Social Education 55(6) pps. 349-350
©1991 National Council for the Social Studies

Roller Coaster Round-Trip to Freedom: Never Say Never

Josef A. Mestenhauser
CZECHOSLOVAKIA-July 1991-Never say "never." That is the lesson I learned recently, and I have found that this lesson is so real and so general that I would like to pass it on to others.
I left my native country, Czechoslovakia, crawling in slush, mud, and sleet to escape conviction for various crimes; my accusers called me enemy of the people, spy, saboteur of socialist order, and traitor. That was March 19, 1948. Initially, I expected to return someday. Among my refugee friends, in fact, I was regarded as a pessimist for thinking that it might take a full five years for the Communist regime to collapse. Others were sure that these Stalin-type dictatorships had no chance of surviving more than a few months, possibly a year. That is what one of my friends believed; he refused a good scholarship in a prestigious university so that he could live in New York City and be close to the next flight back to Czechoslovakia. He died recently, a poor man who worked all his life as a janitor.

As years went by, many things happened that strengthened the Communist hold on people and on entire countries, lessening the possibilities of democratic change. I began to revise my thinking; instead of planning to use the five years to gain the high-quality U.S. education we would urgently need in Czechoslovakia upon my return, I gradually gave up. Not on the education, but on the return. By 1968 when the brief Prague Spring of the Dubcek era temporarily dented the regime, I was a U.S. citizen, not only by law, but by thinking and allegiance as well. To underscore my breach with the past, I gained new interests in Asia and virtually suppressed my Czech background believing that it would never be possible for me to return.

I was not the only one who lost hope. Entire armies of area specialists, who consumed hundreds of millions of dollars in grants to study the Communist system, failed to predict that it was possible for the system to change within itself. Many of these experts still do not believe it actually happened.

Never say "never." I did return to Czechoslovakia forty-three years later, under circumstances that still give me goose bumps. First, I received an official letter of apology from the dean of the faculty of law at Charles University for the injustice committed against me when I was expelled from that school just a few months before my final oral exam. (Ironically, the apology came from a dean who was not responsible for my expulsion; on the contrary, this man was also persecuted and ended his distinguished academic career, becoming a window washer for more than twenty years.) Then I was invited to attend a festive ceremony at which I and several dozen others like me were given the degrees denied us in 1948. It was a solemn but strange ceremony. Instead of young people receiving degrees before entering life full of promise, we were a group of older people near the end of our careers. The only youths in the group were those receiving degrees in memory of their fathers, mothers, grandfathers, or grandmothers, several of whom had died in Communist prisons.

Virtually no public notice was given to this ceremony. The country had been undergoing so many "rehabilitations" of property, civil rights, and now restitutions of degrees, that only two newspapers carried brief notices of this event. Neither the Rector's Office nor the Ministry of Education sent representatives. We were honored, but also forgotten-except by a few family members, two deans, and selected academics who came, shared, shed a few tears, and gave bouquets of red roses, a gift that traditionally accompanies the sheepskin. By leaving the country as refugees, we had become irrelevant to the younger generation and to the country. I have even heard accusations that we abandoned the country to the Communists and thus caused the enormous suffering that followed. Several "graduates" were deeply disappointed and hurt; they felt that the welcome and the ceremony were only token recognition that did not measure up to forty-three years of exile, separation, isolation, abandonment, search for new lives and identities, and uncertainties and insecurities encountered in new lands.

Initially, I sought all kinds of excuses not to attend the ceremony in Czechoslovakia-perhaps because of my nagging fears: What if I encountered my former jailers? What if the country had changed so much I could not recognize it? What if I had changed so much that my family-what was left of it-could not recognize me? What if my old friends-or, heaven forbid, my family-had succumbed to the pressure and become collaborators with the regime? My family, friends, and associates urged me to go; some were even willing to contribute funds toward the round-trip ticket. My daughters gave me a notebook with instructions to record all my impressions, feelings, reactions, and emotions. From this I learned another lesson: emotions and impressions do not come to people the way they do on television-one at a time in a neat order so you can stop and carefully record them. Instead, impressions kept coming to my consciousness all the time, not necessarily when the events that caused them actually happened. No wonder the notebook remained empty.

I had prepared myself to avoid emotional situations and to concentrate on learning. I applied to myself what we teach our students about intercultural communication and training and avoided all potential emotional conflicts-except the one that occurred at the cemetery. I took to my parents' grave the red roses I had received at the graduation ceremony. The roses belonged to them, even if they never lived to see me graduate; it would have meant a great deal to them.

Although I stayed only ten days, what I learned could fill an entire course-a course that would fit into many disciplines, and apply many theories and concepts. I have already mentioned several themes: that area studies scholarship failed to understand trends; that one should never lose hope; that one should never assume that the unexpected will not happen; that we do not really expect the unexpected because we are driven by the expected and familiar; that lessons from history are determined by our perceptions of what happened; and that virtually everything we do today has consequences-if not immediately, certainly in the future. We see evidence of this on a grand scale when occurrences of several generations ago haunt us today.

But there are many more lessons to be learned, some of which I am still trying to process in my own mind. Please help me find answers, solutions, or at least direction to them:

I am glad I went to Czechoslovakia. It was wonderful to see the country free and the energy flowing. It was redeeming to see that many people have survived with dignity and courage, including my family and friends. It was healing to see the poetic justice at work when the regime that deprived me of my academic title was so efficient that it helped me document my eligibility for the "rehabilitation." It was revealing to learn what all of us must do to help this country recover from the enormous damage, some of which we have caused by our own policies many decades ago. Things are going "our" way in Czechoslovakia, but we must not take it for granted and move on to our own "domestic" problems. There really are no more "domestic" problems.

Dr. Josef Mestenhauser is Director of the Office of International Education at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis. He will spend the 1991-1992 academic year in Czechoslovakia as a Fulbright Senior Scholar.