You really can’t rub out history

John ShattuckU.S. Ambassador to the Czech Republic
in conversation with
John W. ErwinDirectorThe Stories Exchange Project
U.S. Ambassador’s ResidencePrague28 November 2000
John Shattuck
The Stories Exchange Project, I think, is a way of getting people totalk about things that matter to them: things that are in their heartsand in their backgrounds.
People often see each other in settings where they speak abstractly. But the Stories Exchange Project gets them to speak personally. It crosses a lot of barriers.
And that’s impressive: it’s something that doesn’t happen very often. It’s particularly impressive in the context of people of different backgrounds, and different racial and religious experiences. It’s an honest approach toward how we relate to each other – if we really relate. Unfortunately it doesn’t happen often enough. So I salute the Stories Exchange Project for doing that.
We’re all a collection of experiences and things that have happened to us. Those are the things that matter the most, and I think if we share our pain or difficulty or things we have great love for or great experiences – , if we can somehow reach across and get some other people to understand those things, then they will relate them to their ownstories. And an incredible patchwork of communication will develop: realcommunication, not just pretend.
So I think stories, especially stories in the context of difficult social problems, problems of discrimination, problems of serious abuse – and certainly that’s the story of the Roma people in Central Europe and elsewhere in Europe and elsewhere in the world – , having those stories come forth, and then having people who are not Roma tell their stories about also sometimes feeling isolated or caught in a bind: I think that helps bring people together.
John Erwin
Yes: most heartily yes.
What’s the situation in this country now, as you see it?
John Shattuck
This country has a story that is very long and very complicated, going far back in history. And it’s a country in transition – as I guess all countries are and all people are. It’s in transition from an extremely painful period, basically half of the twentieth century, when totalitarianism of two different kinds came and completely destroyed the social fabric. The Nazis occupied the country from 1938 through 1945, and then the Communists were in power for forty years, from 1948 to 1989 – forty-one years. The country is struggling to emerge from that, and there are many, many scars.
In the period I’ve been here I’ve found there are scars that it’s hard even to begin to understand. They aren’t similar to our experience. But maybe when we hear stories about them we’ll understand.
Scars of not being allowed in any way to come together as a group of people, for example. In the recent past, the word volunteer in Czech has been been a very bad word: “volunteer” basically meant collaborator. During the Communist period, if you came forward to participate in something you were seen to be a collaborator.
We think of a volunteer as someone who steps up and does something that helps other people. I think that Czechs are relearning that. Certainly they have it in their past, and certainly they have it in their basic mind frame. But they’ve been afraid to step out and volunteer for things. The scars of Communism and the scars of fascism are very deep. But I think they’re healing.
John Erwin
What about people here whom you’ve met who do dare to step out?
John Shattuck
There are many people like that.
Certainly President Havel is the bestknown. His own experience in prison and then being a leader of the Velvet Revolution, and now president of the country – but there are many other people as well.
People like Jana Ryslinkova, a good friend of mine who has spent the last ten years doing things that she wasn’t able to do before, creating new organizations, developing a new system.
But I think the most impressive experiences I’ve had with people herehave been with students: high school students. And their teachers.
I’ve been participating in a a civic education project: Project Citizen.In several towns, fourteen- or fifteen-year-old students have spent a year looking at a community problem. They’ve identified the problem by going around to interview their neighbors and then tried to solve it.
In a town outside of Brno, Ivansice, I saw a remarkable class of fifteen-year-old students who spent the year working on the problem of water delivery to a small village outside the town. Everyone in the community said villages never have water: “we’re not able to make thewater companies deliver there; it’s just not something they seem to wantto do.”
Well, the students then studied how to go about developing a water system for this village. What are the engineering aspects of it? Why do people want the water? And they went and talked to the mayor and the city council and they came to Prague and visited the Minister of the Environment, and over the course of the year they found government money that could support this kind of project. Then they went to the chamber of commerce of this town and various small businesses and found several that were interested in bidding on this project.
So over the course of a year, fifteen-year-old students – about twentyof them from one class who had spent two or three hours a day on thisproject – actually succeeded in solving this community problem: they gotwater delivered to this village.
This was civic education, education in participation, and learning how you deal with problems, and how you pull the levers of democracy to try to solve problems for the community.
John Erwin
The situations in the States and in the Czech Republic are of course very different. What’s been your experience of translating – and mediating, in a sense – between these two cultures?
John Shattuck
The most important thing to do here, I’ve found, is to listen: to hear the stories and to try to absorb them, and to try to understand the culture and the scars that I was talking about before – and efforts to try to heal them. You certainly can’t do anything for people without listening to them.
