nostalgia, politics, travel

Repost: Remembering Samantha Smith… pen pal to world leaders

Here’s another repost from June 2018, a post inspired by my childhood in the 1980s. This one is about the late Samantha Smith, who made history by writing to Yuri Andropov and getting invited to visit the Soviet Union at the height of the Cold War. Samantha was nine days younger than me, but sadly, she died in a plane crash in 1985. Little did I know, when Samantha was alive, that I, too, would one day go to what was once the Soviet Union. The 80s were an interesting time to be a kid.

I was born on June 20, 1972.  Nine days later, Samantha Smith was born.  Samantha Smith would change the world during her 13 years of life.  I’m about to turn 46 (and now I’m 49) and I’m still wondering what my purpose is. 

A few weeks ago, I suddenly remembered Samantha Smith, who was ten years old when she wrote a moving letter to former Soviet leader Yuri Andropov.  She was concerned about the threat of nuclear war.  In the early 1980s, everyone was talking about nukes and the so-called “red button”.  Like so many of her peers, Samantha was scared.  But she had guts and initiative.  So, in November 1982, she wrote:

Dear Mr. Andropov,

My name is Samantha Smith. I am ten years old. Congratulations on your new job. I have been worrying about Russia and the United States getting into a nuclear war. Are you going to vote to have a war or not? If you aren’t please tell me how you are going to help to not have a war. This question you do not have to answer, but I would like to know why you want to conquer the world or at least our country. God made the world for us to live together in peace and not to fight.

Sincerely,

Samantha Smith  

This was not Samantha’s first letter to a world leader.  In fact, she’d even written to another leader when she was five– Queen Elizabeth II– to express her admiration.  Samantha’s letter was printed in the Soviet paper, Pravda, but she did not receive a reply from Andropov right away.  Undaunted, Samantha wrote another letter, this time to the Soviet Union’s Ambassador to the United States. 

Mr. Andropov was very moved by Samantha’s letter.  He wrote back to her in April 1983, affirmed that the Soviet Union did not want to wage a nuclear war, and invited her to visit the Soviet Union at a time when Americans were not often allowed to go there. 

Dear Samantha,

I received your letter, which is like many others that have reached me recently from your country and from other countries around the world.

It seems to me – I can tell by your letter – that you are a courageous and honest girl, resembling Becky, the friend of Tom Sawyer in the famous book of your compatriot Mark Twain. This book is well known and loved in our country by all boys and girls.

You write that you are anxious about whether there will be a nuclear war between our two countries. And you ask are we doing anything so that war will not break out.

Your question is the most important of those that every thinking man can pose. I will reply to you seriously and honestly.

Yes, Samantha, we in the Soviet Union are trying to do everything so that there will not be war on Earth. This is what every Soviet man wants. This is what the great founder of our state, Vladimir Lenin, taught us.

Soviet people well know what a terrible thing war is. Forty-two years ago, Nazi Germany, which strove for supremacy over the whole world, attacked our country, burned and destroyed many thousands of our towns and villages, killed millions of Soviet men, women and children.

In that war, which ended with our victory, we were in alliance with the United States: together we fought for the liberation of many people from the Nazi invaders. I hope that you know about this from your history lessons in school. And today we want very much to live in peace, to trade and cooperate with all our neighbors on this earth — with those far away and those near by. And certainly with such a great country as the United States of America.

In America and in our country there are nuclear weapons — terrible weapons that can kill millions of people in an instant. But we do not want them to be ever used. That’s precisely why the Soviet Union solemnly declared throughout the entire world that never — never — will it use nuclear weapons first against any country. In general we propose to discontinue further production of them and to proceed to the abolition of all the stockpiles on Earth.

It seems to me that this is a sufficient answer to your second question: ‘Why do you want to wage war against the whole world or at least the United States?’ We want nothing of the kind. No one in our country–neither workers, peasants, writers nor doctors, neither grown-ups nor children, nor members of the government–want either a big or ‘little’ war.

We want peace — there is something that we are occupied with: growing wheat, building and inventing, writing books and flying into space. We want peace for ourselves and for all peoples of the planet. For our children and for you, Samantha.

I invite you, if your parents will let you, to come to our country, the best time being this summer. You will find out about our country, meet with your contemporaries, visit an international children’s camp – Artek – on the sea. And see for yourself: in the Soviet Union, everyone is for peace and friendship among peoples.

Thank you for your letter. I wish you all the best in your young life.

