Reclaiming the Freedom to Sing

Because it was a school night, my tenth birthday celebration necessarily remained a small affair, confined to our family’s dinner table.

It was October 23, 1956. As I blew out the candles on my cake, whatever sweet, mid-western wishes I made had little in common with the wishes of children a world away, children who, with their own parents, were marking a different sort of occasion —  an uprising that later would be known as the Hungarian Revolution.

On the 24th of October, or perhaps the 25th, I passed through the dining room on my way to breakfast and noticed the Des Moines Register lying where my cake had been. A photograph filled the space above the fold, and a bold caption: “REVOLUTION IN HUNGARY.”

At the time, there was no 24-hour news cycle. There was no CNN, no internet, no Facebook or Twitter. There was only a newspaper, motionless and mute, waiting while my father readied for work and my mother drank coffee in the kitchen.

I stood at the table, transfixed by the photograph. Eventually, my air of concentrated astonishment caught my dad’s attention. Stopping behind me, he asked, “What’s happening?”  I pointed to the photograph. He picked up the front page, scanned it, then brought it to the kitchen. He showed it to my mother, then handed it to me.  “Maybe you should take the newspaper to school,” he said. And so I did.

At the time, I thought nothing of my teacher’s willingness to set aside her lesson plans and talk with us about events in Europe. We made a special trip to the school library, where the librarian helped us  find the 1848 Hungarian National Poem.  Back in our classroom, we made a poster of the words, tacked it to the bulletin board, and read it in unison.

 Stand up, Hungarians, your country calls.
The time for now or never falls.
Are we to live as slaves or free?
Choose one. This is our destiny!
By the God of all the Magyars, we swear.
We swear never again the chains to bear.

Even children could be moved by the straightforwardness of the poetry, and by its breathless assertion that chains could fall.   More recently, turning over events of the time in a somewhat different context, I found myself pondering Karoly Nagy’s The Legacy of the 1956 Hungarian Revolution:

Liberty, democracy, human rights are like health. Servitude, oppression, discrimination are like sickness. Totalitarian tyranny is death. A revolution that overthrows tyranny and achieves liberty is a resurrection. During the last week of October and the first few days of November, 1956, most of us in Hungary felt as if we were risen from the dead…
It was euphoria.  We sang our long-forbidden national anthem, embraced each other on the streets, laughed and cried with joy.  We felt redeemed. We were intoxicated by hearing and saying words of truth.
We learned the truth and demonstrated it to the World, that what defines a country, what qualifies a society is not any ideology, but the presence or absence of freedom.

Thirty-three years after I stood transfixed before a photograph of Russian tanks moving into the streets of Budapest, quelling the popular uprising there with determined brutality, true revolution and an overthrow of communist government came to Czechoslovakia.

British historian and political writer Timothy Garton Ash, noting the series of revolutions cascading through Eastern Europe in 1989, adds a reminder that, “in Poland, the transition [from communism to democracy] lasted ten years, in Hungary ten months, and in Czechoslovakia ten days.”

Those ten event-filled days between November 17th and November 27th, known to Czechs as the “Velvet Revolution” and to Slovaks as the “Gentle Revolution”, were in fact a remarkable, non-violent resistance whose effects reverberated throughout the world.

Reflecting on those events in an article written for the New York Review of Books, Ash said,

In the autumn of 1989, the term “velvet revolution” was coined to describe a peaceful, theatrical, negotiated regime change in a small Central European state that no longer exists.
So far as I have been able to establish, the phrase was first used by Western journalists and subsequently taken up by Václav Havel and other Czech and Slovak opposition leaders. This seductive label was then applied retrospectively by writers, including myself, to the cumulatively epochal events that had unfolded in Poland, Hungary, and East Germany, as “the velvet revolutions of 1989.”

Ash’s description of events as “theatrical” seems apropos. There’s no suggestion that the popular uprising was in any sense “staged”, but there’s no question it was dramatic.  Marketa Hancova, Dean of Education at Platt College in San Diego, California, was present during those ten days of transformation and has published an intensely personal and extraordinarily detailed account of events.

…It is late at night and I cannot sleep. And who can? The telephone is ringing, the radio is on, people are stopping by, so my friend and I are going out at four in the morning to buy a newspaper. Prague is bubbling, steaming, the city is in a frenzy and people delirious with certainty of victory, by their strength and by the historical moment we all feel palpably burning under our skin. The air smells sweet, and you can drink and eat for free. Everyone is sharing, everyone is offering, everything is open twenty four hours a day.
Revolution does not know night or day. It is one big day that ends with achieving our goal. I am tasting the life in paradise.  If nothing else, these incredible moments have already made up for the years under the Communists’ despotism. The sense of giving and sharing offers me a rare opportunity to experience the uniqueness of human closeness.
Day three… The crowd is bigger. We are in the main square again, and the Communist vice-president is trying to deliver a speech. All of a sudden I hear a key chiming. Everybody  pulls out their keys and we are all chiming above our heads. The whole of Prague is chiming and the politician cannot finish his address. We  sing instead the Czech national songs…

To see and hear the “chiming” recorded on November 25, 1989 in Wenceslas Square as citizens rang their bell-like keys in a final, dismissive gesture to the communist regime, is to appreciate the significance of The Key Sculpture (Klícová socha) by Czech artist Jiří David.  Formally installed on March 9, 2010 in Prague’s Franz Kafka Square, its 85,741 metal keys pay tribute to the courage and intransigence of pro-democratic demonstrators, the vision of leaders like Václav Havel, and the unexpected power of a million jangling keys when Češi udělali revoluci – the Czechs made a revolution.

