Getting Past the Iron Curtain: Legacies of Dissent

By Pat Macpherson, Upper School English Teacher

Why study defeated people, dead failed systems, remnants of injustice and tragedy? What do these people, their stories and perspectives, have to tell us, even to teach us, today?

Sixteen American teachers found inspiration flourishing in Eastern Europe amongst the dissidents who had fought against the Soviet communist empire. The month-long NEH graduate seminar in July 2013 brought us together in Berlin and Prague to study 1989: The Peaceful Revolution. How refreshing it was to loosen the grip of the obsessive American achievement culture and jump for bicycling Berliners as they sped past our peripatetic conversations. In cafes we took in our immediate world and found history alive inside it.

When I got lost—again—at Alexanderplatz in Berlin, I asked a man who met my eyes,

“Excuse me. Do you speak English?”

He smiled, “A little.”

“Could you tell me where Museum Island is from here?”

He hesitated, then said, “I’ll show you. I’m going that way.”

We resumed our quick pace and I told him, “I’m here to study the 1989 peaceful revolution, the fall of the wall.”

He nodded, interested, but perhaps only politely.

“It’s the story of…”  I hesitated over dissent–would he know that word?

“–Freedom!” he finished for me quickly, firmly, and happily. This was what I had come for: to ask for directions, tell them why I came, and absorb their passionate ownership of their history and identity as Eastern Europeans.

Our teacher group found a rich discourse of dissent in our seminar rooms. We met dissidents and joined their conversation about history and its effects on current politics and on education and how citizens engage and learn and have an effect on the polis—the state and the culture. We walked and talked together in museums and neighborhoods, churches and prisons and cemeteries and memorial parks, at cafes and on trains and in our apartments and hotel lobbies. We read the words of the Pole Adam Michnik (now a newspaper publisher and editor), the Czech Vaclav Havel (President of the Czech Republic for four years), and European historians like Timothy Garton Ash and Vladmir Tismaneau and Gale Stokes.

Winfried is a youth pastor who travelled the path of activism since signing the Berlin Appeal in 1982. For that he landed in prison facing the choice to emigrate to West Berlin or face Stasi surveillance and harassment. His son was three. Winfried was born the year after his father landed in prison during the 1953 uprising against the Stasi. Later four of us visited this prison, which was first a Nazi then a Stasi black hole for dissidents to learn their lessons for challenging state power. My poem “Stolen Lives” was inspired by Winfried’s story. He was silent when I asked him whether the loss of his father to prison and the birth of his son had directed Winfried’s choice to stay in the GDR when the Stasi offered him an exit. Finally, “Yes.”

“I stayed,” Winfried explained, “because I believe change only comes from inside. Many friends and neighbors left. I was sad, sometimes, felt alone, but never angry.” He created Peace Circles and these brought challenge in ’89 to election results with large demonstrations first in Leipzig and later Berlin. Winfried’s father’s life of protest lives in Winfried’s son through two lifetimes of work and vision.

Such dissent against communism and Nazism now directs much of Germany’s teaching of history. A controversial art project created “stumbling blocks,” several thousand embedded brick plaques to mark Jewish citizens’ removal from a home with their names, dates and final destination. Last June Berlin celebrated the 1953 protests against communism. The 1989 fall of the wall will be celebrated again next year on its 25th anniversary.

Nonviolence was the essence of dissent in every eastern European country. “We need to avoid violence—or we become what we abhor,” Adam Michnik writes about the Polish secret police.

I am afraid not of what they will do to us, but of what they can make us into….

And so I wish my good friends much patience to allow them to learn the difficult art of forgiveness…much strength to allow them to cross the empty darkness that stretches between despair and hope.

Germans who survived 12 years of Nazi and 40 years of Stasi surveillance were warped by the fear and mistrust of survival conditions, as the poet Eva Strittmatter wrote:

We have all lost very much.

Don’t fool yourself: also me and you.

We were born open to the world.

Now we keep the doors closed

to him and her and them.

Vaclav Havel was a poet and playwright as well as an activist and the first President of the independent Czech Republic. He wrote “The Power of the Powerless” to encourage the emerging “parallel polis” of the underground community of resistance fostered for spiritual survival. The essay “Dear Dr. Husak” was Havel’s challenge to the communist head of state in 1975 for destroying the soul of Czechs and their culture. My poem “In the Angel House on the Street of Political Prisoners” re-stitches Havel’s words. The three dissidents we met in Prague, and our seminar room in the university, were all inspired by the “angels” of dissent sent into secret prisons for political prisoners. The forty long years of totalitarian rule, all in the name of “the People,” generated innumerable unintended ironies.