Then it’s possible to provide help by finding some technical assistance and sometimes some money.
I spend a lot of time meeting with non-governmental organizations of all kinds: civil rights organizations, involving Roma rights, environmental groups, consumer groups. I invite them here to the Residence, to my house, to talk to me and to try to encourage them in the work that they’re doing, because it’s difficult work. Sometimes I’m able to find ways of sending some of them to the United States on study tours or formeetings there. Occasionally there’ll be some American expert who’ll come through whom I’ll introduce them to.
I’ve also been able to work in another area involving legal problems. The Czech Republic has a very weak judicial system, and it’s in the process of being reformed. I’ve worked with a lot of American judges whom we’ve brought over here to meet with Czech judges, to listen and to try to understand how it is that the tradition of judging here has been quite different from what we normally think of in a democratic judicial context.
So there are many ways in which as Ambassador I’ve been able to connect – but always by listening to stories.
John Erwin
Well, that’s of course the issue: stories can lead to political awareness and action. But what’s the connection, as you see it? How do you go from exchanging stories to taking hold and beginning to act as a member of the society?
John Shattuck
That’s the hardest thing, and it’s the thing that I think is coming slowest here – not surprisingly, given the legacy of Communism and all the disincentives from participating in society and actually stepping up and trying to influence the course of events. That was not something that one was expected or even allowed to do during that earlier period.
But I think the movement from stories to action is demonstrated by a number of examples. For instance the students that I was talking about a minute ago learned what needed to be done by listening to the stories of the people in the village that didn’t have water — and then they began to do what needed to be done. Their teacher encouraged them to do that. It was part of their curriculum.
What comes hardest here is what we sometimes take for granted in theUnited States: if we’re dissatisfied about something, we’ll complain. We’ll lobby our congressman or we’ll write a letter to the mayor or we’ll organize a group of citizens who will decline to vote for somebody in the next election. That’s slowly happening here. But I think it’s not coming as fast as it would be useful to have it come.
John Erwin
When we were in Terezin together in September – on that day of course one dark-skinned member of our group, Kumar Vishwanathan from India who works with Roms in this country was detained by the local police because he was said to fit their profile for criminal suspects.
[see “They forced me into the car and took me to the police station” on this Web-page under Stories and Responses, in the menu Being a Citizen]
That played into our theme perhaps all too well.
In any case, two questions about Terezin.
You’d been to Terezin before, I assume, but how did you experience thatgathering of Roms and Czechs in what was in a sense the wrong place, a Jewish memorial?
John Shattuck
Well, I think it was the right place actually: I think it was the right place because Terezin evokes the kind of crisis that stories sometimes can solve – if they are moved into action, as you were indicating.
And I think having such a diverse group in Terezin, Roms who had experiences to share and were able to come forward as they did and then a group of international people including a number of Europeans, myself and others, in that kind of informal setting was very good – and I hope it leads to more.
I think the Stories Exchange Project and other projects are trying to encourage that.
There are so many complicated issues of civil rights in this society and indeed in our society for that matter. Sometimes they are issues of law: how does the law discriminate against people?
But they’re more often than not issues of misunderstanding and ways in which people’s prejudices are allowed to run wild because they’re never reined in by having stories exchanged.
I think even the most confirmed racist, if he or she is put in one place with a person of the race that he or she believes is totally inferior, I think that person will change. And they will change especially if they have these kinds of exchanges of information.
So more and more of what that Terezin event was all about would I think very useful – not that there were racists in the room. In fact it would have been more useful if there were.
So if I have one piece of advice for the Stories Exchange Project: I think you need to reach out more broadly into the society and bring in a wide variety of Czechs – and maybe people in other countries as well.
John Erwin
Yes, that’s the challenge. And we’re beginning a big effort to do so, especially by moving the Stories Exchange Project into schools throughout the Czech Republic.
[see on this Web-page, under News: “Stories Exchange Education Project” and “Schools and Libraries in Usti nad Labem”]
And we hope in the UK and maybe Germany.
About Terezin for another moment, though: I find that stories of the Holocaust can be very powerful in this country because these are recognized stories of racism and of the horrors that result from that. What’s your sense about how Czechs respond to those stories? And do they relate them to what’s gong on today between a lot of Czechs and Roma?
John Shattuck
I think that the Holocaust experience is right at the heart of what this country is going through right now.
I spoke several days ago at an event where we planted trees in memory of the people who were rounded up in Veletrzni, an area less than a kilometer from where we’re sitting: they were rounded up and sent to Terezin and then on to Auschwitz.