Even as Czech citizens were singing in the streets of Prague, The Estonian Singing Revolution did its own part to help secure democracy in Eastern Europe. Incorporated into the Soviet Union in 1940, Estonia was occupied by Germany until reannexation by the Soviet Union in 1944.

Despite the deportation of tens of thousands of Estonians to Siberia and Central Asia and the forced resettlement of Russians into the country, one aspect of Estonian culture held firm: their Festivals of Song. First held in 1869, the Festivals quickly became a revered tradition. The Tallinn Festival, held every five years, can draw as many as 25,000 singers.

In 1987, Estonian singing began to serve another purpose. Initially, smaller groups gathered at the Song Festival grounds to sing patriotic songs that had been banned by the Soviets. In the words of participant Artur Talvik,

“We sang all night and everybody went home early in the morning. It was emotionally so strong that the next day there were even more people. The day after, there were even more people. People took out their hidden flags. They had these flags hidden for 50 years and now they took these out and started to wave them.”

For reasons best known to themselves, the Soviets ignored the first song gatherings. In response, the people’s courage increased. In  June of 1988, 300,000 Estonians gathered at the Tallinn Song Festival Grounds to sing patriotic songs, including the banned Mu isamaa, mu onn ja room (“My Fatherland, My Happiness and Joy”). 

Ten thousand people singing may be a song festival, but 300,000 people singing and waving flags is a revolution. By September, political leaders were participating in demonstrations and insisting on the restoration of independence. 

In the midst of Estonian singing, alliances were forged and pressures on the Soviets increased. By August 23, 1989, the 50th anniversary of the secretive Molotov-Ribbentrop non-aggression pact between Hitler and Stalin, more than a million Latvians, Lithuanians, and Estonians were willing to travel “The Baltic Way“, a human chain stretching 360 miles from the foot of Toompea in Tallinn to the foot of the Gediminas Tower in Vilnius, Lithuania.

Their mutual goal, re-established independence of the Baltic States, was nurtured by an assortment of national movements – the Popular Front of Estonia (Rahvarinne), the Popular Front of Latvia and the Lithuanian Reform Movement, Sąjūdis.  Milda Mendeleviciute provides one reminiscence.

I was less than 8 then, so I can remember very little. As my Mom tells, we went to this small town close to Vilnius, hoping there would not be overcrowded, and we were right (only two cars there on that site when we came)… we had to struggle to reach each others hands. The pictures prove that many children participated in that peaceful demonstration.

Despite some differences in the struggles which took place in Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Estonia, and Latvia, they share certain truths, particularly that revolution never is purely about politics, and freedom never is abstract. Human dignity is rooted not in the lofty pronouncements of autocrats and dictators, but in the freedoms of daily life, the intimacy of personal relationships and the twin joys of creativity and responsibility.  

In another entry from her journal, Ms. Hancova speaks movingly of dignity and freedom.

There are many events I happily experience and one of the episodes sticks clearly in my mind. We are walking with my friends in the Wenceslas Square and we notice a big crowd in front of a record shop. We come closer and see a small cassette player sitting on a stool and playing a Christmas carol.
We are so happy to hear – for the first time in our life – the Christmas carol being played publicly. We are staying for the longest time and together with others listening, singing and enjoying a sliver of already gained freedom.

Her experience is worth pondering. Innundated as we are by carols from the day after Thanksgiving, by Christmas we hardly hear them. Cynical, irritated, or bored by what we consider an intrusion into our personal space, we forget that, in our lifetime, in Prague’s Wenceslas Square, a woman bearing a name and a history experienced publicly-played Christmas carols for the first time in her life, and rejoiced with friends and strangers alike in the freedom to listen and sing.

Today, wherever voices are threatened or silenced, whenever hearts grow weary or fearful, the same power that enlivened Czechoslovakia, surged through Estonia and made straight the Baltic Way seeks to revivify the human spirit. 

Wending through city streets, holding hands across the miles, filling our public squares with a sense of remarkable joy, it offers to us what others would deny- a swelling chorus of freedom and song.

Comments are welcome. To leave a comment, please click below.
This year’s Tallinn Festival is scheduled for July 4-6.

72 thoughts on “Reclaiming the Freedom to Sing

  1. As with all of your posts, I have many thoughts. The video of the Latvian event reminds me of the Hands Across (ringing keys, singing songs, holding hands, “solidarity” in a peaceful and meaningful sense of the word) reminds me of something I saw recently about a project to promote kindness by joining together on a specific day to dance for kindness. What a wonderful universal revolution that would be.

    1. Hippie Cahier,

      I have to say, the older I become the less taste I have for sentimental gestures. A day to dance for kindness? That would be great. I’m not opposed at all. But is it enough?

      What about concrete gestures of kindness every day of the year, based on the real needs of real people? That gets stickier, particularly since those who most need kindness quite often are those we least want to associate with.

      The truth is, standing in solidarity with any cause can be a tough business. Our self-absorbed culture, and the easy answers it promotes, may have less to offer us when the going gets tough than, for example, those people I’ve written about in this post.

      I think about these things a good bit these days. Thanks for stopping by and stimulating some new thoughts.


  2. Hi Linda:

    Being 67, I have been a witness of those revolutions you so beautifully narrate in your post. The revolutionary spirit still lives on. Tyranny is being fought, even as we speak, by young people in Syria, Venezuela, and Ukraine. Their outcome is still uncertain, since liberty sometimes acts like the ocean’s tide; it advances and then recedes. But people keep pushing on forward. At the end of the day, Liberty will eventually prevail.

    I hope to be alive to see a free Cuba without Castro in sight. Maybe someday we will read the following headline on the Des Moines Register: At last, Democracy Has Returned to Cuba. Viva Cuba Libre!

