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Home/Rod Dreher/Postcard From Prague

Postcard From Prague

Prague, after a thunderstorm Tuesday night

Finally, I’m online again! In my infinite good fortune, I checked Matt and me into a hotel in old town Prague that has unworkable WiFi. I haven’t been able to log on with my laptop since Monday. I found a nearby Starbucks, and here I am. I will get to approving all the comments that piled up later on today, when I’m on the long train ride back to Budapest.

Matt goes back to America on Saturday, and wanted to see at least a bit of Prague before he took off. It’s also the case that his favorite beers are Czech pilsners, especially Pilsner Urquell. For my part, I wanted to see the old Benedict Option crew — my translator and publishers — and to pay a visit to Kamila Bendova, to once again thank her for all she has done for me, and for the cause of helping us all prepare for what’s to come.

On my first night here, I met with a couple of journalists for beer. One of the men had been very, very pro-American over much of his career, and is now suffering from a sense of dislocation. It was with these two men that I first heard a version of a question that recurred in every meeting I had with Czechs: What is happening to America?

They all follow us closely. It is hard to overstate the prestige the US has long had here, because of our opposition to Soviet communism. My experience is only anecdotal, of course, but it was disconcerting to see the pained puzzlement in the faces of my Czech friends. They really do fear that America is tearing itself apart. What could I tell them? I think so too. The transgender thing, I find, is the most mystifying to Central Europeans. They struggle to understand it as a phenomenon, and really struggle to understand why a society like America’s would celebrate this disorder, and even privilege it.

What can I say? They’re right. To find oneself abroad, in conversation with Europeans who love America, and who are looking for assurance that she has not lost her mind, and to be unable to reassure them, is to realize how bad off we really are. They also know that whatever starts in America eventually comes here. I spoke to a Czech from a small village far from the capital. He said that he has an old friend back home whose older teenage daughter recently announced that she’s a lesbian, and whose younger teenage son just announced that he’s a girl. These are country people from the village, but even that was not far enough to escape this thing. I was sharing this yesterday with a Czech friend back in the US, a man who hated Communism so much he fled to America when he was young. This man said, “We live an a patently evil world and at the end it was the US — not the USSR — who made it possible.”

If he were a standard leftist saying that, it would be one thing. But he’s not. He’s a fierce conservative and Christian who really did think America was a land of hope. He married and had kids in America. He is living through disillusionment now, but knows that he doesn’t have the luxury of despair. He is preparing for very hard times ahead, and reminds me from time to time that he’s actually more pessimistic than I am. It’s probably because he lived through Communism, knows what it’s like, and knows that the ideological madness that has America in its grip is going to play out in similar ways. In fact, he was a nominal Christian until the Great Awokening made him aware that the only way through what is here, and what is to come, is through a deeply committed, sacrificial relationship to God.

Anyway, back in Prague, I met a friend for lunch at a restaurant near the Prague Castle. I had one of my favorite Central European dishes: thin-sliced cucumbers in sour cream:

After lunch, Matt and I went over to visit Kamila at her flat. Her English is not great, so she invited a childhood friend who speaks perfect English over to interpret. I can’t emphasize how much it meant to me to be able to introduce my son to this hero. “She is living history,” I told Matt, who is a history major. Kamila welcomed us into her high-ceilinged parlor, which was the site of so many dissident seminars and meetings under Communism. The secret police bugged this room. Here is a passage from Live Not By Lies:

Kamila Bendova sits in her armchair in the Prague apartment where she and her late husband, Vaclav, used to hold underground seminars to build up the anti-communist dissident movement. It has been thirty years since the fall of communism, but Bendova is not about to lessen her vigilance about threats to freedom. I mention to her that tens of millions of Americans have installed in their houses so-called “smart speakers” that monitor conversations for the sake of making domestic life more convenient. Kamila visibly recoils. The appalled look on her face telegraphs a clear message: How can Americans be so gullible?

To stay free to speak the truth, she tells me, you have to create for yourself a zone of privacy that is inviolate. She reminded me that the secret police had bugged her apartment, and that she and her family had to live with the constant awareness that the government was listening to every sound they made. The idea that anybody would welcome into their home a commercial device that records conversations and transmits them to a third party is horrifying to her. No consumer convenience is worth that risk.

“Information means power,” Kamila says. “We know from our life under the totalitarian regime that if you know something about someone, you can manipulate him or her. You can use it against them. The secret police have evidence of everything like that. They could use it all against you. Anything!”

Kamila pointed out to me the scars along the living room wall of her Prague apartment where, after the end of communism, she and her husband had ripped out the wires the secret police used to bug their home. It turns out that no one in the Benda family uses smartphones or emails. Too risky, they say, even today.

Some might call this paranoia. But in light of Edward Snowden’s revelations, it looks a lot more like prudence. “People think that they are safe because they haven’t said anything controversial,” says Kamila. “That is very naive.”