I said in my remarks that what happened in 1938, -39 and -40 was that the heart of Prague had been ripped out. Prague of course is at the heart of Europe, I meanliterally, geographically, if you look at it. And there were tens of thousands of Jews who were at the heart of the participating culture here, democracy and the very colorful and diverse culture that was Prague. So I think that story is at the heart of this society.
And there are individuals whose stories are powerful. A woman named Heda Margolius Kovaly whose book Under a Cruel Star is well known to many Americans had the experience of living through the Holocaust, escaping from Auschwitz while her husband was in Terezin, and then finding him again after the Holocaust. And then they committed themselves to making sure that it never happened again, and then her husband came to see Communism as the solution. He climbed up the Communist party ladder, became a major figure in the early nineteen-fifties and then was executed in a show trial for crimes that the Communists later admitted he’d never committed, in 1952. She tried for thirty years to exonerate him, but above all she was driven by that powerful Holocaust memory. And now Heda Margolius Kovaly lives in Prague again and is spending the last chapter of her life coming to grips with this extraordinary experience.
I might add just a footnote because it’s interesting to me. I first encountered her in the Harvard Law School Library where she served as the Librarian for thirty years after escaping from here in 1968. Of course I had no idea what her story was.
[For other reflections upon the story of Heda Margolius Kovaly, the Jewish community of Prague, and the Stories Exchange Project see “Heda makes catastophe dance” in the menu entitled “The Holocaust” under “Stories and Responses” on this Web page.]
John Erwin
What effect do you think stories about that time have in this country?
When you tell stories like this to the generation that’s coming up, howdo they respond?
John Shattuck
I think that stories need to be both historical and contemporary, and I think the historical stories still resonate here.
A close friend of mine here, Jiri Stransky, is a writer who spent eightyears in the uranium mines and wrote a film called Boomerang which is about that period, the nineteen-fifties. It had a tremendous response from the Czech public when it was shown on Czech television.
But it’s certainly true that we all like the stories that are closest to our own experience. Naturally a younger generation will want that. I think the students in Ivansice who brought this water system to the village will tell that story to other students. And they may even understand that story better than they would the history of theHolocaust.
On the other hand, it’s very important to keep the real truth of historyalive.
I have a story about that.
Every year I go to Plzen, which was liberated by American troops in 1945, General Patton, and in 1948 when the Communists came in — each year I go because there is an event commemorating the liberation — butin 1948 the Communists basically changed history by saying the Americans didn’t liberate Plzen, it was liberated by the Soviets, and for forty years that’s what was taught in the schools.
Well, the people of Plzen knew better, and they had kept in their barns and in cellars paraphernalia from that period: they had American jeeps that were there and in 1990 when the first of these commemoration events thanking the Americans for liberating Plzen took place, all these jeeps somehow miraculously appeared on the streets.
You really can’t rub out history. Fortunately, people remember.
John Erwin
How about the Roms? How well do they remember – and what do they remember?
Are they putting themselves into their story, their history, at this point?
John Shattuck
They’re just beginning to write some of their stories. In Romany culture there’s a tradition of oral memory and stories are passed down from generation to generation. But I think those stories haven’t been as accessible until now to the general public, to the non-Rom public. It’s very wonderful that these are now being shared.
I’m less familiar with the old stories about the Roma, the kind that I’m telling about the Holocaust and about the liberation of Plzen. I look forward to learning more of them. Again, I think the Stories Exchange Project is a tremendous vehicle for bringing them out.
John Erwin
Yes, many people don’t know these stories – even some Roms.
When you came just about a year ago to open the Stories Exchange Project, you told stories about Americans making it all the way from not being served at a lunch counter to the Supreme Court – or to arguing cases before the Supreme Court. How do you think people here respond to American success stories?
John Shattuck
I think stories are universal. Of course they respond, though obviously they’re related to a particular culture. The kinds of stories that I’ve been telling about Americans I know who have overcome tremendous odds, taken stands on the community level, and really moved from stories to action – here are two.
A wonderful woman called Robin Cannon is the founder of the South Central Los Angeles Community Action Program. This got started about ten years ago when she learned that the city was about to create a garbage dump of toxic waste in her neighborhood, and she organized her neighbors and they went and stopped the construction of this garbage dump byprotesting in front of City Hall and getting a lot of other people involved. She then created this organization.
She’s really just a housewife, with seven or eight children, I don’tremember how many. She’s also got a job as a secretary. But these are things that really mattered to her because they were about to affect her life directly. Over the course of ten years her organization was responsible for bringing many small businesses into her community. She made a tremendous difference, and she’s been recognized as a community hero by a small foundation with which I’m involved.