    Just my two cents on the subject,


    1. Omar,

      We’ve seen a good bit, haven’t we? I was thinking again today of experiences I had in Franco’s Spain, and in Liberia. You’ve had your own problems in Panama. Now, we have new issues – some systemic, some related to leaders with great ambition and little consideration for those who stand in their way.

      Your tide analogy is a good one. History has its rhythms, just like the natural world, or any creative endeavor. We don’t seem to be very accepting of rhythms any more, just as shorter attention spans, demands for immediate results, amd an insistence on the quick return on investment make life more difficult for us.

      People do keep moving forward, despite it all. I still carry with me a few of the songs from my first days of social awareness, and this one from Joan Baez is one of the best. As my old friend Varnish John said, all we can do is start where we can start, and do what we can do.


  3. Well, Linda, you’ve done it again — Brava! Beautifully researched and written post. Perhaps because we in the States are so accustomed to our freedoms, we tend to take them for granted. Those living under dictator regimes might be better able to appreciate a “revivification” of the human spirit.

    I love this statement, “Human dignity is rooted not in the lofty pronouncements of autocrats and dictators, but in the freedoms of daily life, the intimacy of personal relationships and the twin joys of creativity and responsibility.” How true!

    1. Debbie,

      I was smiling after glancing at your latest post. That fist fight you describe could be a perfect metaphor for so much that’s happening today – on the internet, in Congress, among countries. Somtimes, we need to take a stand on an issue. Occasionally, some sacrifice will be required. Always, when questioned,we should be honest about what we believe — or at least, as honest as we can be at any given time. But really — is there a need for such nastiness and anger?

      It’s easy to take things for granted, that’s for sure. Our country’s young, and for such a long time was isolated — by geography, if nothing else. Those days are over, and we’re linked to the rest of the world whether we like it or not.

      It’s not a bad idea to know what’s happening out there.


  4. You had me with two things (1) you and my husband share the same birthday (2) Estonia – my piano teacher was a concert pianist who escaped to our small East Texas town from Estonia. She was brilliant, inspiring and totally dedicated. However, I learned later she committed herself to a mental hospital.

    How very fortunate we are that the disparity between real life and our creative life is not unaligned in our country. I have often thought of her, wondering why music couldn’t pull her through. Still it happened.

    What a wonderfully researched piece you write here, filled with hope and triumph.

    1. Georgette,

      Now, that’s an amazement — the shared birthday. Your husband must know we had another birthday-mate in Johnny Carson. For some reason, it tickled my mother that Johnny and I were born on the same day, and she insisted on telling me so. Now, there isn’t a birthday rolls around that I don’t think of Johnny Carson.

      Another friend told me this afternoon about two Hungarian girls who fled their country and came to live in her town in Minnesota. So much displacement, and so many necessary adjustments. It’s a shame that your piano teacher had such difficulties. I hope she found the help she was seeking.

      You certainly were pianist-rich in East Texas. I still shake my head in amazement when I drive through Kilgore. There’s no reason in the world Van Cliburn shouldn’t have spent his childhood there. Still, it makes me smile.

      I’m glad you found this piece hopeful. That was my primary purpose in writing it – to remind myself, and perhaps others, that people of courage and commitment abound in this world. Most of them are mostly anonymous, but that doesn’t mean they’re unimportant. They’re the ones who shape us, and give us the courage to be who we’ve become.


  5. I had just married in September, 1946, and as a young bride, I took no interest in foreign or national affairs, I’m sad to say. You were a remarkable ten year old to recognize a revolution at birth. Since that time we have seen revolution all over the world, It takes time, but people want freedom and will someday claim it. The key sculpture is memorable as is the singing of a people. This post is also a great reminder of what happens when people join together in protest.

    1. Kayti,

      Well, let’s be honest here. In the beginning, it was only that remarkable photo and the bold headline that captured my attention. By that age, I was reading the newspaper regularly, so I noticed the departure from the regular format. Thanks to my parents and our teachers, my class learned a good bit of history and geography in those weeks. I think they call that a teachable moment.

      Something else occurred to me this evening. Another new force was abroad in the land at the time, called television. We got our first tv in 1953, and one of the first big events I remember watching was the coronation of Queen Elizabeth. In 1953, the historical program “You Are There” moved from radio to tv, with Walter Cronkite as host, and that was the sort of thing that passed for must-see tv in our household. All of it conspired to make all of us more aware of the world outside our little town, and far more curious.

      I thought you’d like that sculpture. It’s really remarkable — “e pluribus unum” taken to a whole new (and more artistic) level.


  6. Thanks for an in-depth, well researched and eloquently written post. I was too young to read the newspaper headline about the Hungarian Revolution. But I did know of one person when I first arrived in Canada as a teenager in the 70’s, working part-time in a grocery store.

    I had the chance to talk to a bread delivery driver, a soft-spoken and gentle Hungarian man who had fled his country in 1958 to come to Canada, for freedom, for new life. I was seized with sadness when one day I heard from a new delivery driver that the Hungarian had died in a traffic accident. Just so sad, escaped a tumultuous homeland only to end his life in a peaceful country. Revolutions are massive, made up of individual lives. Knowing or having talked to just one of them could make it so much more personal, and so close to home.

    1. Arti,

      I’ve found these movements compelling for some time, and when events began building in the Ukraine, I thought about them again. It is amazing how things have changed. Instead of reading about the Euromaidan protests in the newspaper, I was able to watch live streaming video from a multitude of sources. In the process, I even found a streaming music station I like — Киев 92.8 FM, from Kiev.

      Such a sad story about your friendly driver. Of course there are no guarantees in life, but still — it seems an unnecessarily cruel ending for him. I don’t mean to trivialize his situation at all, but it does remind me of the number of times friends or acquaintances have retired, filled with future plans and expectations, only to have them end in six months or a year because of illness and death.

