Tuesday, May 20, 2008

The Wall: Growing Up Behind the Iron Curtain

I stumbled upon an excellent book while in Barnes and Noble after work on Monday, checking to see if the store had a copy of Mercedes and the Chocolate Pilot. Instead, I found The Wall: Growing Up Behind the Iron Curtain written and illustrated by Peter Sis. Essentially, it is the memoir of a man who was born in Czechoslovakia at the beginning of the Cold War and grew up under the thumb of the Soviet Union.

The book begins with an introduction from the author, which is a condensed history lesson of the rise and fall of the Soviet Union:

The Soviet Union and the Western nations managed their territories in very different ways. The Western Bloc countries were all independent democracies, while the Eastern Bloc was tightly controlled by the Soviet Union. But not everyone in the Eastern Bloc countries wanted to live under totalitarian dictatorships, and many people began leaving for the West. To prevent a mass exodus, the Soviet Union fortified the borders around much of Eastern Europe and eventually built a wall that cut the city of Berlin in half. And so Europe was divided - symbolically, ideologically, and physically - by what Winston Churchill, the British statesman, called an Iron Curtain.
I was born at the beginning of it all, on the Red side - the Communist side - of the Iron Curtain.

I wouldn't pick Sis's style of art for decorating, but his simple line drawings work beautifully in telling his story. Most of the illustrations are black on white, with red accent - flags and stars, mostly; the color you do see comes from the depictions of the work of the young Peter - he's drawn as long as he can remember... He tells his story through the pictures, like a storyboard or a comic book. Words are used sparingly with the illustrations, but he is able to make his point:

1948. The Soviets take control of Czechoslovakia and close the borders.
The People's Militia enforces the new order.
Communist symbols and monuments appear everywhere.
The Czech government takes its order from Moscow.
The display of red flags on state holidays - COMPULSORY. People who don't comply are punished.

You see the word "COMPULSORY" many times, along with the list of things that are mandated by the state that the people MUST do. I think it will be very eye-opening for an American child who has only known freedom.

Telephones are bugged.
Display of Western flags - PROHIBITED.
Only the official art, Socialist Realism, is permitted.
Certain books and films are banned. Art and culture are censored.
Western radio is banned (and jammed).
Letters are opened and censored.
Informers are rewarded for snooping.
There are shortages of almost everything. People stand in long lines.

"This was the time of brainwashing." That is the caption of an illustration which includes Lenin, the Kremlin, Stalin, Khrushchev and Brezhnev.

Sis also includes excerpts from his journals, from 1954 through 1977. Family members are declared enemies of the state. Children are encouraged to inform on their parents. He's in a rock band with friends. He wants to have long hair, but that brings the suspicion of the government and his father makes him cut it. Someone he knows is beaten to death by police. His professor is relieved of his teaching position - he is considered progressive. He also tells of a hijacking on June 8, 1972 in which the young hijackers shoot the pilot. He tells of censors looking for hidden messages in his artwork - is the wind sock blowing in the proper direction (from the east)?

You see color when he tells of things from the West that somehow find their way behind the Iron Curtain: a yellow submarine and a walrus, rock musicians and records and films... That all ends on August 21, 1968 when the Soviets invade, along with their client states of Bulgaria, East Germany, Hungary and Poland. "The Czech progressive government is sent to Moscow for 'reeducation'."

"He was painting dreams... and then nightmares. The dreams could be kept to himself, but the drawings could be used against him. He stopped drawing and was left with only his dreams."

He draws the fortified border, people trying to escape, and sometimes the soldiers are trying to stop them. My favorite illustration follows those images - a young man on a bicycle with his drawings, then the next page shows the young man, still on his bike, flying through the air with his drawings as wings, escaping from the pursuing police, and finally leaving a dark land labeled with "stupidity", "suspicion", "terror", "fear", "envy", "injustice", "corruption" and"lies" into bright one labeled with "truth", "justice", "hope", "inspiration", "integrity", "freedom", "joy", "liberty", "dreams", "wisdom", "dignity", "respect", "love", "morality", "happiness", "benevolence", "virtue", "spirit", "equality", "honor", "knowledge", "pride", "trust" and "art".

In the Afterword, he concludes "Now when my American family goes to visit my Czech famliy in the colorful city of Prague, it is hard to convince them it was ever a dark place full of fear, suspicion, and lies. I find it difficult to explain my childhood; it's hard to put it into words, and since I have always drawn everything, I have tried to draw my life - before America - for them. Any resemblance to the story in this book is intentional."

I cannot more highly recommend this book. Although this book is recommended for children from 8 to 12 years old, you could use this book for older children, too, especially in a teaching setting - I even asked my dad if he taught The Cold War in his World History class at a local high school. It is the first book that I am aware of that broaches the subject of the evils of Communism that is designed for a young audience, and for that alone, it is an important work.

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