A Land Without Laughter

We were on a trolley in Prague, going to the house of Vladimir,* a Czechoslovakian whom we had casually met at the site where the Nazis had murdered some Czech resistance fighters. As we passed the drab buildings, he said to us in German: “A land without laughter.” This summed up what we felt from the moment we went behind the Iron Curtain to the moment we re-entered Free Germany. No joy. No laughter. No lights. No frills. “Ein land ohne lachen.”

To see a different Europe from that of the free world, my wife, one of our sons and I decided to spend eight days in a Communist country. We rented a car and traveled in a counter-clockwise fashion from West Germany, to southern Bohemia and Moravia, north and west again to Prague.

The first town we came to—Domazlice—was typical of much of Czechoslovakia. It has the makings for a fascinating tourist visit; colorful, old, Baroque houses, all joined together, surrounding a lengthy, open, town square. The buildings were of pastels, several having striking designs that we were to and again and again in the country. In the center was a 13th-century stone tower, from which a good perspective of the town could be had.

It had the makings—I say—of an attractive area, but it was not that attractive now. Paint was peeling, stucco falling, cobblestones were loose, on the side street grays dominated. The store windows were drab and unenticing.

My notes state: “Deserted. No cars. No people in the streets.” This typified much of Czechoslovakia; Deadness. Instead of lovers strolling in the streets, hand in hand, crowds milling around as they window-shopped, street vendors hawking their wares, cars honking their horns, the smell of bratwurst in the air—instead of all these signs of life, there was a quietness that reminded the visitors of a western ghost town. The buildings were there, and the ever-present soldier was visible, but where were all the fun-loving people on a Saturday afternoon?

My impression was that Communism had no time for the unnecessary and varied frills of the western world that make life so much fun, but that it tried to meet the essential needs of the people, and it has not even succeeded in doing that.

Now it is true that there are touches of elegance but they are only touches. Prague can boast of a fine—if modest—art museum, with the paintings tastefully displayed. But right there was the sign of a land without laughter. For in this museum in Czechoslovakia’s largest city, I met only seven visitors in an hour‘s visit on a Friday afternoon! There were no throngs rushing to enjoy the splendid Rubens or Rembrandts or Breughels. It was as if Communism felt it had to put on a show of loving art but didn’t dare to let loose to enjoy it.

And it is true that the gloriously situated and magnificently built castle of Karlstejn has been restored and that trumpeters sound their medieval horns to begin the tours, lending a delightful and unnecessary touch to the atmosphere of this medieval bastion. And it is true that some of the towns are beginning to be restored to their original beauty.

But these are only a few examples of elegance in a generally drab, dull land. Here are some concrete examples of the unimaginative, no-time-for-frills Communist mentality:

1. There were no finely-manicured lawns. In the Netherlands, Belgium and Scotland, for example, even in very modest homes there is an obvious pride in the appearance of the gardens. LawDS are cut and edged, hedges trimmed, and flowers bloom profusely. To the American, who is not unaccustomed to fine things, home after home is simply elegantly surrounded by beautiful gardens. But in our eight days in Czechoslovakia, we saw only three areas (public or private) that had even a mowed lawn! It was as if the government thought that the lawn mower was an invention of the bourgeoisie and therefore evil. Public squares, through which many people pass, have monuments and fountains created in the pre-Communist era, but even here in these most obvious places of all, the Communists have no time for such niceties. New apartment buildings were surrounded by scraggly grass instead of closely clipped lawns and trimmed bushes. The Communists are proud of ten state-owned combines working productively in one wheat field at a time, but apparently the lawn mower is an unnecessary luxury that the hard worker should disdain.