      Your point about movements being made up of individuals is spot on. That’s part of what intrigues me about the photographs and videos of the Baltic Way. There you have them — grandparents, children, teachers, businessmen, youth, professors, artists, the elderly — the whole spectrum of human community committed to a common cause. Inspiring, really.


    1. nikkipolani,

      I’m not sure why, but your comment reminds me of those marvelous words of C.S. Lewis:

      “Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It would be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies.

      The robber baron’s cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end, for they do so with the approval of their own conscience.”

      Isn’t that just the truth?

      I hope all’s still quiet in your neighborhood. I’d even take the moral busybodies over more earthquakes.


  7. Given that the peoples of those eastern European lands you spoke of have finally shed Russian rule, one only hopes they now enjoy all the freedoms and privileges enjoyed as a matter of course by those of us who live either in America or another land of its ilk – where a man can choose to be poor or rich; where a man can choose to live in a mansion or under a bridge; where a man seeking work at a livable wage, will always find it; where a man needn’t fear the Poor House should he or his Loved Ones become seriously ill; where a man can sleep at night, confident no Secret Policeman reads his e-mails or taps his telephone; where a man can speak his mind openly and fearlessly, whether to his Government or to his Boss; where a man, getting wind he’s suspected of something, will, upon inquiry, always be told promptly by the Guardians of the Law exactly what he’s suspected of.

    If the peoples of those eastern European lands of which you spoke, do in fact now enjoy these freedoms and privileges, their Hosannas and songs are the more poignant.

    1. Christopher,

      Perhaps I’m wrong, but I think I detect a touch of irony in your comment. Actually, I suspect more than a touch.

      Choice isn’t always so easy, and the Guardians of the Law are not always so reasonable. Whether Edward Snowden is a Patriot or the Devil Incarnate still is up for discussion, but there’s no question that, because of his actions and the responses to them, ordinary people are considering some new and important issues.

      I have come to the conclusion I know when a sense of age began to overtake me.. It was right around the time I found myself saying, more and more often, “You know, I’ve seen this before.”

      Good to have you stop by.


    1. It’s so human to take things for granted, isn’t it? But when society’s just rocking along, it can lull us into a kind of complacency. It never hurts to take a look outside our personal worlds, just to see what’s happening.


  8. We are so pampered and spoiled here in the United States. We’ve been free for so long we take our freedom for granted. We’ve grown complacent and it’s going to get us in trouble if we’re not careful.

    That these former member nations of the Soviet Union could free themselves from the tyranny that had lasted, in some cases, for centuries without a shot being fired is almost miraculous. In the 1970’s I lived for almost 4 years in what was then West Berlin, a little island of freedom in the middle of East Germany, and I could see first hand what life in the Soviet Union was like. Well armed and well equipped Russian Soviet military units were based in every one of those “democratic republics” to “protect” them from “Western aggression.” We have no concept of what it was like for them living under the iron rule of the Soviets. I hope it’s something neither we nor our children have to learn.

    Even so, while I was watching their “holding hands” I could hear in my memory the chant, “The whole world is watching”.

    1. WOL,

      I’m indebted to you for reminding me of that chant out of Chicago. There’s a short clip on YouTube showing Dylan and Baez at the March on Washington, singing “When the Ship Comes In” — the presumed source of the line. Unfortunately, the complete lyrics aren’t available in that clip, but Peter, Paul & Mary recorded a great version in 1965.

      Your experience in West Berlin had to have been remarkable. I have to keep reminding myself that so much that was part of our earlier years, like Checkpoint Charlie, wouldn’t make a bit of sense today to anyone under – what? thirty?

      Between Soviet-style communism (or the authoritarianism of countries like North Korea) and the absolute corruption, chaos, and horror of the Liberian civil war, there’s a lot of territory. There are times I wonder if our society isn’t being pulled in both directions at once — the worst of all possible worlds. There’s no question the world is watching us, too.


      1. This past weekend Book TV re-ran a 2001 interview with Ronald Radosh, someone with whom I wasn’t familiar. In the interview he described himself as having been a red diaper baby, a term that refers to someone in the United States (often in New York) who was the child of Communists or at least Communist sympathizers. That indoctrination-by-exposure caused him to have Communist/collectivist views for the first couple of decades of his life. Revelations in the 1960s of Stalin’s depravity caused Radosh to move away from that orientation and to join what came to be known as the New Left. Eventually, and most surprisingly, he became a conservative.

        When still a teenager, Radosh had attended the Elisabeth Irwin High School, which was oriented toward Socialism/Communism. Several times in the television interview he mentioned being friends there with fellow student Mary Travers, who later became the Mary in Peter, Paul, and Mary. When I was a student at Columbia, the by-then-famous Peter, Paul, and Mary came to school one day and put on an impromptu performance on the steps outside one of the classroom buildings. Afterwards I went up to them and asked for their autographs. I had with me a few copies of Fragments, a small quarterly publication that my father put out, so I had Peter, Paul, and Mary put their autographs on one of those copies (which I still have). The irony is that in the 1920s my father and his family had fled Communism (in what is now Ukraine!), at personal peril, to come to the United States. From first-hand experience my father knew how tyrannical Soviet Communism was, and the articles in Fragments upheld the themes of individualism and freedom. I gave a copy to Peter, Paul, and Mary, but I have no idea if they ever read it or, if they did, what their reactions were.

        1. Steve, your experience with Peter, Paul, and Mary confirms my own impression of them. As a group and as individuals, they seem to have been among the most approachable of entertainers. I attended one of their concerts in Des Moines in the mid-1960s. After the concert, they showed up at a local coffeehouse and seemed happy to sign autographs and share conversation. I’d like to think they read your father’s publication, although, of course, there’s no way to know.

