I am worried because too many people, especially our youth, don't even have a clue as to what living under a totalitarian regime is like. Here is my story, how I learned about the evils of government domination and became the patriotic freedom-fighter that I am today.
I am a descendant of immigrants from Yugoslavia. They immigrated to the United States around 1900. As a young child, I took it for granted that my grandmother and mother spoke in a different language when they got together. I took it for granted that we ate different food at Grandma's house such as potica, blood sausage, sallata, and homemade noodles. It was when I was five years old that something happened to make me painfully aware that something was, indeed, very different about my family.
At that time, my mother disappeared for a while. I didn't really understand where she was, but when she came back, she brought a stranger with her, a stranger to live in our home. His name was France. He was my mom's cousin, and he lived with us for about a year. He was very nice and a lot of fun, but he was very nervous. He was nervous all the time. When we would go out in the car he would constantly be looking around, smoking a cigarette, with hands shaking, glancing continuously at the cars behind us or next to us. He would say things like, "They are after me." "They have followed me here." "They're going to get me."
There were other things peculiar about him, also. He ate fast, and one day he filled up a table top with stacks of food and my brother took a picture of it. France laughed and said he was going to send this picture to Tito. "Who is Tito?" I wondered. "And why does France want him to know that he has all this food?"
Then he started talking about his life in Yugoslavia. He said his family used to live on a beautiful farm, but the government took it away from them. He said the Communists controlled everyone and everything. They couldn't even cut a tree down on their own property for firewood. He was afraid to walk from the house to the barn for fear of being shot. You had to be careful of everything you said because if you said something against the government, you put your life at risk. France's brother, August, did speak out and was pushed in front of a train and his legs were cut off. The Communists called it an "accident." August survived and went to the hospital, where he was poisoned -- another "accident." We had a collie dog that I loved. One day I was hugging the dog and France told me that people couldn't have dogs in Yugoslavia because they couldn't afford them. He said people would stand around eating with both hands up to their mouth for fear of dropping crumbs on the floor -- they couldn't afford to drop any food because they didn't have enough to eat. He told me that the Communists brainwashed the citizens with propaganda and changed the history of their country. I couldn't believe it. "How could they get by with that?" I thought.
He told me that leaving his country, his home, was very difficult. I later learned that he had had a girlfriend in Yugoslavia, and when he left with my mother, she fell on the ground, sobbing, "I know I'll never see you again."
But here is the scariest thing he told me. "It is coming here, Char," he said. "It is coming here." Needless to say, that terrified me.
At Grandma's house, there was a lot of talk about Yugoslavia, but she didn't tell me all the horrors of living under Communism like France did. All I heard was that they missed their farm and how beautiful it was, but that the government owned it now. There was always a cloud of extreme sadness around this subject. Also, Grandma and Freddie would send money to Yugoslavia because the family that remained there had no money.
France had a sister named Mimi. When she was twenty-nine, she left Yugoslavia. Here is her story:
"My parents and grandparents were farmers. They used a horse in the fields. They lived in the same house. The roof on their home was made of straw. It didn't leak, and animals and insects did not live in it. A man came to fix the roof once every ten years. Inside the house there were two bedrooms, one pantry, and one large living and cooking area.
"My mother was a happy person. She was sick in bed for ten years with multiple sclerosis and died at age forty-five. My father was a happy man and died of a heart attack. My grandmother was a tough lady, serious, and died old. My grandfather drank. He went back and forth from the U.S. to Yugoslavia. He would go to Yugoslavia, sell part of the farm, and go back to the U.S. He died in the U.S. and died old. My brother, Carl, worked in the mines. He developed a disease in the lungs where if they took it out he would die and if they left it in he would die. My brother, August, was murdered by the Communists, and Albina, my sister, stayed in Yugoslavia.
"Life under communism was very hard. Oh, how the people suffered! On the farm in Ljubljana, my family got up at 4 AM and worked until 10 PM, and the government took everything. When I decided that I would leave, I took my shoes to a shoemaker and asked him to cut a hole in the bottom (here I put my American money that relatives had sent me), then the shoemaker covered the hole with another sole. I did not want to be caught with money because then people would know I was going to leave, and this would be very dangerous. This was my idea to do this. I kept the shoes dirty and muddy. When I left Yugoslavia I put what few possessions I had in a bag and left without saying goodbye to my father. I did that because if the Communists asked him where I was, he could honestly tell the truth and say he didn't know.