Y. Andropov

In the summer of 1983, Samantha visited Russia, where she caused quite a sensation.  She spent two weeks in Moscow as Mr. Andropov’s guest and had the opportunity to visit Artek, which was a big Soviet pioneer camp.  During the Soviet era, young children were involved in the Young Pioneers, which was a massive youth organization.  She also went to Leningrad (St. Petersburg), where she was presented with many gifts.  Smith and her parents were amazed by how friendly the people were.

So many years later, I was watching Samantha Smith on old YouTube videos.  There are many comments from Russians who remembered and admired her.  She truly was a heroine to many Russians and Americans alike, although there were some skeptics out there who felt she was being used as a Soviet propaganda pawn.

When Samantha and her parents came home to Maine, they were treated to a warm welcome involving a red carpet and limousine.  Samantha was interviewed by many famous people, including Ted Koppel and Johnny Carson.  In 1985, she even tried her hand at acting when she was cast as a regular in a TV show called Lime Street

Samantha Smith interviewed by Johnny Carson.
Samantha Smith being interviewed on The Today Show, after she had become a media sensation.

Tragically, on August 25, 1985, Samantha Smith and her father, Arthur, died in a plane crash.  They were returning home on Bar Harbor Airlines Flight 1808 after having filmed a segment for Lime Street.  The pilot was attempting to land the plane when it hit some trees 4007 feet shy of the runway. The airplane crashed, killing the six passengers and two crew members aboard.  Although some in the Soviet Union thought she might have been a victim of foul play, an investigation revealed that the pilots were inexperienced and the rainy weather conditions contributed to the difficulty in landing the plane.

News story about Samantha Smith’s death.

Samantha Smith’s visit inspired goodwill all over the world, especially in the United States and Russia.  In fact, in 1986, a Soviet child named Katya Lycheva even spent time in the United States.  A 1987 storyline on The Golden Girls was even inspired by Samantha’s story, although it was ditzy Rose Nylund who wrote the letter, not a ten year old girl.

Rose’s “Letter to Gorbachev”… 

I wonder what would have become of Samantha Smith had she been able to grow up.  I wonder what she would think of our current political situation.  I think of what it was like for me, 23 years ago, moving to what was once a Soviet country and finding out that the people over there are much like we are.  She could have had a wonderful career, spreading world peace and goodwill.  Some people are never meant to grow old, yet still manage to change the world.  

When I was watching videos on YouTube last night, I also thought of Ryan White, who was another one of my contemporaries.  He contracted AIDS after having been given a tainted blood infusion to treat his hemophilia.  Ryan White was kicked out of school and harassed by his peers for having AIDS.  In those days, a lot of small minded people thought of it as a disease God sent to punish gay people.  It didn’t help that Ryan was from a small town in Indiana, where there were many ignorant people who thought he was gay simply because he had what was then considered a “gay” disease.

White went on to influence the world, even making friends with Elton John and Michael Jackson, both of whom were at his funeral when he died in April 1990.  I vividly remember watching Lukas Haas play White in a TV movie about his life.  White was himself in the film with a minor role.  So was Sarah Jessica Parker.

While we’ve come a long way in the fight against AIDS since Ryan White’s day, we’re still really struggling with world peace.  I just started reading another book about the Holocaust.  It’s a story about a Jewish Dutch woman who watched as her country was overtaken by Nazis.  I have to confess, reading her comments about what happened before Hitler completely took over gave me chills.  So much of it is familiar today.  Maybe it’s not quite as extreme now as it was in the 40s… or maybe it just doesn’t seem as extreme to me as it might to someone with brown skin, living in America’s Heartland.  The one thing that gives me hope is that the world eventually came to its senses somewhat, after World War II.  I hope it doesn’t come to war to make the powers that be in the United States regain their senses…  

Well, those are my deep thoughts for today.  The 1980s were fascinating.  I’m glad I was around to see them. 

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Germany, history, videos, YouTube

A fascinating video I saw by total chance yesterday…

Today has gotten off to an extremely annoying start. In my travel blog last weekend, I wrote about how I was trying to book our vacation for next week. USAA immediately declined my credit card, which led to my having to call them. Likewise, PenFed allowed me to make two hotel bookings, but then blocked my card when I tried to make a third booking. I will be calling them later today, which doesn’t make me happy, because USAA blocked my debit card this morning when I tried to use it to buy sweaters.