          For whatever reason, the term “red diaper baby” feels anachronistic to me, although I’ve found a few recent articles where it’s used to make some interesting arguments.

          My blog friend ellaella once lived in Greenwich Village, and occasionally she shared stories of those years. Usually, they had to do with musicians, or politics, or both, and she was the one who introduced me to the term. She was passionate in her beliefs, but not naive. I wish she still were here. I’d be interested in her views on the current state of things.

          I’ve wondered at times whether the passing of our grandparents’ and parents’ generations hasn’t contributed to a certain solipsism in our society. To flee tyranny, to fight a war, to survive concentration or internment camps, to cope with the consequences of economic depression – those were harsh realities, but they were realities, nonetheless. Despite the experiences of individuals and particular communities, our nation’s been spared that kind of trauma for quite some time. I suspect there will be some new lessons in coping down the road.

          Just out of curiosity, did your father name his publication “Fragments” as a nod to this earlier Russian magazine, or was it just one of those coincidences? I did find his much-reprinted article titled “War Jobs”, and am looking forward to reading it.


  9. As I watch what is happening in the Ukraine, Linda, I think it is always three steps forward and two steps back, except of course when we insist on walking backwards. Peggy is a third generation American-Lithuanian. Her dad’s father came from Vilnius and many family members still live there. This last summer Peggy’s brother and sister went back for a visit while we were in Alaska visiting with our son and family. –Curt

    1. Surely you and Peggy have visited Lithuania, too. If you’ve written about your travels there, I’d love to read what you have to say. I did a bit of searching and see that Lithuania’s been mentioned in at least one of your posts. I’m glad to know of the connection.

      As for those three step/two step dances, I just skimmed an article from titled “The Naiveté of Distance.” Its starting point is Crimea, but there’s much there that reminds me of past discussions regarding the U.S. and Liberia.


      1. No, sorry to say, we haven’t visited Lithuania, but I do hope we can work it in on our next trip to Europe.

        I read the article. I tend to believe that the tragedy of humanity is that we are still driven by primitive urges, which are one thing when your weapon is a rock and quite something else when you can destroy all of humanity by pushing a button or turning loose a deadly virus.

        The reality of the world may very well be that we are driven by what we perceive to be personal, tribal, religious, ethnic, economic, national, etc interests. And we have to survive in that world. But we don’t have to buy it. More than ever we have to see beyond it. Enlightened self-interest is looking down the road. We may not be able to create a world free of all the isms, but we have to strive for it.

        The US, more than anyone else, may have been able to avert the worst of what what happened in Liberia.My belief is that we failed to see the dynamics of what was happening, or worse, didn’t perceive it in our national interests to take steps that may have made a difference.


        1. I had some of those same thoughts when I watched “Pray the Devil Back to Hell”. Some well-timed and well-placed pressure from the U.S. might have done some good. It certainly couldn’t have made things worse.

          I was thinking about our exchange about tribal and national boundaries when I read this morning about the spread of the Ebola virus. In the face of disease, the necessity of cooperation becomes obvious. In the face of Ebola, enlightened self-interest demands it.

          1. How sad it is Linda, that it takes disaster to move us beyond our borders. But if ever there was a reason for it, Ebola meets the qualifications. What a scary, scary disease. BTW… thanks for the note on Foreign Affairs. Years ago I got the journal. So I have now signed up online and received my first news summary this morning.–Curt

  10. Some are truly brave. They learn it from those around them. (And what are our children learning here? Some teachers didn’t even change their plans, much less their tests and assignments, when the Berlin wall fell, the Soviet Union broke.)

    Thanks for history told like this – so reality can be understood as living.

    1. Phil, I know that you know that learning courage isn’t easy, even with the best role models in the world. And sometimes the bravest among us are individuals whose names never will be in the news. They live almost anonymously, but, as my grandmother liked to say, “they get along.” I know you met people like that in your formative years, as did I. I still remember them.

      Places, names and dates are important. But context and a sense of continuity are important, too — exactly why families tell stories. Societies tell stories, too. Of course, for both families and societies, a little fact checking never hurts.


  11. This post leaves me thankful for the freedoms we still enjoy so far.

    The quote by CS Lewis stirs something in me. I tried to articulate in a blog post a couple of years ago my sense of our eroding freedoms and someone I deeply respect for their wisdom in general could not for the life of them see where that was happening in our country.

    I had been working on a farm doing some carpentry work, and every morning that week the farmer had gradually been setting up a series of gates around the feeding area. I knew what he was planning to do..the cows didn’t have a clue. One morning I got there and the herd was gone. There’s a reason laws that restrict rather than free are eased in gradually.

    1. DM,

      You’re on target with your story about the cows. I’m sure you know the variation – the cautionary tale about the frog and the pot of water. As the story goes, if you throw a frog into a boiling pot of water, he’ll jump out. Put him in the pot and warm it up gradually, and it’s stewed frog for supper. There’s actually a wiki article about it, and while the story may not be absolutely accurate in terms of frog behavior, it’s a heck of a metaphor.

      Over the winter I was reading Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s “Letters and Papers from Prison,” and marked this passage.

      “We have been silent witnesses of evil deeds; we have been drenched by many storms; we have learnt the arts of equivocation and pretence; experience has made us suspicious of others and kept us from being truthful and open; intolerable conflicts have worn us down and even made us cynical. Are we still of any use?

      What we shall need is not geniuses, or cynics, or misanthropes, or clever tacticians, but plain, honest, and straightforward men. Will our inward power of resistance be strong enough, and our honesty with ourselves remorseless enough, for us to find our way back to simplicity and straightforwardness?”

      I’ve always smiled at Martin Luther King, Jr.’s insight. He said, “if your opponent has a conscience, then follow Gandhi. But if you enemy has no conscience, like Hitler, then follow Bonhoeffer.”