Havel was an extraordinary artist activist who gave voice to a vision of different ways of living and participating in civil society actively, creatively, and cooperatively. With others: always in relationship, in responsibility to the group. How resonant this felt with Quakerism, as we remarked often in conversation with dissidents. How resonant it felt with so much of Westtown life over meals and along main hall and in classroom discussion.

The Peaceful Revolution fulfilled Gandhi’s vision of non-violent resistance for social justice. We teachers were on common ground in assuming that Good teaching is nonviolent resistance to injustice hidden and rationalized by the status quo. It…

makes our path by dreaming,

listens and finds your heart inside,

tells my story and recognizes yours inside it,

connects and is changed,

moves and is moved—joins a movement—feels ourselves inside a movement,

finds my courage from your courage, and, finally,

stands for your rights.

I loved the communion of city life: the eye contact of acknowledgement, of fellowship in a subway car or sidewalk crowd or cross-street choreographed for cars, bikes, trams and pedestrians, each in turn. I loved the walking and talking, eating and overhearing, gawking and absorbing the humanity in motion on the streets of Berlin, Leipzig, Prague, and Budapest. Sidewalk cafes and markets were each city’s heart and soul, where…

Faces reflect on faces, pools of light at every table.

The sewing-machine hum of voices

bind and stitch the fabric of the evening.

Bodies lean and languish

into the worn furniture of love.

One night at the Alibi Café in Budapest, my British friend Jane asked me, “How do you teach English and history and whose stories do you teach?” She was wondering what happened to the story of empire she was taught 45 years ago. We compared it to the American story of the Cold War I had read in our Weekly Readers (we 10-year-old dissenters mocked as Weakly Weeders). History was the story of winners. Now, “That deficit is why I’m a teacher,” I told Jane. “The purpose of education—its only purpose—is to prepare students to face their world.” Westtown students need knowledge, ethics, empathy, vision, perspective, interpretive skills, critical thinking, collaborative spirit and capacity for solitary reflection. Most of all, they need hope. They have some; they need more.

A survivor of a Hungarian labor camp, forced to move stones into a coal car, speaks on videotape in a Budapest museum, Terror Haza.  In the 1990s interview he is standing in the historical park made from the camp, in front of the cabin he froze in for five years in the 1940s.

My friend was starving, no longer speaking. He reached up with both hands and silently pulled my head to his. He kissed me on the lips. In his mouth was melted sugar lumps. These meant life to me.

Receiving this kiss, this holding of our heads by their hands, this communion wafer of life in its sweetness, is how we learn and grow our own humanity. Without this communion we are dead to ourselves as well as to others.  Perhaps we need this sugar kiss more than the survivor did.


In the Angel House on the Street of Political Prisoners

Dear Dr. Husak, A word to the top dog
from your blacklisted friend Vaclav Havel in the early days, 1975
(in Havel’s own words selected from his essay, “Dear Dr. Husak”)

Everyone has something to lose
and so everyone has reason to be afraid.
No citizen can hope
to challenge the power of the state.

Little gangs of aggressive fanatics,
notorious careerists, incorrigible cowards, and incompetent upstarts
seize their opportunity.

The number of hypocrites rises steadily.
Every citizen is forced to be one.

The mere appearance of experience—
smooth, hackneyed, superficial, trivial–
pallid reflections–
shed no light
on the unknown
the unsaid
the only guessed at.
It falsifies the real world.

The path to entropy
treats the individual as a computer
into which any program can be fed,
reduces him to a simple vessel
for consumer society,
turns him into pliable material
or complex manipulation.
Therein lies hidden the death principle.

Slowly but surely, we are losing the sense of time.
The feeling that it doesn’t really matter overwhelms us.
The deadening kills history.

You have sacrificed our spiritual future for your power.

But life rebels
and its secret is constantly made manifest.

To our amazement, we find that
nothing was the way we thought it was.
Such a tornado whirls through
the musty edifice of petrified power.

History demands to be heard.
The catalyst is any act of social awareness.

For we never know when
some inconspicuous spark of knowledge,
struck within range of a few brain cells,
may suddenly light up the road
for the whole of society.

Countless flashes of knowledge
cast light:



About Westtown School

Westtown School is a Pre-K through 12th grade Quaker, coed, college preparatory day and boarding school in West Chester, PA.
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One Response to Getting Past the Iron Curtain: Legacies of Dissent

  1. Mayland Reilly says:

    Wonderful. I’m so grateful you participated in this and more so that you take this back to the students. Thank you!

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