Not long ago, my wife and I were in the children’s section of a Barnes and Noble bookstore when she found a fascinating book.
My wife was born in Poland and grew up during the last years of communism. I lived and worked in Poland during the years immediately after the fall of the Soviet empire, Milosevic’s Yugoslavia and Belarus. Since the birth of our children, we have asked ourselves, what are we going to tell them about how Mommy grew up in a country that wasn’t free?
Peter Sis is an artist and writer who was born in Czechoslovakia at the beginning of the Cold War. Now an American, he has asked himself the same question.
In The Wall: Growing Up Behind the Iron Curtain, he tells the story, in words and wonderful drawings, of a boy who loved blue jeans, the Beatles, the Beach Boys and drawing. But mostly he loved freedom, though the only freedom he knew was in what he drew and hid away, because it didn’t conform to the dictates of Socialist Realism.
His drawings tell the story of growing up in a country where Russian-language classes, political indoctrination and joining the Young Pioneers were all compulsory, while practicing religion was discouraged and listening to foreign radio broadcasts was forbidden.
“Children are encouraged to report on their families and fellow students,” Sis writes. “Parents learn to keep their opinions to themselves…. Letters are opened and censored…. Informers are rewarded for snooping.”
He tells of the Prague Spring “where everything seemed possible” and seeing it crushed by Warsaw Pact tanks. Next to the drawing of a tank with a red flag are these terrible words: “Help from the West doesn’t come.”
But resistance rises again through unlikely means, “The Beach Boys arrived. America to the rescue!”
In spite of renewed and intensified secret police surveillance and repression, Samizdat literature flourishes, secretly translating and publishing banned books. People gather in speakeasy-style discotheques, make their own clothes copying western fashions and cover walls with paintings of their dreams, again and again no matter how often the authorities painted them over.
The boy draws his dreams, in spite of the danger that his cache of drawings might be discovered. He draws himself tunneling, pole vaulting and flying on a bicycle with wings across the border, from a gray land of injustice, corruption, envy, fear and lies, to a bright land of liberty, dignity, truth, honor and trust.
And then, “Sometimes dreams come true. On Nov. 9, 1989, The Wall fell.”
“Now 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.”
And an excellent job he has done of it. Get this book for your children. We did, and we will use it to help explain to our children how Mommy grew up in a land that wasn’t free.