      I think he was right.


      1. Two powerful quotes you just shared there. I recopied them and put them in my journal, and shared portions of them this morning on my facebook feed. Then shared them with my wife this morning over coffee.. The power of language and the written word amazes me sometimes. Thanks for being such a thoughtful and faithful blogger to those you interact with on a regular basis!. ;-) DM

        1. I’m glad they struck a chord with you. Bonhoeffer’s words are as relevant today as they were when he wrote them — there’s a good bit of wisdom there.

  12. Especially love these lines from your post: “…revolution never is purely about politics, and freedom never is abstract. Human dignity is rooted not in the lofty pronouncements of autocrats and dictators, but in the freedoms of daily life, the intimacy of personal relationships and the twin joys of creativity and responsibility.”

    When my son became a Marine, a new fear entered my heart. (As if I wasn’t trying to conquer enough already.) But I am proud of him to stand for our rights and our freedoms, our dignity, creativity and responsibility. Your post makes so much sense in a crazy world where a lot seems confusing. To me, anyway.

    1. Bellezza,

      Fear can enslave as surely as any dictator. St. Paul could get carried away with his own rhetoric from time to time, but that line from Galatians 5 is such a tonic for our times: “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery.”

      Standing firm and refusing to be burdened on a personal level may be as difficult as demonstrating in the public square. Still, it’s a place to start.

      And your pride in your son is justified. Service to others of any sort is to be commended. The kind of radical service he’s chosen is a gift to us all.


  13. Just being in the Czech Republic, walking the same cobblestones that Franz Kafka did during the last century, one cannot help but be struck by the bureaucratic atrocities the Jews of Josefov (and Bohemia and Moravia) experienced then and especially in 1943, a year that culminated in the total elimination of all Prague’s Jews. The Russians were equally as brutal as the Germans.

    The difference between then and now seems to be the indifference and distraction that modern life promotes, the sense that with a tweet or a post, somehow, one “cares.”

    Your post is a lovely expression, almost retro, of so many paradoxes.

    1. Ladybugg,

      To say the Russians were equally as brutal as the Germans is true. It’s a statement that’s especially horrifying in light of this article I noticed in the NY Times this weekend.

      We like to believe such things never would be possible here, but I felt a certain unease today when I came across reports of EPA experimentation with human subjects, some of whom clearly did not give a fully informed consent, and some of whom experienced health problems because of the testing.

      The news no doubt will become politicized, but it reminds me of a time in the 1970s when a hospital where I was employed used homeless and indigent TB patients for testing of new drugs and procedures — again, without consent. Using people in such ways simply isn’t acceptable, and it can be the first step down a dangerous path.

      I appreciate your comments very much. And I confess I smiled at your use of the word, “retro.” I always take that as a compliment.


  14. Reading this makes me stop to think how much we take for granted here in the U.S. Oh, we gripe and complain and rant and fuss about things we don’t like or agree with but even the ability to do just that sometimes gets taken for granted.

    1. Indeed it does, Gué. What bothers me more often these days is just how many people are becoming afraid or unwilling to express their opinions or take a stand on issues — for a variety of reasons.

      At least in the days of newspapers, there was a little lag time between the publication of an editorial and the arrival of the letters. Now, we’ve got Twitter and Facebook, and it’s a whole new ball game.There’s a slogan I love – “Google Before You Tweet is the new Think Before You Speak”.


  15. I was so glad to read this. Next Monday evening our book club is discussing the book Seige 13 by Tomas Dobozy – which is a series of short stories about the Hungarian Revolution and its suppression. The author is of Hungarian ancestry and teaches at my university. He invites us to think about memory and its aides. After having read your post I will pose a question to him (he is going to join us that evening) if song had an important role to play in the Hungarian experience.

    1. Allen, another book which might interest you is Eugene Drucker’s “The Savior.” Drucker’s a founding member of the Emerson String Quartet, and this was his first novel. It concerns a young German violinist who’s conscripted to play for Jewish concentration camp prisoners, in a macabre experiment to test the salvific power of music.

      There’s a good review here that includes links to some of the music that influenced the book.

      I’ll be interested to hear what Dobozy might have to say about the role of song in Hungary.


  16. Linda,
    I appreciate the research you did for this post. It’s a beautiful and thoughtful piece. I remember 1989 well. What a year that was. We take so much for granted.

    1. Thanks, Bella. Just to refresh my memory, I did a quick spin through one of those “Events of 1989” sites. It really is amazing how much change came, and not only in Europe. It’s worth going back now and then just to remember names like Tiananmen Square and Noriega. Twenty-five years ago can seem like yesterday, or a dozen lifetimes ago.


  17. It’s from you that I learned of the Estonian Singing Revolution, and it made an indelible impression. I’ve since been to two concerts, one featuring Estonian performers, another Latvian. The electricity in the hall on both occasions was astonishing, not to mention gratifying, to see.

    Something else comes to mind as I think about this, as well: the Minnesota Orchestra lock-out has resulted in a community-wide surge of support of and love for its musicians (and their conductor, Osmo Vanska) that I can’t recall witnessing in the US before. You may have seen this over my way, but in case not, I love this post by a first-time concert-goer and accompanying comments.

    Here’s a comment from a concert-goer that says it all: “Thank you for this lovely piece. You know, one beautiful silver lining of this whole ugly labor dispute is that many of us have not only discovered just how much the Minnesota Orchestra means to us, but we’ve taken to online forums to share our thoughts and our love of this music. A vibrant community has been created where before we were just individuals.”

