Finding America in the Czech Republic
"Breathe in, breathe out, breathe in, breathe out," I start, eyes closed. A slight chill fills the room as I begin my service. I suppose thatís understandable. It is a crematorium.
Three feet away the ovens still stand. Three feet away the remaining ash of my family members litters the floor. Yet, here I stand, three feet away.
There are no American flags here, no picnics, no flashing lights, no fireworks like back home. You wouldnít know it was July 4th if it werenít for the small, defiant scribbled date in the corner of my journal. Many of my fellow pilgrims missed the usual commercial excitement that to me had wiped the date clean of meaning.
Just over a week before, at Girls State, an American Legion Auxiliary-sponsored program, I met those with a blind faith in America and a blind faith in God. This was supposed to be a place conceived to celebrate American values and educate students about the Constitution; yet, when I spoke out - when I brought the lack of freedom of religion and speech in the program to the attention of the girls as a part of my bid for Lt. Governor of Illinois Girls State - I was met with unfathomable animosity.
One 17-year-old girl, only a year from attaining the right to vote, looked straight at me and replied, "I like it that way." While invoking the Constitution of the United States of America, she proclaimed her preference for a nation of those who only embraced ideas similar to her own rather than a nation of those free to express any idea no matter how unpopular.
Thatís not America.
"Why donít you believe in Jesus?"
"America is a Christian nation founded on Christian principles."
"I was born on Hitlerís Birthday, does that mean Iím special?"
"Let's go burn a flag. I know who wants to burn a flag."
"Iím all for opinions, but not her opinions."
Freedom is apparently of their thought, not Americaís. Yet, they cherish a flag they call the symbol of freedom with all their might and soul. They donít know freedom. I know freedom.
Today we visited Terezin, the model ghetto for the Third Reich. Though this camp would have been more bearable than most to endure, there is hardly a foot of ground that does not have some final remnants of the fallen buried beneath it. I can hardly think of a more fitting way to spend my Independence Day.
I saw the pictures the prisoners drew, heard the music they played, the outfits they wore, the stories they wrote and the world in which they lived. Their physical freedom was taken from them. They were not free to be healthy, to have privacy, to leave the city or to just live. Yet, they had a kind of freedom those girls at Girls State could not understand. The freedom of expression.
"Paint your own picture," I continue, "see the swirling colors. Living in a prison world you paint. What do you paint?" The shades meld together in my mind creating my own painting of freedom.
How is there color in a world so dark,
I remember the flashes of neon green and vivid reds now fastened to the ghettoís museum wall.
I breathe it in black and white,
The room seems to spin about me, leaving me where I imagine my cousins once worked, lifting their friends into the inferno.
Flowers bright wilt in the yellow sun,
I carefully held a delicate blossom I picked right outside the condemned building, for life now blossomed in the former place of death.
While they shield their eyes from night.
I open mine. It is day.
I walk out of the crematorium. I climb the stairs to the bus. I shake and I take my pen in hand and I write, not because I have to, but because I am free to.
Now, I know freedom.
I hold this truth to be self-evident.
"Breathe in, breathe out, breathe in, breathe out."
Gail Schnitzer is a sophomore at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign studying Political Science and Speech Communication. She thinks often of her experience and uses it to make her decisions in the present by looking to the past.