a Stalinist-style state without violence after the Prague Spring in 1968? How did the government eliminate dissent in less than two years? In chilling detail, Simecka shows how the State used it's power over people's income, jobs, friendships, even their children's future to control each citizen's every move.
Approximately 10-20% of the Czech population still votes for the Communist Party. My Czech friends tell me that the people still voting for the Communist party look back with nostalgia at getting a job from the state, getting a flat from the state, and cheap bread. With everything "provided" life had "no worries."
Today's young people, especially, may not know the horrors of that time, because the Czechs are so sick of that period there hasn't yet been a national curriculum developed to teach young people what happened. Czechs want to let it go and move on (hence, they think we Americans are obsessed with it all!)
I recommend this book for every reader of any country who wants to understand the communist totalitarian period. It would be a great book for any Czech/Slovak or political book club. I also think it would be especially useful for every Czech and Slovak high school student to understand the choices their parents and grandparents had to make to survive.
Like "The Diary of Ann Frank," which most American kids read sometime during their education, this book makes the choices presented by the times very personal and imaginable.
You may be interested in another book about governmental abuse of power:
Understanding Iran: The Power of One Graphic Novel called 'Persepolis'
Monday, March 16, 2009
You know how there are some things you only do when you're out of town and aren't so harried? I realized there was a perfectly exciting film festival near my home in America and I never got around to going. By all reports, the fledging Beloit International Film Festival in Beloit, Wisconsin was fantastic. It was only 17 miles from my house. Here I am, out-of-town, so to speak, and I finally got off my butt and went to see some movies!
This is the 11th year of this film festival devoted to human rights. There are 120 documentaries from over 40 countries. In 2009, the festival has a wonderful subtheme celebrating 20 years of Eastern and Central European democracy in film. Indeed, the festival trailer (which you can link through by clicking on the title of my post) shows former Czech President Vaclav Havel helping in the maternity ward as a new generation of Czechs, born in freedom, arrive in the world. The Velvet Generation comes of age. What will they do with their freedom?
And as I looked around at each venue, it was the young people who had shown up for the films. The first movie I attended, directed by a Canadian, was called "Letters to a President." It showcased the cheap populism of Iranian President Ahmadinejad. People in Iran write him over 10 million letters a year asking him to solve their problems. Every letter is answered, which on the face of it, sounds like responsive government. It came across though as him setting himself up as a Messiah-like figure and the people, many of whom are lacking a decent education, being grateful for any little crumb. Not educating the populace is quite often in the interests of world leaders.
I also went to see "The Death of Stalinism in Bohemia" and "Paper Heads." "Paper Heads" is an especially useful movie for expatriates and young people to see because it shares what life was like under communism in the Czech Republic. Watching the movie, you can see how if you were a Czech back then, when the West had sold you out at Munich, and the Soviets were the ones that liberated you from the Nazis if you lived in Prague, communism just didn't seem like the threat we saw it as in the West. The Soviets probably saved your life.
Once communism was in place though, it was completely inhuman to those who objected. It's hard to look back and think of all the angry, nasty history that occurred here. It just doesn't square with the beauty I see around me every single day.
The festival continues until March 19th.
Tuesday, January 27, 2009
It seems odd to ask thousands of foreigners such as my classmates and myself to help warm the planet by requiring a drive out-of-country four hours each way all in the name of filling out three forms. But I, for one, am willing to put up with quirky governmental requirements if it allows me to work in the Czech Republic, plus go on a delightful trip to Berlin with my compadres.
Actually, being in Berlin was a bit sobering. We had three hours of "liberty" while our paperwork was processed. The Czech Embassy is in old East Berlin. We set out on foot to see the sights from there.
In three hours, we saw three commemorations of shameful acts of the German government. If someone comes to my country's capital and has three hours there, please dear God, I pray that it will always be inspirational.
First, we saw the Brandenburg Gate. That's the inspirational part of what we saw. If it looks familiar, it's because it's probably one of the most recognizable symbols of Europe. President Kennedy, Reagan, and Clinton have all spoken at this site. Reagan's words were probably the most powerful:
"General Secretary Gorbachev, if you seek peace, if you seek prosperity for the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, if you seek liberalization: Come here to this gate! Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate! Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!"I couldn't imagine a more solemn theme but the design of the memorial at first brought out the playfulness in everyone. I know that's not the reaction the architect was seeking - but all of those blocks of stone cried out for tag or hide-and-seek.