Lidice is a good example of the lack of imagination and lack of a desire for beauty. Lidice is the town that Hitler vowed to so destroy that the world would remember it no more. This was in reprisal for the assassination of his ruthless aide, Heydrich. He succeeded in leveling it to the ground, but its memory will live forever—in the free world as well as in Czechoslovakia. The Communist built a new town next to it, but made the old site a memorial park. It might be thought that the memorial is an unnecessary luxury, but it fits in well with the ever-continuing Communistic exploitation of anti-Nazi feeling. But right here, where they could have made a beautiful park as the Americans have with their huge war cemeteries, they have allowed the lawns to become weeds and hay. And even after some fifty countries had given rosebushes for a garden, they have failed to keep the garden up. This lack of mowed lawns is a minor matter, but it accurately reflects the joylessness of Communistic Czechoslovakia.

2. Another evidence of the drabness of the land is seen in its buildings. Although some are repainted and are attractive, the general impression one receives is that of unkemptness. Cement or stucco facing is tumbling down and not being fixed. Grays predominate. There is little variation from the uniform cement exteriors no wood or brick. “Unkempt” was the word that came to mind again and again.

In downtown Prague the visitor is overwhelmed with the scaffolding. It is everywhere—on the main streets, the beautiful streets, and the side ones. Sidewalks become tunnels through a maze of scaffolding footings. The impression is that much beautify ing is going on, but on closer inspection, one soon finds that the rusty scaffolding has been there for months and that there are very few workmen using it. It is so old that if the Communists are not careful, they will need new scaffolding to repair the old scaffolding! Outside of Prague we saw no attractive homes, like those in the Austrian or Swiss Alps or the German or Dutch villages and towns.

3. Store windows were another example of the dullness of the land. In downtown Prague on its main street there were a few store windows tastefully dressed. But the norm of the land is dullness. First of all, the decor is not that appealing. Since the stores are all state owned and operated, there is no competition to outdo the windows next door and take the trade away from that merchant. A few feeble attempts are made to display the wares attractively, but they lack the extravaganza of a Jordan Marsh window vigorously competing with Filene‘s or Stern‘s in order to woo the customer‘s laoner. After all, the state is going to get the few kroners that the Czechs have anyway, whether they go to state-store A or state-store B.

Second, the content of the stores was pathetic—even of the grocery stores—No great multiplicity of soaps, canned vegetables, soups, macaroni, pickles, you name it. Dresses, suitcoats, ties and shoes—yes. But no overwhelming variety to entice every caprice of the customer. As for many products, such as cars, you take what you can get—if you can get it—and that is the coughing Skoda. And if you should happen to like to sweeten your bread with jam, you had better make it yourself, for we never did find any in all the stores in which we shopped.

We tried to find something distinctively Czechoslovakian to take home as a remembrance, but our options were limited. In nearby Austria, we can find all kinds of woodcarving, for example, the pride of the individual woodworker. But in Czechoslovakia the nearest we could come to that was the glassware and china. And that was made with a monotonous uniformity in a state-owned factory, so that we found the same items in the stores all over the country. Again, no individualistic pride in the work of one’s hands.

The only souvenir we did secure—outside of a watercolor of Prague’s charming Charles Bridge was a two-and-a-half-foot long street broom made of small branches with many twigs and without a handle. The caretaker of an ancient church gave it to us when we admired it, and I treasure it highly.

4. A fourth evidence of a land of grays and blacks was the poor illumination on the streets. As twilight approaches the streets grow darker and darker but the lights do not come on—until it is very dark, and even then the lighting is most modest. If the fountains are playing—which is apparently a bourgeoisie frivolity, for we saw few of them running- they are not lit. The store windows were darkened, so that any modest display of state goods could not be seen. And so, walking down the streets of Susice was a depressing experience. The one light that did dominate in this town was the big Red Star that peered down on the strollers everywhere in the square reminding them of the presence of Big Brother. I was glad to get out of sight of the big red eye and get back to my hotel room that was fixed up attractively for western tourists. At least there we could have the joy of reading up in our guide books and plan for the next day.

In Prague, instead of lights playing in the old town square or on monuments or fountains or bridges or cathedrals, darkness reigned, and the park benches were empty.

5. Prague is one of the great and beautiful cities of the world. It has history, medieval towers and buildings, one of Europe’s greatest Gothic cathedrals, monuments, old town squares, a river with bridges, including the charming Charles Bridge, museums and a pleasant shopping area if the scaffolding is ever removed.