"I wore black as a disguise. People only wore black if there was a death in their family and since our family had had no deaths, the guards in Ljubljana would not suspect who I was. There were guards everywhere. From Ljubljana I walked to Maribor. There I gave a farmer some money and he told me which way to go to get out of the country. He told me which way through the mountains, and then I had to go through a river. The first time I tried it, it was too dangerous, so I came back. The second time I was successful. I went through the mountains, through the river, changed my clothes, waited until the changing of the guards at noon, and walked through."
We told her that must have taken a lot of courage. Wasn't she scared? Did she ever think that she could be killed?
"No, I never thought of dying because I had no life where I was, so how could anything be any worse?"
We asked her, Wasn't it hard to leave all her things?
"I had no possessions, just two outfits, so no, it was not hard.
"When I crossed the border, I went to Graz. (I chose Austria because it was quicker to get to America from there; in Italy, one had to wait two to three years.) In Austria, I had to stay in a camp until I could get permission to go to America. I was in a camp three months and did a lot of work. I wrote to the neighbors of my family and told them that I was in Austria and was flying to America. I told the people in the camp that I had left Yugoslavia for a better life. As it ended up, I could not go to the U.S. because their quota of immigrants was full, so I had to go to Montreal, Canada. Before I left Austria I kept reminding the man that I had worked for to bring me my shoes, that the ones I had were uncomfortable. Right before I left he brought me the muddy, dirty shoes.
"When I opened my bank account in Canada the teller asked me, 'Where did you get this money' [because it was so flat and musty]? I told him that someone gave it to me; I did not tell him that the money had been in my shoes."
Life, if you can call it that, under Communism was miserable -- so miserable, they would do anything to get out. Have you ever wondered why immigrants from all over the world wanted to come to the United States? Do you know why our country was once known as the melting pot?
The answer is that our country was originally founded on the principle of individual rights. The Founding Fathers thought that each person had inalienable rights. These were the right to life, the right to liberty, the right to pursue one's own happiness, and the right to property (to earn and keep what you work for). That meant that if a family owned a farm, they had a right to keep what they worked for on that farm. They could criticize the government and not live in fear of being shot at or being pushed in front of a train. It meant that they could live the way they wanted without government interference, could freely trade with each other and make money. They could decide how they wanted to live and could live that way as long as they respected the rights of others.
The amazing thing was that the government in the United States protected its citizens instead of seeking to control them. This was the first time in the history of the earth that a country had been founded on the principle that man had rights and that the purpose of the government was to protect these rights rather than to trample on them.
So how could France say Communism would come to America? Well, as the old saying goes, history repeats itself, and he could see when he arrived here that the United States had already put into place laws and regulations that his own country had done. Those laws pave the way for Communism. If he were alive today, what do you think France would have to say about the concept of political correctness? I know what he would say. He'd say that's how they take steps to take your freedom of speech away and control your mind. What do you think he'd say about a government that takes over banks and car companies? He would say that is no different from when they took over his farm. What do you think he'd say about the government taking over your health care? I know what he would say. He would say Americans are fools.
So here I am, an adult, watching France's prediction come true. How can this happen here in America? The reason is that over time, the concept of rights has been corrupted. "Rights" has now come to mean "wants." You want an education? Or food? Or health care? Or a car? A cell phone? No problem, it will be provided. But who will be providing it? The taxpayers -- you and me. And when we are forced to pay for someone else's wants, we become slaves. It is no different from my ancestors on the farm in Yugoslavia.
It was when I read Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand that the pieces fell into place for me and I began to understand that the concept of individual rights has been corrupted by the belief that we need to live our lives for others rather than ourselves.
My ancestors were immigrants, and just like a lot of immigrants, they came to America for a better life. But a lot of immigrants came to America for a better life, so I learned as an adult that they really weren't that different after all. But to a five-year-old child, the impressions of seeing a grown man shake and sweat with fear while simply riding down the street in a car left a lifelong impression on me.
I think about Mimi when she said, "Oh, how people suffered!" I think about France on his deathbed, when he was dying of cancer, and I think that I, for one, will not give up my country without a fight. We owe it to them, to what they struggled for, and most of all, to ourselves. I credit France for my riveted commitment to capitalism, to freedom, today. It is because of what he taught me about freedom that I won't give it up. You see, when people talk about their heritage, they can either make it their own or they can walk away from it. And I, for one, will never walk away from mine.