USAA used to send text messages to my phone whenever there were questionable purchases made. Now, they don’t do that, because they don’t want to pay for international texts. So they just decline and restrict the card, causing me to have to call them. It wastes time and costs me money, plus it’s just a huge inconvenience. The real kicker is, an hour after I called USAA, I got an automated phone call from USAA to confirm the charges weren’t fraudulent. Of course, they didn’t go through, and now I am not wanting to use the card because I don’t want to cause another block.

Anyway… none of that has anything to do with today’s post. I just needed to get it out of my system. Today’s post is actually about something much more incredible and life changing.

Yesterday, I was watching a brief YouTube video about a Holocaust survivor. It was a very short video, and I was in the middle of something when it ended, so I didn’t immediately turn off the autoplay. I’m glad I didn’t turn it off, for that is how I became acquainted with Eva Clarke and her amazing story of how she was born in a concentration camp the day before Adolf Hitler committed suicide, and just two days after the Germans ran out of gas in the gas chambers at Mauthausen.

This video is about an hour long, but it is SO worth the time. It was taped at the University of California San Diego in 2018.

Eva Clarke is half Czech, half German. Her parents were both Jewish. Her father had moved to Prague to escape the Nazis. He thought that was far enough away from Germany to escape persecution during the Hitler era. It wasn’t, and unfortunately, he was a Holocaust victim. However, he did meet Eva’s mother, Anka, there, and they married, before they were sent to live in a ghetto and were later sent to Auschwitz-Birkenau in Poland.

Eva’s mother, Anka, was an incredible woman with a tremendous will to survive, as well as great pride for who she was. Against incredible odds, and with many strokes of good luck, she managed to survive the Holocaust and lived to the ripe old age of 95. That fact, in and of itself, is astonishing… but Eva is also a tremendous speaker and storyteller. She is very engaging. I wish I could have had teachers like her. Maybe I would have ended up better prepared for life.

I showed this video to Bill last night. Just as I had when I watched it the first time, I ended up in tears because I was so moved by how Eva and her mom managed to survive and thrive, even though Hitler had wanted to destroy them and anyone else he hated. Also, Eva mentions that the American Army were their saviors, as they were the ones to liberate Mauthausen. Since Bill is an Army veteran, it does my heart good to hear good things about the Army… and reminders of a time when U.S. Soldiers and other servicemembers were truly thought of as heroes.

Bill also got a bit teary listening to Eva’s story. He hadn’t meant to learn more about the Holocaust last night, but he did tell me that he didn’t regret hearing Eva talk about how she came to be. Nine days after Eva’s birth, World War II ended. And now, she is a lovely, elegant, eloquent speaker, who is telling the world about why we can’t ever let someone like Hitler come back into power.

This is why I am so vociferous about Donald Trump and his ilk. While I realize that Trump hasn’t started a genocide, some of his ideas and techniques are very much like Hitler’s. He emboldens people to be divisive and racist, and he craves money, fame, and power. I worry that he will influence otherwise good people to turn a blind eye to the atrocities of racism and we could, one day, have another genocide as horrifying as the Holocaust is. And this is not to say that genocide on a smaller scale isn’t already happening. It is.

Anyway, if you have time and are interested, I highly recommend watching the above video. And if you find any other videos by Eva Clarke, I would recommend those, too. I will probably watch another video by Eva… maybe it would calm me down a bit and remind me that my problems are truly first world problems. At least for now.

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poor judgment, Texas

Texas school official says teachers should offer books that have an “opposing view” of the Holocaust…

It’s a rainy morning in Germany, which means that my dogs will be waiting for their walk again. Since there will be a delay, I have time to write another blog post. This one is about the continuing descent of Texas into a straight up dystopian land. It’s not enough that Governor Abbott has signed anti-abortion legislation that deprives women of the right to make personal decisions about their own reproduction. It’s not enough that Texas politicians have called for women who have abortions to be executed, or that hospitals have forced a pregnant woman in a coma to stay on life support, even as she basically decomposes. Now, the dystopia is spreading to the schools.

Yesterday, I read about how a top administrator in the Southlake district had controversial comments about what kinds of books teachers would have in their classroom libraries. Gina Peddy, the Carroll school district’s executive director of curriculum and instruction, was secretly recorded during a training session last week. According to NBC news:

“Just try to remember the concepts of [House Bill] 3979,” Peddy said in the recording, referring to a new Texas law that requires teachers to present multiple perspectives when discussing “widely debated and currently controversial” issues. “And make sure that if you have a book on the Holocaust,” Peddy continued, “that you have one that has an opposing, that has other perspectives.”

