Cedar Rapids, Iowa
By Gail Naughton, President and CEO of the National Czech & Slovak Museum & Library
May 28, 2018
I am deeply honored to be invited to give the keynote speech at today’s Memorial Day ceremony. I am privileged to stand with you commemorating the sacrifices of those military men and women who laid down their lives in service to this nation. I would like to take a moment to acknowledge those of you who have lost a loved one in the line of duty, or care for or have cared for a wounded warrior. No amount of time can wipe that experience away. No words of condolence can adequately begin to console a survivor’s grief. And while grief may change over the years, it never leaves us.
Let us pause for a moment of prayer and compassion.
I want to talk today about what it is that drives us to sacrifice for our country. Why do we fight, salute, meet, and even protest out of concern for our country? What are the values, the responsibilities that compel us all as citizens? Do we need to stop to think about them again?
My knowledge and reflection have grown over my years at the museum. I’ve come to learn that freedom and identity, family and community, human rights and the very dignity that should be accorded every human being, are the foundation of a free country.
I’ve heard lots of stories from immigrants and descendants, here in Cedar Rapids, across the country, and even internationally about the decisions they made, what they sacrificed. It was in their voices—the determination and perseverance it took to sacrifice for their families, to escape from tyranny and to strive for a better life.
I read something the other day written by Philip Roth, the famous author who died this week. He put into words what it means, certainly better than I could, to live in the clutches of totalitarianism. He said, “Every day brings a new heartache, a new tremor, more helplessness, more hopelessness, and yet another unthinkable forfeiture of freedom and free thought in a censored society already bound and gagged. The usual rites of degradation prevail: the ongoing unmooring of one’s personal identity, the suppression of one’s personal authority, the elimination of one’s security—a craving for solidity and equanimity in the face of ever-present uncertainty and the seeming unreality of it all. Unforeseeableness is the new norm, and perpetual anxiety the injurious result.”
The reason I share this frank and depressingly accurate description of what it is to be without freedom, is to bring home the point of what we and our warriors fought for. This country was founded with values like no other: our Bill of Rights. The first amendment avows freedom of religion, speech, press, assembly, and redress of grievances. Those rights, along with those in all 10 amendments in the Bill of Rights, set us aside from many other nations and make us what we are today.
But we must be ever vigilant to preserve those rights. I’ve learned that freedom is fragile. We can’t allow politics, one-upmanship, or personal crusades to veer us off course. The voice of one can’t arbitrarily be the voice of all. We each have to take responsibility that America is a country for all its citizens, one that respects the rights of all persons as our founders intended.
I know I’m speaking to the choir here, literally in some cases I’d bet. But I don’t think there’s ever been a more important time to check in on these values. Not only for us but for our children and our grandchildren. They must not only wave the flag, but also stand up for what is right, and freedom from tyranny for us all. We owe the soldiers and veterans we remember today no less. Peace – in our own country, and in the world – is the consolation for them and for their families that their sacrifice was right and justified.
When our forebears made the wrenching decision to come to America it was those same values and freedoms they were seeking. They didn’t mind the hard work or starting at the bottom because they could make their own decisions and actually reap the rewards from that labor. I’ve heard over and over again stories about grandparents who couldn’t speak English, but who made their children speak in English so they could be Americans. In one of our oral histories, a lady said, “There was much more opportunity here than I would have had over there—there you needed a paper to prove you could do something. Here, it was like ‘You can do it? Okay, try!’”
Those values have led men seeking it to extremes. Another of our oral histories is of Radek Masin, who was born in Olomouc, Moravia, in 1930. His father, Josef Masin, was an officer in the Czechoslovak Army who was executed by the Nazis, while his mother, Zdenka, was a civil engineer who spent part of WWII in the Terezin concentration camp. Today, Radek and his brother Joseph, both gone now, are perhaps most famous for their escape from Czechoslovakia in 1953. The brothers had tried to leave the country once before in 1951, but the plan was foiled and Radek was arrested and imprisoned in a Gulag mining Uranium for two years. His stories of that prison are too gruesome to even share here. When he got out, they undertook a second, ultimately successful, escape attempt that included gun fights, killing, death, and a harrowing escape from a train.
Sacrifices are part of what makes a democratic nation. Today we remember those who gave their lives for our freedom, veterans whose lives were and are never the same, families and loved ones who suffered, and a country that has endured loss and grief.
And we remind ourselves of the freedoms they fought for.
Freedom and identity, family and community, human rights and human dignity.
Vaclav Havel said, “The salvation of this human world lies nowhere else than in the human heart, in the human power to reflect, in human meekness, and human responsibility.”