Being here today, I have mental flashbacks to different places where I have been and what I’ve seen. One particularly vivid memory for me was my first trip across Europe in a tiny little car leaving Paris driving east. And the objective was to drive into the former Soviet Union, which we ultimately did. But I will never forget that first memorable border crossing. I was 27 years old and we were, my mother and I, in Heidelberg, Germany—we had reached Heidelberg, and we were headed toward the border crossing, at what was then Czechoslovakia headed toward Prague.
And here I am, a young American, you think you can do everything right: life has been good in many ways—you’ve got your college education, you’ve got a job, you can finally afford to pay for your mom to go on a trip to Europe, and to see a part of the world open up and to go and try to find the remnants of your family. And it had been nice.
We had been in France in little “pensions,” then moving into Germany to see the beautiful mountains there, but all of a sudden when you got to that Czech border, you looked out to an expanse about as long as this side of the room to the other. And it was dark, and there were gun turrets and barbed wire on both sides. And you had to make a decision as to whether or not your American passport and visa would ever let you come out of the world you were about to enter.
And I can remember we looked at one another and we saw the guards with bayonets walking across that No Man’s Land as we moved from the free world to the unfree world—and that image remains so strong in my mind.
We made the decision to drive through and we were held for a long time at that border. And as we ultimately were allowed to drive into what was then Czechoslovakia headed toward Prague, we were the only car on the road. We were the only vehicle on the road that was not military. There were no gas stations, there were no 7-11s, there were no paved streets. Here we were these two women, in a little orange car, a rental car, with this military truck in front of us and the soldiers kept picking up the tarp at the back of the truck, and staring at us. They couldn’t believe what they were seeing.
Now that was long before I was in Congress, but I think back to that today. And as we moved deeper and deeper and deeper into that world of communism—in Czechoslovakia, and then into Poland, and then into what had been the Soviet Union, today Ukraine—you felt at each border as though these giant iron doors were closing behind you.
So that’s a whole long story, but I use that to orient those who may have never made that drive. It is a different drive today, but that route into a different world existed.
And I look back now and I see how far the world has come from 1973 to 2015. And all I can tell you is that the knowledge you have, the experience you have, what you are doing through your foundation is truly important to the course of liberty throughout our globe. I thank you for your work. I thank your compassion in honoring the victims and those who have suffered.
It’s so important to find a way to tell those stories—every life is precious. Your guests from Cambodia, Hungary, and other countries, it’s so important to honor their suffering and the memories of those who didn’t make it out.
Those of us who are movie buffs can’t help but thinking of certain films—I think of “The Killing Fields,” one of the greatest movies I ever saw. I think of “Torn From The Flag,” which is about the Hungarian Revolution—my goodness, what an incredible piece of filmmaking that is.
And I am personally working on a film back home now, with the help of many others, telling the story of one survivor of Polish-American heritage, a Pole who fought in the Polish cavalry during the War and was imprisoned in Auschwitz and then Gross-Rosen and Leitmeritz, two other prison camps, and escaped in 1945. A great soldier.
At the age of 95 he took me to the place were World War II began. I was allowed to walk with him, and to experience through his memory what he had endured and where he had gone. That was one of the greatest trips of my life. And I just feel so compelled to tell his story, because it is a story that was many decades in the making, because it is very hard sometimes for those who have been victimized to tell their story. And I am realizing, “My gosh, if they didn’t do this, these stories wouldn’t exist.” So many have not passed on their story. So I choose to come here today because I think what you are doing is just so extraordinary.
Your event today pays homage to the many, many heroes who have come before us. I know that you have honored Guillermo Fariñas Hernandez, thank you so very much for doing that. I have great hope for Cuba. And we know that the Soviet sphere, the theme of your panel discussion this year, is still very much deserving of our attention. An aggressive, revisionist Russian government led by President Putin has been launching well-orchestrated attacks against Ukraine, and Europe has been too dependent on Russian energy to do anything about it. The president of Russia would like to see a destabilized Ukraine. We can’t allow that to happen. He is waiting out the government in Kiev while sponsoring all sorts of infiltration throughout that country, as I think probably all of you know. We simply have to meet that test. The Ukrainian people deserve better than this. The Russian people deserve better than this—it is a country that has never known liberty.
Many of us here, unfortunately, have seen this type of repressive regime before, and your organization helps to remember, to document, but also to inform a new generation about what the world could really be like.
That region of the world is facing so many challenges. This morning in the Appropriations Committee, on which I serve, we had a bill called the Foreign Operations Bill come forward. There is additional assistance in that bill to give Eastern and Central Europe a little bit of a boost as they tries to deal with their energy dependence on Russia. And we know we have to have more aid for internally displaced people in Ukraine, because it’s so important for civil society to keep people together. We need more technical assistance on behalf of judicial reform. We need more attention paid to marginalized people, especially women. In Ukraine you might be surprised to learn that the value of the Hryvnia is dropping while their currency and food prices are going up. And because of well over a million people being displaced, the people who are holding the country together—and I am talking about basic food production here—are the village women. We should help them by providing the basic tools that are needed to hold the country together: shovels, gloves, better seeds, canning equipment, drying equipment for apples, simple things.
The bill that we passed last December, the Ukraine Freedom Support Act, will allow also for defensive lethal weapons to go to our ally Ukraine. So those who strive for a more democratic and European society can actually fight for it. Thus far the Obama administration has chosen not to deliver that type of equipment.
But we are doing more in terms of military exercises along with our European allies on the western edge of Ukraine. Poland, for instance, just received the first major sale from Raytheon Corporation of several million dollars worth of military equipment, including missiles. The largest such sale to Poland since that country entered NATO. So I think that with the help of Hungary, with the help of Poland, and with the help of that brave country of Lithuania we are seeing a new security architecture in that part of the world.
And we are also now seeing the media infiltration of adjoining countries in the native languages by Russian agents, we need to meet that challenge. We have to help educate the next generation.
Every single one of you, wherever you come from, whether you belong to an academic institution or are an employee of a library or an attorney or a business person, whether it’s through sports or art or teaching, you can find a touch point somewhere and make a difference in the lives of individuals in places that are not free. Lets hope we can find a way of better connecting and making sure we don’t lose these precious stories. And lets keep in mind the lesson these stories teach us about human progress.
Editor’s Note: These remarks were delivered at the annual Victims of Communism Commemoration in Washington, D.C., on June 11, 2015.