We walked over to the Tiergarden and realized where we were standing was exactly where the wall had been. It was so obviously insane that this large united city was divided there for decades. I found it unfathomable. Yet when the wall was up, I found the idea of it ever coming down unimaginable.
We noticed a giant new memorial and wandered over. None of us knew anything about it so we started to explore. It's called The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. It went up in 2005. We learned later that there was a museum underground to explain it. We missed the museum because we came from the Brandenburg Gate (like I assume the majority of tourists would) and the entrance was in the opposite corner.
But as we spent time among the stones, the feeling of being buried underground, beneath layers and layers of ash was overwhelming and oppressive. The memorial made it's point.
It's not everyday you see the word homosexual
in a street sign.
We assumed this was
pointing to a memorial for
The Murdered Homosexuals of Europe.
I felt my usefulness
since none of these young people
would have known what the giant banners
with the word "Stasi" all over them
referred to: The German Secret Police!
It was a museum in the actual headquarters
of the Stasi describing how the
East German Government
continually spied on it's own citizens.
Before coming to the Czech Republic,
I did not realize it wasn't just the Soviets
who invaded during the Prague Spring.
It was all of Czecho's neighbors, like the GDR, too.
Saturday, January 17, 2009
According to Radio Praha:
Prague's Kinsky Square was for many decades called The Square of Soviet Tank Crews. It was because a huge Soviet tank, a memorial to the liberation of Czechoslovakia in 1945, used to stand there on a 5-metre pedestal, its barrel menacingly pointing at a tram stop. Until one morning, in the spring of 1991, locals woke up and could not believe their eyes. The tank had turned pink overnight.
I often pass the pink tank spot from the tram and, of course, enjoy it's symbolism. The authorities hauled away the original pink tank to be politically correct but a new one has replaced it.
He also decorated a Soviet-era TV Tower with little black babies that climb up the tower.
And then, of course, there is perhaps his most famous work after the pink tank. His pissing sculpture which shows two men pissing on a map of the Czech Republic. Now anyone who could create that is surely not a man who takes himself or his country too seriously. Lighten up, he seems to be saying.
I officially declare it David Cerny Appreciation Week at Empty Nest Expat Blog because I have had so much fun with my English Language students discussing news articles about this sculpture. Cerny said it was created to see if "Europe could laugh at itself." I loved asking my classes if Czech people should be proud their famous humor was on display. What do you think, gentle blog readers? Or should Czechs be embarrassed a few countries aren't displaying any humor in return about their own depiction?
Radio Netherlands Worldwide explains:
The map of France is emblazoned with the word greve, which is French for strike. Sweden is represented as a piece of flatpack furniture, Britain does not appear at all and Bulgaria is the floor of a toilet [actually, it's the floor of a Turkish toilet which consists of two shoe marks and a hole in the ground. One of my students felt that was a comment on whether Bulgaria really fit in with the rest of 'civilized Europe' since they haven't yet availed themselves of Western plumbing]. Romania is a Dracula theme park and Poland, one of the most conservative countries in the EU, has priests waving a rainbow flag, a symbol used by gay and lesbian activists. Denmark has been made entirely from Legos and the Netherlands is represented as a sea with minarets rising from the waves.
Cerny explains his depiction of the Czech Republic:
"Let the head of state have his say! A constant stream of brilliant Václav Klaus quotes. Words of wisdom that deserve to be etched in stone. The President’s sublime, pertinent comments about the whole world, and especially the EU, whizzing across a three-line alphanumeric LED display. He is OUR president, we elected him, so let’s show him off to the world with joy in our hearts. He’s not just a skier, he’s a great guy!"
Thank you David Cerny for accomplishing exactly what you set out to do. Europe is laughing. Maybe it's howling too, but for the most part, it's laughing.
Sunday, August 24, 2008
A good illustration of our conflicting attitudes toward the communist past was a recent discussion in the Czech Parliament of a the new state-run Institute for the Study of Totalitarian Regimes, which is to hold and study the communist archives. In giving the institute such a complicated name, lawmakers had to define “totalitarianism.” In the end, they decided that totalitarianism in the Czech Republic includes the entire period from the communist takeover in 1948 to the Velvet Revolution in 1989.Oppression has always produced great art, hasn't it? Solzhenitsyn comes to mind. Lack of oppression, if it doesn't produce equally great art, has the consoling attribute of producing great wealth.
But including 1968 in the totalitarian period makes it difficult to explain how it’s possible that the Prague Spring produced works of literature, film and drama more significant than anything the country has produced since the fall of communism.
Link to the article via the title.