But its beauty is clouded over. There is not much litter in the streets (maybe because they have so little with which to litter), but it is one of the dirtiest cities we’ve encountered. Trucks pour out clouds of fumes, and after one truck passed by, my wife’s vanilla ice cream cone was covered with flecks from the dirty streets. The cobblestone streets are most uneven, and for the first time in my life I saw trolley tracks that were bent because of the rough road. Buildings need to be patched and painted, the fountains turned on and the lights lit to help restore some of the quality of life that rightly belongs to this charming city.

6. A final evidence of the land’s drabness is the lack of material luxuries. Now material things do not make a nation great or happy or strong. Witness the civilization of ancient Greece, which was poor in comparison with twentieth century standards and yet had one of the greatest spirits of all civilizations. And consider some modern countries, such as Spain and Italy, that have a standard of living several cuts below the American standards, and yet have a love of life. But the unnecessary Communistic poverty makes a drab life even drabber.

Our friend Vladimir, for example, lives in a single room in Prague! Here is a 57year-old man whose wife is working, and yet they are able to afford only one room, eighteen by eighteen. In one corner was a bed with a sagging mattress where the mother, father, and 12-year old boy slept! In the opposite corner stood a small stove. A table was in the center with four straightback chairs. Apart from two easy chairs, another small table and an eight-foot clothes-linen closet, there was nothing else in this crowded state-owned room. A narrow bathroom contained a hot water heater, a toilet, bathtub and very small sink. This is the joy of a Communistic regime, the reward to two of its laborers, who were in the upper years of their productive lives. If, however, they had been faithful party members, they probably could have obtained better quarters.

Another sign of the material failure of materialistic Communism is the long lines of customers waiting to buy consumer products. When we were there, watermelons were coming in, and in several towns we saw twentyor thirty-minute lines to get one small, round watermelon. It would not be right to overemphasize the lines, but they were frequent, and as Vladimir said, it reminded him of the war. At one gasoline line we were car number twenty and there was only one man operating the pumps. Typical inefficiency.

Cars are scarce in Czechoslovakia—so much so that we were always able to park our car directly in front of our hotels, whether in the towns or in Prague. Coming to Prague on a Thursday afternoon at 5:30 p.m. on a major route, about a half hour from the city, we encountered only forty passenger cars in a half hour over a space of thirtyone kilometers—a little more than one per kilometer! In Brno, the second largest city in Czechoslovakia, in the middle of the afternoon, we could stand at one of its busy shopping centers and not see a car moving. In the smaller towns, at the very heart of town, at morning, noon or night, cars were a rarity.

Strikingly, there were few bicycles. Rather, people were seen walking on lonely highways far from any houses.

One final touch of materialistic failure or was it fear of exposure to the west?—telephoning to another country. At the Belgium Bible Institute I made three direct dial calls to America at an incredibly low cost. But our breakfast company at a Prague hotel—an Italian engineer—told of his attempt to make a call to a place outside Czechoslovakia and how he had to make an appointment for the following day after he had told the authorities whom he wanted to call.

Some have thought that the poverty of Czechoslovakia is due to the war. But not sot Germany was ravaged, and Czechoslovakia hardly knew what devastation was. Yet Free Germany has risen to an astonishingly high level of prosperity.

But more than these material deprivations takes away the joy in this land. The basic and fundamental cause is the repression of Communism—the denial of basic liber ties.

There is always the fear of the authorities. We asked a caretaker in an historic church in the countryside about Catholic schools. He said that parents had the right to ask permission to have their children catechized one hour a week. “But how about regular Catholic day schools?” At this he choked up and said they were not permitted. And we did not press our questions any further.

I couldn‘t help thinking that although American parents have the freedom to send their children to non-state schools, we are about the only count ry in the free world that sets up-state schools, makes all people pay for them, and then requires those who do not want a secularistic education to pay hundreds of dollars extra for a God-centered education. In spite of our vaunted freedom, we have moved away from our historic moorings, where parents who wanted a Christ-centered education were not required to pay twice for it, and we have given financial preference to the religiously secularistic state schools.