Here is a photo I took yesterday of Kamila, with a portrait of her young self:

Kamila and Jan, her friend, wanted to know: What is happening to America?  So I told them. I watched Kamila’s face grimace, and then later, when I told her about how we have created a culture in which the Left praises people who denounce their friends and family for ideological errors, she shook her head and laughed. I’m sure this old Cold Warrior, whose husband went to jail for his dissident activities, never imagined she would live to see this again, much less in the United States of America. 

I asked Kamila about a book once published in Czechia, a collection of her and her late husband’s letters from when he was a political prisoner. She showed me the copy. I told her I would see if we could get it translated and published in America. People need this information! If you are a publisher interested in this, e-mail me at rod — at — amconmag — dot — com, and I’ll put you in touch with the Bendas.

That woman, that Iron Lady, kept her family together despite her husband being imprisoned by the state. When the Communist regime offered to set him free if he would agree to go abroad with his family, she told him to refuse the offer. If we leave these people behind to save ourselves, she said, we will violate the principles for which we have been suffering. Her husband refused the offer. When the Communists imprisoned Vaclav Benda, he left Kamila to raise six children, the oldest of whom, Marek, was ten. The burden she carried was enormous. Think of it! But she did it, and did not bend, and did not break.

From the 2018 interview, here’s Kamila:

We were also pulling [our children] into our struggles. Sometimes when we wanted to send something confidential, it was a child who was sent because it was less likely that he would be captured. So he would go to the park, and the other person would go to the park also. So if he was not arrested by the police, he could go through the park and give the message. There were small messengers among families. When the secret police came to inspect the house, the children were the first ones to be sent outside to go to the phone booth to call the people around to warn them. And also carrying the small pieces of paper that we sometimes had to swallow. There was an inspection in the house, and my husband had to bring something, to speak about the fact that we are here doing the inspection, and the word is out already. And the police would say it’s the children, always running around spreading the information. For example, when they arrested my husband, my son Martin’s teacher at school was concerned about his dad. And she would say, “Martin, I heard something happened at home.” And he would say, “Yes, he was arrested. It was legal number this and that. Apartment this and that.” So in that way, he would inform her what happened.

Can you imagine growing up like that? In that same interview, Kamila said she and her husband taught their children to be more afraid of lies than of the state. Heroes, I tell you. A family of heroes. There should be a movie of this couple’s marriage, of this family’s life. Think of all the stories like this all over Central and Eastern Europe, from the Communist period — none of them told by Hollywood. I hope the team raising money now for the Live Not By Lies documentary can manage to get over here to interview Kamila and her generation of heroes while they are still with us. Their stories, and their advice, are absolutely needed today.

Back in 2018, when I first interviewed her, Kamila told me that her husband Vaclav joined the anti-communist movement after the Soviet invaders burned down his favorite bookstore in 1968. “When they did that, it was the moment we had to resist,” she told me then. In 1977, they formally joined the Charter 77 movement. For people of conscience, she said, “it was impossible not to join.”

Think about that today, in our situation. They are cancelling books in America, but few people are resisting it, and God knows the gutless literary establishment isn’t. My friend Justin Lee posted an extraordinary thread on Twitter yesterday:


 

What are we doing, people? What are we doing to ourselves? Brave men and women like Kamila Bendova are trying to wake us up!

After we said our goodbyes, I walked Matt over to Wenceslas Square, so he could see the balcony from which Vaclav Havel addressed the throng during the Velvet Revolution:

Then I took him to the top of the square, by the national museum, to see the spot where, in 1969, Czech student Jan Palach set himself on fire to protest Communist repression and the 1968 Soviet invasion. Here is a newsreel clip from his funeral:

According to a doctor who was the first to treat the severely burned young man, Palach did not set himself on fire to protest the Soviet invasion per se, but rather to wake up the demoralized Czech people:

It was not so much in opposition to the Soviet occupation, but the demoralization which was setting in, that people were not only giving up, but giving in. And he wanted to stop that demoralization. I think the people in the street, the multitude of people in the street, silent, with sad eyes, serious faces, which when you looked at those people you understood that everyone understands, that all the decent people were on the verge of making compromises.

Here is the memorial on the spot where Jan Palach killed himself:

I hope Jan Palach will pray for America. Our fate is not determined in advance — but it will be determined as long as good people stay silent, and allow these wicked people to rule us, to take the minds of our children and ruin their lives, and to make us hate each other on the basis of race. Fight! This is not going to be short and easy … but like Kamila and Vaclav Benda in 1977, what choice do we have?

I find that my Czech friends are shocked by how many copies of Live Not By Lies we have sold — 125,000 — and by the fact that there has been no major media interest. I tell them that the media have a clear interest in making sure that the voices of those who survived Soviet communism go unheard today. If people listened to them, they would realize that the woke project to which our Pravdas and Izvestias are devoted is totalitarian, and is going to destroy the nation.

UPDATE: Later this morning, I met Ludva, the No. 1 TAC fan in all of Bohemia!

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. A veteran of three decades of magazine and newspaper journalism, he has also written three New York Times bestsellers—Live Not By Lies, The Benedict Option, and The Little Way of Ruthie Lemingas well as Crunchy Cons and How Dante Can Save Your Life. Dreher lives in Baton Rouge, La.

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