Another woman in a rural community in the United States, Linda Stout, lives in a community that is very poor: there’s about an equal number of blacks and whites, and they had always been separated. There was hostility, even a high degree of racism, particularly from whites towards blacks. But Linda, who is white, realized that they had acongressman who was constantly voting against the interests of this community. He would allow their taxes to be raised or vote for highway construction that would go right through their community. So she got together this group of people and called it the Piedmont Peace Project.Within two years she organized all the whites and the blacks. They worked together, and defeated this congressman.
These are the kinds of things that happen in our society. And they canhappen anywhere.
John Erwin
What do Czechs say when you tell those stories?
John Shattuck
They’re interested: they’re really interested. Especially since they know that the people I’m describing are powerless. They’re not people with money and position. I think they’re moved by these stories.
They also realize that there are built-in cultural impediments here that sometimes prevent people from taking this kind of action.
On the other hand, there are any number of Czechs whom I’ve met who arebeginning to act like Linda Stout and Robin Cannon.
John Erwin
What about you? What did you learn here?
John Shattuck:
Well, I think I learned more patience, and I learned to listen. Americans are often much too impatient. We tend to jump from one thing to another. We also often have the idea that we can tell people howthey ought to live their lives, sometimes in a very friendly way. But Ilearned that that’s not necessarily the way to operate in the world.
I also learned an extraordinary wealth of information about a culture and a people that I didn’t know so well. And I can honestly say as I get ready to leave that second only to my own country, the Czech Republic is the country that I’m most fascinated by and that I love the most.
John Erwin
Bohemia and Moravia are certainly enormously rich in culture, and Czechidentity is very bound up with its cultural – well, let’s say it directly: with its cultural superiority. What kind of context does this give, do you think, for an effort to tell stories in an activist way – as the Stories Exchange Project does?
John Shattuck
Stories motivate people.
Of course they can motivate them in a very bad way: certainly Hitler was good at telling stories. So have been other great dictators.
But the stories that I think mean the most are not heroic, grand cultural stories like “The Story of Bohemia” – or even necessarily the story of the Roms. Rather, what does one individual have to say to others about his or her life? Those can be extraordinary stories. TheOdyssey was in many ways that: it was not the story about some great culture; it was about one man, Odysseus. So I would always want to look at the motivating story as the one that comes from an individual about his or her own experience.
I’d also be on the lookout for danger signs: for stories that are trying to get you to do something that you shouldn’t be doing. Stories can go in any number of directions, so you have to be patient, and you have to be careful as you listen.
But you also have to be prepared to tell your own story.
John Erwin
For sure.
Some of the stories that have recently been coming from the Roms have been about culture heroes: people who are not figures of the past, but people who have done extraordinary things and continue to do extraordinary things. They’re writers, they’re poets, they’re musicians – many are musicians – , and they’re being consciously held up by the Roms who tell these stories as models for their people. Have you encountered this at all?
John Shattuck
Well, that’s very important. I’m glad you brought that up, because I think in the end that’s what a motivating story has to be. Whom can we look at in our lives who is close to us, in some ways, either because they come from our own culture or our own economic circumstances and who has done something extraordinary, who can be a model?
I think that’s a very good part of the Rom story today: to find outstanding Rom achievers – and there are many in the world – and to urge them to come forward and explain themselves. African-Americans have done this. All hyphenated Americans have done it. Irish-Americans: I’m an Irish-American. Jewish-Americans have done this. Especially if you arrived in the United States as a poor immigrant, if you’re looking for a sort of foothold, a story of someone who’s got somewhere can make a big difference. And that’s certainly going to be true in the case of the Roms.
John Erwin
Do you think the Stories Exchange Project should be done outside the Czech Republic?
John Shattuck
Oh, absolutely. I don’t think there’s any national boundary for this project.
John Erwin
Possibly in the U.S.? Or do we do enough of this already?
John Shattuck
No. I don’t think so. No, I think we could do much more of this, and more of what I call civic education. Really, I think that’s what the stories are.
When I go back to the United States, in my next job I will be the CEO – the chief executive officer – of a new organization which builds on the legacy of President Kennedy, whose life is obviously an enormous story. In this new organization we will be trying to find ways of developing civic education programs, helping people understand the importance of public service and public participation. And that’s certainly going to require a lot of storytelling.
John Erwin
Yes, and Boston will produce stories – automatically.
John Shattuck
Right: there are plenty of stories there.
John Erwin
So we’ll follow you.
John Shattuck
I’ll be your outpost there.