WHAT? That was, I think, a brain dead comment if there ever was one. How do you share an opposing view of the Holocaust? I’d like to think Peddy simply misspoke, as we all sometimes do. I would hope she had a brain fart, perhaps brought on by the state of things in Texas today. It was certainly a thoughtless comment, though, and it doesn’t make me think too highly of the quality of education in Texas. Is it any wonder that so many teachers are leaving the profession when they not only have to deal with the whole COVID-19 situation, but they also have to contend with these kinds of intrusions on their teaching methods?

I read that this whole thing began when a fourth grade student brought home a book called “This Book Is Anti-Racist” by Tiffany Jewell. The girl’s mother objected to the book’s content and complained to her daughter’s teacher. When the teacher did not respond in a way that satisfied the parent, the battle over what kinds of books are appropriate intensified. Local officials investigated the mother’s complaints about the teacher and declined to intervene, but the Carroll school board overturned the decision and voted 3-2 to formally reprimand the teacher. That decision, of course, made other teachers feel threatened, since they figured the board would side against them if other parents decided to complain about books in their classroom libraries.

Evidently, there’s a huge controversy about what is being taught in Texas schools. Some Southlake parents have been fighting against new inclusion and diversity programs at Carroll for over a year. They are opposed to lessons about racism, history (that paints white people in a negative light), or LGBTQ issues. Some of the parents have incorrectly identified the “progressive” lessons as promoting “critical race theory”. That’s how the new law, Texas House Bill number 3979, came to fruition.

Texas House Bill number 3979 is supposed to encourage teachers to present multiple viewpoints of controversial topics. I’m sure the law was intended to address the concern that some people have that their children will be fed a political agenda that doesn’t align with their preferred views… or that white children will somehow be made to feel guilty for the fact that they’re white. Personally, I can understand why some parents worry about that. I happen to agree that no one should feel ashamed of who they are, particularly when it comes to things they can’t change. That includes so-called “privileged” people.

However… there are some subjects that are sacred. The Holocaust is one of those topics where there is no “other view”. There have been people who have denied that the Holocaust happened, or they try to present it in a way that is sympathetic to the Nazi movement. Make no mistake about it. The Holocaust was absolutely horrifying; it’s real; and it didn’t happen all that long ago. Now, more than ever, we must be aware of the danger that can come from turning a blind eye to what happened in Europe during the 1930s and 40s. It was less than 100 years ago… and frankly, whenever I see Donald Trump rally a crowd, I’m reminded a lot of how Hitler came to power.

When a teacher asked Gina Peddy how one might oppose the Holocaust, Peddy’s response was “Believe me. That’s come up.” Wow… REALLY?

There was a time when I considered becoming a school teacher. I went to a college that is very well known for producing outstanding teachers. Many of my friends are teachers. But honestly, after reading about some of the crazy stuff teachers have to deal with nowadays, I am kind of glad that notion went by the wayside. It seems like back in my day, parents trusted and respected teachers more than they do now. I have seen what goes in to making teachers, and what they have to do to be qualified to teach. They don’t get paid a lot in many places, even though their value is immeasurable and they are vital to human development.

I am pretty appalled that someone in the education system in Texas suggested that teachers should present opposing views to the Holocaust, even if that comment was made due to a massive brain fart. It really is embarrassing. And I can see why teachers are so concerned. One elementary school teacher said:

“Teachers are literally afraid that we’re going to be punished for having books in our classes. There are no children’s books that show the ‘opposing perspective’ of the Holocaust or the ‘opposing perspective’ of slavery. Are we supposed to get rid of all of the books on those subjects?”

Imagine having to grade masses of papers, answer dozens of irate emails and phone calls, AND be concerned that the books you’ve chosen for your classroom library might be deemed controversial, even when the validity of the subject matter is not in dispute. Teachers definitely have a tough job, and this kind of situation only makes it tougher…

And once again, it makes me glad I don’t have to deal with this problem myself. I think if I had children, I would want them to be free to read almost everything. I grew up with parents who mostly let me read what I wanted. All it did was open my mind and make me love reading. I really think this new law is misguided, even if it was well-intentioned. This situation ought to be fixed as soon as possible, before more excellent teachers decide to change careers.

The district did apologize

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