When we planned our cruise on the Danube River from Germany to Hungary, we imagined scenic views of geological splendor interrupted by charming medieval villages and exquisite classical cities. Prague, Vienna and Budapest did not disappoint. The few days we spent in these cities barely scratched the surface of the art, music, architecture and unique regional cuisines served up on their wide open village squares and ancient cobblestone streets. This was what we came for! But in the end, it wasn’t the classical features at all that remained with us. It was the complex layers of a dark historical past that captured our imaginations.
We must have known that the ignoble fist of Nazi force would be mentioned more than once by our many tour guides. After all, this was Germany, Hungary, Austria, Slovakia and the Czech Republic. Atrocities took place. And we might have guessed that the more recent Communist influence would, at the very least, be referenced as an agent of cultural and creative oppression. What we didn’t expect was that both influences would provide the narrative emphasis behind nearly every tour at every port we visited, including tours of thirteenth century feudal towns. Eastern Europe, we learned, has not really been re-imagined. Instead, it is steeped in the zeitgeist of twentieth century iniquity.
This, of course, is understandable. Death camps blight the area; their voices have volume. Following a tour of one of the camps, Terezin, my husband embarked on what evolved into an entire month of sleepless nights. It was the most disturbing place he’d ever visited; the anguish still palpable. While he toured the camp, I toured Prague with a 65-year-old tour guide, who remarked,
“I had to return to school at the age of 50 to learn about my country’s history. I knew nothing of its past, about God or any religion. We were told we were ‘The Children of the Future’ and nothing that happened in the past mattered.” She looked at me sadly and shrugged. “What can you do?”
I was speechless, my heart ambushed by gratitude for the simplest things. I was grateful for the freedom to study, research, and pursue an education on any subject. Grateful for the freedom to read any book. Grateful that I could worship God in my own personal or public way, and that others could do the same. The list went on.
On the last night of our cruise, the ship’s captain performed a poignant vocal rendition of the American folk classic, “This Land is Your Land; This Land is my Land” by Woody Guthrie. Stunned for a moment, I thought—what is he saying? That America is his? This humble performance, combined with the lessons of our numerous tours, got me thinking hard about what America means, not just to me, but to the entire world.
The next day, soaring high over the Atlantic on our way home, I realized that America absolutely does belong to the ship’s captain from Slovakia. It belongs to him, his crew, and for that matter, to all of Eastern Europe. It belongs to the Mideast, to Africa, South America, and to every area of oppression on the globe. It belongs to them as much as it belongs to us. More than a country, America is likely the most powerful Idea in human history. It is an idea realized by immigrants and sustained by strength earned, in most cases, from great travail. Throughout history, America has served as the escape valve for all oppressed civilizations. Just the fact that it exists creates hope and possibility in the face of devastation and despair. Here we are all free to explore the human experience as we see fit. Whether we agree with our neighbor’s choices or not, makes no difference. What matters is freedom itself. Freedom to innovate, experiment, and produce. Freedom to make mistakes. Freedom to get back up and try again, or not.
For America to earn its reputation as the Home of the Free, we Americans have some collective thinking to do. Thinking that might be better done abroad where the seeds of our freedom first germinated in the hearts of forebears. Traveling moves us from a local mindset to a global one. It helps us rise above the myopic comfort of our own circumstance to view our country not as a possession, but as a model of manifest destiny. A destiny, that with a little perspective, we have a shot at fulfilling.
Some questions we might ask ourselves as we plot the future of our country: How did we get here? What famine, war, poverty, economic hardship or other oppression washed our ancestors onto these shores? What would have happened to them (or us) if America had turned them away? Of course some protection is in order, especially from those who seek to destroy the very freedoms we work so hard to cultivate. But is there not room to improve immigration policies to better serve the higher purpose of our founding principles? I think there is. After all, even if we no longer have room at our own table for every worthy refugee, we can still treat them with greater compassion and generosity. We can treat them as we would have wanted our grandparents treated, or our parents, or ourselves.
We are all one thing.
“Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed, to me:
I lift my lamp beside the golden door.”