The lack of freedom extends to censorship as well. In one book store, after repeated questioning, the sake; clerk pulled out from under the counter a modern translation of the New Testament. But I searched in vain for newspapers from the free world. I looked in the kiosks on the main street where most international visitors stay. I looked in the hotels. Finally I found on a back street a foreign press book shop. There I could find Pravda and the French Communist Humanite and the official organ of the German Communist party. But Time magazine? The Herald Tribune? The New York Times? Maybe they are to be found , but I could not locate them anywhere in Prague after several searching inquiries. When I asked Vladimir about this, he assured me they were not available.

I also asked him about the radio, for in all our hotels, we had only one station we could turn to. That was the Communistic one, where you have to take the propaganda along with the good. He assured us that he listened to Radio Free Europe every day and his eyes flashed with pleasure.

We learned that one of our Prague hotels was on the same street where the beloved first president of Czechoslovakia, Thomas Masaryk, once lived. As we stood in front of the building, we asked a passerby where the house was where Jan Masaryk, minister of foreign affairs and son of Thomas, was pushed by the Communists out of the window to his death. He hesitated to talk about that, told us of his brother who lives in Stowe, Vermont, and at the end of our conversation asked us to forget our conversation. He did not want to get in to trouble.

The most irritating evidence of Communistic domination was the signs and posters that everywhere screamed “I am the greatest.” It was impossible to escape them at any time. In one small town square there were at least twelve signs shouting Communism. In the stare windows, on the road, on buildings, on factories – everywhere—were the red propaganda signs and emblems. Rarely did the Czechoslovakia flag fly alone: the red flag was always alongside it.

And even the Russian Rag. 1977 is the sixtieth anniversary of Russian Communism, and so the Czechoslovakians were constantly reminded of that. In the old town square of Prague, for example, a bandstand was set up on a semi-permanent basis, with big banners proclaiming the anniversary. On the two successive afternoons that we were there, the Communists provided free, firstclass musical entertainment—but coupled it, naturally, with propaganda.

One of the fine castles of the land—Hluboka—has been restored to its former beauty. But the ever-present Communists had the gall to end the tour of the magnificent rooms with three rooms of blatant distortions of the truth concerning the common people by former lords and the glorious freedom that Communism brings. Hopefully, most Czechoslovakians are immune to this sort of untruth. Czechoslovakian Communism is trying to do the same.

We had a particularly good talk with an archaeologist at the site of a grand fortress that was successfully stormed in the 15th century by Hussite leader John Zizka. (Here, too, the historical brochure ended up with a paragraph on Hah! Rah1 Communism is great 1″) He was taking measurements of the ruins, so we asked him about the history of the castle. Then he asked us about our reaction to Czechoslovakia, and soon he launched into a strong defense of Communism. I kept wondering what had influenced him. He had known the country in the days of freedom, was well educated, and looked refined

On the ninth day we returned to the free world. What a relief! That night we entered a West German village and spontaneously we all exclaimed for joy. Spotlights illuminated a beautiful, stone church tower. Fountains were playing, illuminated by lights. People were strolling around the streets, going to cafes and looking at the exquisite store window displays.

The next day we hit the delightful city of Bamberg. The houses were freshly painted with decorative designs. The streets were winding and narrow. Bridges spanned the Regnitz and in the middle of the stream was the old Town Hall with all kinds or painting on the outside. On top of the hill was a magnificent church with an apse at both ends! And in the city hundreds had turned out for the annual fair of four days. Bands were playing, people were drinking beer from liter mugs. We consumed two bratwursts and ice cream. Oh what a joy! No fear, no propaganda, but freedom—freedom to do what we wanted. The sun was even brighter. Thank you, God, for the free world!

*Vladimir is not his real name.

Edwin H. Palmer is the Executive Secretary of the New International Bible sponsored by the New York Bible Society International.