By Tim Denesha
Forty-eight years ago, I became pen pals with a man who lived in Czechoslovakia (now the Czech Republic). For him, our letters were a lifeline to the free world, and through them he taught me a new way of understanding freedom.
Pavel Ehrlich and I met in Scotland in 1969. I was on holiday; his intent was more serious. The Prague Spring of 1968 was over, and the Soviets would soon reimpose restrictions on travel to the West, so Pavel was seeing Western Europe while he could. He spoke English well (he had taught himself). We easily became friends and exchanged addresses.
For the first 20 years, our postcards and letters were a bit dull – the weather, holidays, family, pets. That’s all the secret police censors permitted, and they routinely opened our mail. Though we kept the content bland, Pavel told me years later that he was interrogated twice by the Soviets; they thought our communications were too boring not to be a code for classified information!
Pavel shook his head and smiled as he told me this: “They were so stupid.”
In 1989, the Velvet Revolution freed his homeland from Soviet rule. Seeing the news, I sent a tentative note, wishing him well. I’ll never forget his lengthy response. After 20 years of silence about conditions in his country, he wrote the truth: the abuses of the military occupation, the political repression, censorship, privation – the large and small ways a nation’s spirit is broken.
In reply, I asked what I could send that wasn’t permitted before. His answer was swift: a Western news magazine. I arranged for a subscription to Newsweek International, which was published in English in Paris. To me, Newsweek was nothing special; to Pavel, it represented liberation. He shared the contents with family and friends in his hometown of Strakonice, translating articles of special interest for wider distribution.
He also organized informal English classes. He knew it would be vital for the Czechs to be able to communicate with the West as trade and travel increased. It turns out Pavel had also taught English secretly during the Soviet years, but now he did so openly, and I was free to send him English grammar books.
Our letters continued, and eventually we visited one another’s countries. I learned more about the horrors he had faced. As a boy, incredibly, he’d also lived under the Nazis. His father was Jewish, but being married to a Christian, was sent to a labor camp instead of a death camp. He survived, but “was never the same,” Pavel said. Other members of his father’s family were killed.
Pavel and I still correspond; his friendship is an honor to me, and he thinks of me as his best friend. But no happily-ever-after ending is promised. Russia is resurgent – as Pavel predicted 20 years ago – and the future is uncertain for NATO, which Czechs see as their primary defense against Russia.
Though he is not complacent about the future, he remains cautiously hopeful and firmly committed to working for freedom for his family, his neighbors and his country. The English classes continue. Having survived two of the worst regimes of the 20th century, Pavel is a serious person, but not angry, fearful or pessimistic.
Our nearly half-century of correspondence is now a lifeline for me as well. Pavel is my living proof that even the worst political upheavals need not destroy a person’s humanity. I am always free to do something – however small – to make the world better.