    1. Susan,

      Of all the details in the post, the one I most appreciated was the story of the flute player coming over to them during intermission for a bit of conversation. It reminded me of my encounter with Charles Treger at Blair House so many years (decades!) ago. Experiences like that can be more than pleasant memories. They can become formative. I suspect that young couple will realize that in the future in a way that’s impossible now, just because it’s too soon.

      The power of the performing arts to form communities is remarkable. Some of those communities last only as long as the performance. Others, rooted in tradition and repetition, such as Tallein, can seem to take on a life of their own, inspiring more than simple enjoyment. Always, it’s a marvel to witness.


  18. I found the narration wonderful. Only when one’s memories take on the garb of ‘Ownership” can such narratives be penned. I acknowledge you for that as also the video.


    1. Thank you so much, Shakti. I grew up in a family where one of the favorite phrases was, “Do you remember when…?” Memories and story-telling always were woven together. Only now do I realize what a gift that was.

      I appreciate your visit, and your kind comments. You’re always welcome.


  19. It is refreshing to again consider those great examples of becoming free and realizing freedom. At the same time I have a terrible fear about freedom in our own country today: freedom, translated as license and acted out in excess, is not the same as the pure, joyful freedom that made this country great.

    1. Montucky, we’re living in a period where the selfie and the sound bite predominate — at least, it seems to be so as far as the media are concerned.Good journalism and investigative reporting have seen better days, that’s for sure.

      Beyond confusing freedom with license, the irritating and occasionally amusing phenomenon known as political correctness is taking on new forms. The firing of the Mozilla CEO is only the latest example. We seem to be in the middle of re-tribalizing ourselves. Those of us who remember, “Are you now or have you ever been…” know where this could lead.

      Thank goodness for the places and the people who allow us still to experience freedom!


  20. Linda, with all the news about Ukraine, this is both a timely and inspiring post. Two personal stories come to mind. Three actually. The first is, as a child, visiting Mrs. Lepkongs with my mother. She had escaped with her children from Latvia in or during WWII and my mother knew her from her teaching English when they arrived. The stories she shared with my mother in her broken English were horrifying and a reminder to me that not all people had the freedom we do. The second is my Latvian friend Ojars, with whom I worked for most of my time at WKAR. He had come to the U.S. as a teen, as I recall — again, to escape the oppression in that country. After he retired (which was after the break-up of the Soviet Union), he and his wife returned to a new Latvia.

    The third, Soren, we met in Massachusetts this year. He was from Romania and had come to the U.S. as a student and ended up staying. He told us a terribly story of his efforts to cross the border just to go to Germany — it simply wasn’t permitted.

    Both Soren and OJ are very worried about what is happening now in Ukraine, both in terms of the people there and of those in nearby countries that were part of the old Soviet bloc. Then there are wars in Syria, too.

    I remember Hungary and Czechoslovakia well. It seemed so foreign. So far away. It doesn’t seem so far away now. Sometimes, it’s even here at home.

    Wonderful research and storytelling here. Beautiful post.

    1. Jeanie, I’ve always been so interested in the people you’ve crossed paths with in the course of your work and your travels. Soren and OJ are perfect examples, and their stories are so touching.

      Have you heard from Ojars? How is their new life working out for them? Well, I hope. The pull of “the old country” can be strong. My grandparents and their friends never expressed any concrete desire to return to Sweden, but the nights of nostalgic story-telling sometimes revealed some very deep emotions, and a longing for a land they’d never see again.

      My grandmother had many friends like your Mrs. Lepkongs. They were Croatian, and many came to the United States even later than my grandparents, in order to escape the turmoil in their land. Now and then, I hear someone one make the point that, if the U.S. becomes just another turmoil-ridden, corrupt, economically devastated nation, what other destination for freedom-loving people will there be? Of course there are other nations that have accepted refugees in the past, and who could offer them refuge now. I don’t think we’re necessarily on the path to taking ourself off that list, but it’s still worth thinking about.


      1. You’re right about the refugee situation being worth thinking about — particularly from countries where the oppression seems so significant. I’ve been watching a lot of WWII-related stories lately and many involve people escaping from Nazi Germany. For many, even getting out of Germany didn’t mean they were accepted. But they were safe.

        Ojars loves being back home and I get periodic emails about the celebration of the solstice, Beltane, the community festivals and life with grandchildren. The sad bit is that he is experiencing much macular degeneration, which is making computer, reading and other things much more difficult. It’s sad to think that someone who made his career taking film and video used in the creation of television programs is losing one of the key tools of the trade, even if he is no longer in that work world.

        1. It is sad. I have a friend whose mother is trying to cope with the challenges of macular degeneration, and it isn’t easy. That makes the blessings of his retirement, among family and friends in a country he loves, even sweeter.

  21. Linda, I am convinced that you deserve a regular column in a magazine or newspaper. So much good stuff here. So well-researched and told. I’m teaching journalism now to my juniors and seniors, and I think I may just send them right here to your blog for lessons about how to really write.

    1. Emily, you’re too kind. But it tickles me to think you’d direct your students this way. Of course they’d be welcome – not only to read, but also to comment.

      As for a regular column — well, that’s something else. A regular column would mean firm deadlines, for one thing. I’ve done that before, and I’m not sure I’d enjoy taking it on again.

      Besides, one of the things I enjoy most about this blog is the interaction with readers. I’ve had pieces published in magazines, and it’s an entirely different sort of experience – not unlike dropping a rock down a well, and never hearing it hit bottom. An online column might be more interesting and provide more interaction. It’s something to think about.

      A friend who had to travel to Minnesota sent photos from there yesterday. Oh, my! You need more daffodils and less snow!


  22. I have been extremely fortunate to have known women who escaped to Australia during the 50’s and 60’s from Latvia and Ukraine. They told me stories that horrified me so much I could never forget them, and the courage of these women was outstanding.
    You’re joining those women Linda, in expanding my knowledge of the world.

