Gift of freedom demands our constant vigilance

This column was originally published as part of my “Looking Homeward” series at

The year was 1984. My parents were returning home from a 20-day stay in Germany where they had attended a conference. The Berlin Wall still divided the city and communism was imprisoning people all over Europe.

Venturing into East Berlin was a life-changing experience for my parents, often recounted. Although they enjoyed their trip, they were ready to return home, to the land of the free.

Pan American’s flight No. 67 had hardly become airborne from Germany’s Frankfurt airport when they noticed a small group sitting to their left on the giant 747 that was headed for New York City, some seven hours away.

There were five people in the little group — a husband, wife, their 10-year-old daughter in one row, and two men in their early 50s seated behind them. It appeared that the father was the older brother of the two men, neither of whom could speak English. He talked to his wife and daughter in English, and then turned to speak to his brothers in a foreign language.

For several hours, the older brother did all sorts of special things for his siblings — getting extra drinks, food and small souvenirs from airline attendants. He seemed delighted he could do special things for them.

After a few hours of watching this drama of celebration, my father’s curiosity kicked in and he approached the man, asking if they were his brothers.

“Yes,” the man replied smiling, and then shared his story.

“Twenty-eight years ago I escaped from my home in Czechoslovakia and found freedom and a career in California. When I escaped, they put my brother in prison and sent him to a work camp in the coal mines. During that time he lost his left arm.”

“I made a promise to myself that one day I’d come back and take my brothers, who have suffered under communism, to America, at least for a long visit. For the past two years, I have worked through communist red-tape for the privilege of taking them to America for three months.”

“They have never been in a free country. When we landed in Frankfurt this morning, they breathed free air for the first time. Everything is a ‘first’ for them — the airplane flight, the stores filled with goods, enough food to eat, and no one watching over their shoulders.”

When the plane touched down, the 400-plus passengers applauded the safe arrival, but the two brothers applauded louder and longer, my father recalled. They gathered their small bags from overhead racks and hurriedly headed for the door, and the freedom that is America.

I’ve often wondered how those men shared their three months of freedom — what they learned and how they carried it forward into the rest of their lives.

On the weekend that we pause to remember those we have lost in that constant vigil that freedom demands, this story reminds us that freedom is a most precious gift — one we fought hard to secure and continue to fight even harder to keep.