    1. eremophila, it sometimes amazes me to realize how many people with whom I’ve come in contact have arrived here from “somewhere else.” Sometimes, they’ve come for a better life and better economic opportunities, but there are more than we imagine who have fled terrible situations.

      When one of my friends was in rehab after an accident, one of her nurses was a young Liberian man who’d managed to get here after their civil war. The family still was divided, with some here and some there, but at least, as he said, “Most of us survived.” Given what transpired there, it’s a wonder anyone survived. But they did — no doubt because they were as courageous (and clever, and lucky) as the Latvian and Ukrainian women you’ve known.

      All of them are models for us, I would say.


  23. Linda, this would have made a wonderful Fourth of July post. I learned a lot reading it. How heartening to witness a people’s drive to freedom. And how often we take our freedoms for granted. Thank you for this post.

    1. Thank you for the suggestion, Rosemary. As it happens, I already had thought of at least relinking to this post just before this year’s Tallin Festival. In a lovely bit of coincidence, the Festival begins on July 4.

      Now, these same countries are under threat again. The passage of time and the loss of communal memory makes the threat even more viable. Never mind Normandy and the bombing of Dresden — even Lech Walesa and the Solidarity movement are fading away.

      I’m beginning to understand what my grandparents felt when they tried to tell stories to us, and we just wanted to play.


  24. The Hungarian uprising had a special impact on New Jersey, because more than 30,000 refugees who sought asylum in the United States were processed at Camp Kilmer, a former military base in Edison and Piscataway. Camp Kilmer was the largest processing center for troops going overseas and returning to the United States during World War II. More than 2.5 million soldiers passed through the camp. The Hungarian refugees were moved through the facility between November 1956 and May 1957. Many of them settled in or near New Brunswick and there are still traces of their cultural contributions to that area.

    1. As I read your comment, I wondered: could we even manage that today? My confidence in our ability to mobilize for any purpose has eroded a bit.

      New Jersey is far more intriguing and complex than I’ve realized. My first hint was John McPhee’s “The Pine Barrens.” Now, there’s Camp Kilmer. How could I have missed that?

      The development of ethnic communities because of immigration is so interesting. In my grandparents’ town, there were many Croatians and Italians. In fact, in the same book where I found the tale of the semi-pro baseball team. I found a photo of postmaster Fernando Ginanni. When grandma sent me for the mail, he’d always pinch my cheek, exclaim, “Dolce! Dolce!” and give me a peppermint.


      1. You’re right. New Jersey is complex and probably not understood well by people who haven’t spent some time here. I know from my encounters with out-of-state journalists that New Jersey has a very urban image in many people’s minds. But twenty percent of the land mass of this state is wilderness. Obviously, the Pine Barrens are one reason for that. It isn’t a large state, but as you travel through it you find wildly contrasting environments ranging from dangerous cities such as Camden and Trenton to quaint riverfront communities such as Lambertville and Frenchtown, Thurber-like small towns, large and small farms, the vast Alantic Ocean beachfront, and the mountains of the northwestern part of the state, which is reminiscent of Bavaria.

        1. I just took a look at Google maps. It really is amazing that such variety’s enclosed in such a small state. I have a friend who left for a week’s vacation on “the Jersey shore” last Saturday. When she gets back, it will be interesting to see if the group ever made it out of the hotel’s confines.

  25. When i read such things and notice dates like 1989, i stop to think, “what was i doing that I missed this?” Shame on me for the times i see clips on tv of misery in the lives of others and just dismiss the thought with a sigh.

    it’s amazing how other times as a young child, instances like this are stamped in my memory. i recall seeing the dayton daily news with photos of tragedy and they have longer lasting affects for me than the flitting by of an internet post or the weeks CNN fixates on one story.

    well written.

    1. I do the same thing, sherri — stop, consider a date and then go back in time to try and remember where I was and what I was doing. Sometimes, there’s a good reason for completely missing something. During my years in Liberia, a lot of films and tv shows passed me by entirely. But there are other times when I think, “I should have noticed that.” And yet I didn’t.

      There may be other reasons we’re less affected today by the news of the day, reasons that it doesn’t seem to impress itself into our memories in the same way. I found myself nodding in recognition when I read this. It’s just so important – and it’s such a pleasure to see the researchers catching up with my hunches about all of this.


  26. Another remarkable essay and with this one, a tribute to the Eastern European nations and the people who never gave up hope to free of oppression. I find your writing impressive and so well researched.

    Now, there is Ukraine that must fight to remain free. I find it very depressing to read of the greed and thirst for power.

    There is much history in this post. I enjoyed reading about things that I had forgotten about and lots of things of which I had not been aware.

    I grew up in the country and of course we did not have the luxury of a newspaper. But I read the newspaper in the library.

    The year,1956, marked my entry as a pre-clinical nursing student at a Catholic hospital that was run by the Daughter’s of Charity. Gee that was a very long time ago. ~yvonne

    1. Yvonne, isn’t it funny to realize we’re the “older generation” now? I remember my mother used to comment about the fact that it appeared children were being allowed to function as doctors and lawyers and such. Of course, they were well into their thirties, and she was in her 80s or 90s, so it did make for a bit of a gap!

      The old line about “those who forget history are condemned to repeat it” is so relevant today. What’s happening between Russia and the Ukraine reads remarkably like what happened, for example, between Russia and Poland. It seems they may be using the same playbook. The Polish solidarity movement was fully as interesting as the Velvet Revolution. My hope is that the leadership necessary to avoid bloodshed will emerge.

      I’m really glad you enjoyed the post. I love doing the research, and it’s fun to share what I find with people who appreciate it.

      I hope your Easter weekend was enjoyable, and that the coming spring’s filled with delights!


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